Oh Brother; or, a Review of Melville’s Pierre

While reviewing Pierre; or, the Ambiguities by Herman Melville, I couldn’t help feeling that this novel is like a fridge: I keep opening it but nothing looks good.

To begin on a positive note, I thought the plot was intriguing. Pierre’s ambiguous relationships and romances with the novel’s female (and male) could parallel kept me asking questions, and the dialogue pushed the story in many interesting directions. If there was more action throughout the novel, HBO would already be scripting their adaptation.

I also enjoyed Melville’s attempts at parody and criticism within Pierre.  The novel’s first few books set a scene which mirror many Gothic novels, with their stately settings and archetypal aristocrats. I imagine Melville’s original audience expected the story to play out very differently. Similarly, Pierre’s career as a writer offered an excellent criticism of American print culture of the mid 19th century. For me, it offered excellent context and showed me a world I had never previously considered.

But Melville ultimately tries to do too many things. He want to reinvent the novel while offering his criticism and craft a controversial plot. If he had only tried to accomplish one or two of those things with Pierre, perhaps he would have written something more engaging.

The prose jerks slowly across each page, like a teenager driving a stick shift for the first time. Much of the imagery feels deflated, and the abundant punctuation peppered in every paragraph made navigating the text difficult.

And what an awful ending. almost 500 pages building to an end that tied the novels loose ends up in about 4 pages. After reading for nearly an hour about Pierre’s meditations on the memnon rock, I would have hoped to get in his head a bit more after he commits his crime. Seriously, all that jazz about the memnon rock was seemed extraneous to me as a reader.

Points were deducted because the book was taxing to read and did not leave me feeling satisfied, but ultimately this is better than some other Gothic novels I have read.