Wednesday, July 10, 2019

the coolest showdown ever: The Great Eastern, by Howard A. Rodman

Melville House, 2019
344 pp

"Let us watch. We have some tales to tell." 

There are books that you hate to see come to an end, and The Great Eastern is one of those.  

From the moment I read the blurb I knew I had to read this novel: 
"A sprawling adventure pitting two of literature's most iconic anti-heroes against each other: Captain Nemo and Captain Ahab. Caught between them: real-life British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, builder of the century's greatest ship, The Great Eastern.  But when he's kidnapped by Nemo to help design a submarine with which to fight the laying of the Transatlantic cable -- linking the two colonialist forces Nemo hates, England and the US -- Brunel finds himself going up against his own ship, and the strange man hired to protect it, Captain Ahab, in a battle for the soul of the 19th century."
 History meets literature in this novel, which is based around the laying of the Transatlantic cable.  Before we get to that, however,  through a rather sinister but ingenious plot, the renowned engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel is kidnapped, brought to a clinic and diagnosed as having had a stroke.  Although ill, unable to move or speak, he is taken aboard his ship The Great Eastern for its launch, which was interrupted by an explosion that killed eight people and caused enough damage to send the ship for major repairs.    By midnight some few days later, Brunel is pronounced dead and afterwards "interred in Kensal Green."  But wait.

Moving from England to New York, while the city is immersed in celebrations over the initial success of the laying of the Transatlantic cable,   financier Cyrus Field, who had realized the "commercial possibilities of connecting Europe and America," and was responsible to the "community of capital," aka his investors, is in panic mode because the cable,
"having carried a few fine and select messages, had flickered. Guttered. Was now: extinguished." 
 He can't let anyone know since his "livelihood and freedom would be upon the rack," but the biggest secret he must keep is that he knows there was no fault in the laying of the cable, but rather that something has "snapped it."  After giving some contemplation to the issue, and after eliminating various possibilities, he comes to the one "simplest and most terrifying" conclusion: that there is a "sea-creature, of malevolent will and unimaginable might" at work here, an "oceanic Leviathan."  As Field ponders what to do, he asks himself
"Who in our Republic would have the knowledge to find him, the instinct to track him, the desire to slay him?  'Twas not a long list. 'Twas not even the fingers of one hand.' "
Field needs a "knight to slay a sea-dragon," and he knows there is no one more eminently qualified  than a certain Captain Ahab to accomplish the job.

from Wikipedia

Meanwhile, on board this "oceanic Leviathan," or rather the Neptune, the captain of this "sub-marine vessel"  has a guest, brought on because of his great engineering feats in order to make the Neptune into a machine that can further the mysterious captain's cause: to "combat a savage empire."

from Wikipedia

I meant this as a summer read, but really, it is a book to be enjoyed any time of year.  While definitely inspired by Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas (yes, seas, plural,  Vingt mille lieues sous les mers..." ) and Melville's Moby-Dick,  this novel is original, fun, and the "sprawling adventure" the blurb paints it to be.  I'd add "rollicking good yarn" as well, but it's so much more than story.   As Janet Fitch says in her back-cover blurb, the genius here is in the author's "outrageous linguistic brio," and author Steve Erickson is spot on in his contribution when he states that
"Not another scrivener alive or dead but Rodman -- lyrical and witty, erudite and passionate, dare we say rapturous, dare we say obsessed -- could have charted let alone helmed this singular, exhilarating Flying Dutchman of an epic."
 I couldn't agree more. I can only imagine what great fun he must have had while writing this novel; matched only by the great fun and immense pleasure I had while reading it.  It is an adventure story par excellence, but at the same time in the telling the author has paid an amazing tribute to two great authors and two unforgettable literary characters, while highlighting, as one reader puts it, the
"European transformation of the world in the 19th century -- violently globalizing, spawning enormous wealth but also the seed of perpetual violence, domination, and vengeance ..."
Purists may have issues (I hear the grumbling in my head and I don't care), but for readers of adventure stories who want something completely different, you can't do any better.   And when the movie comes out, I'll be first in line to see it.  And yes, there is a film in the works, and if it doesn't get screwed up, meaning doesn't stray too far from its source, it ought to be one hell of a movie, in the same way that this is one hell of a book.

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