A woman grows obsessed with Herman Melville during the pandemic, diving down a whale hole of factoids and biography and intertextual analysis. Her husband, feigning interest, or perhaps genuinely interested but indifferent by nature, offers the occasional response or aside. Other Melville friends and enthusiasts, including Nathaniel Hawthorne (Melville’s Western Massachusetts neighbor), Elizabeth Hardwick, and, for a brief moment, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, pop in for occasional cameos.
You’d be forgiven if this doesn’t strike you as the making of a great novel. But “Dayswork,” a spry, compact book by the husband-and-wife team of Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel, is quite weird and wonderful, a novel in verse that immediately casts a spell and keeps it going until the last little missive. It’s the kind of book you miss as soon as it’s over, its sway and power nearly as mysterious and unlikely as that of a leviathan tome about whaling. And yet, in its almost subliminal attention to the trials of creative women kept in check by temperamental men and a patriarchal culture, it brings to mind Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” as much as “Moby-Dick.”
It is also, in its vivid depiction of isolation and quiet, shelter-in-place obsession, destined to be one of the great literary works of the COVID-19 age. “My husband says that I seem to have contracted Melville, and it’s true that some mornings we find one of my sticky notes in the sheets like a used tissue.” This is the unnamed narrator, a wife and mother who, in her need for something more, finds it in Melville: Solace? Energy? Focus? Purpose? One miniature paragraph at a time, Habel, a poet, and Bachelder, a novelist, use precise language and imagery to send her on a trip down Melville’s great white way, through a difficult, tormented life (for the author as well as his family) that knew no glory until well after it was over.
Among the recurring guest stars is “the Biographer,” never named but clearly the epic Melville chronicler Hershel Parker, depicted over the course of the novel as a bit of an obsessive, possessive crank. At one point, the narrator points to an instance in which the Biographer took it upon itself to correct a word choice of Melville’s long-suffering wife, Elizabeth Shaw Melville. This leads her to a chain of observations on penmanship, famous authors, and their (often female) transcribers:
“‘Your Lordships MS. was very difficult to decypher,’” Mary Shelly wrote to Lord Byron, ‘so pardon blunders & omissions.’
As his primary copyist, she became accustomed to his ‘letterless scrawl.’”
“Sophia Tolstoy stayed up late with a candle and a magnifying glass and the day’s pages of ‘War and Peace.’”
“‘She copied ‘War and Peace’ seven times,’ I told my husband while he read online reviews of propane heaters.”
“‘That’s a lot,’ he says.”
“We’re well past the point in our marriage when we might fight about the Tolstoys’ division of labor.”
This is the rhythm of “Dayswork,” somehow jagged and smooth simultaneously, quotidian and deeply felt, and capable of lulling the reader into a sort of literary trance. It’s a nimble merging of poetry and prose, written by a poet and a novelist in perfect synch (unlike the married couple in the novel, who seem to glance off each other during the course of the day, or in a day’s work). Chiming in from time to time, drifting in and out of the action’s periphery, the narrator’s husband is like an invisible man — not unlike Melville could be to his family, when he shut himself in his room and wrote for hours on end (and was, by many accounts, quite abusive when he emerged).
It’s hard not to feel for the Melville of these pages, who poured his life into work that wasn’t celebrated until after his death (he ended up working as a customs inspector for 19 years after “Moby-Dick” was published). But this is also a book about the women who suffer for the genius of men.
Hardwick, the literary critic and novelist who glides in and out of “Dayswork,” is worthy of note here. As the narrator tells us, Hardwick tended to her husband, the poet Robert Lowell, as his manic depression pushed him to increasingly irresponsible and dangerous behavior, even after he left her for another woman. (Hardwick also wrote a book about Melville, called, simply, “Herman Melville,” which, we learn, the Biographer sneeringly dismissed.) “Dayswork” quotes Hardwick at length, from her essay “Seduction and Betrayal”: “Women, wronged one way or another, are given the overwhelming beauty of endurance, the capacity for high or lowly suffering, for violent feeling absorbed, finally tranquillized, for the radiance of humility, for silence, secrecy, impressive acceptance.”
The words linger in the air, as does much of “Dayswork.” This is a tightly packed volume to consume in one sitting, and then reread to see what you missed. It might even inspire you to take another run at the whale. That, of course, would constitute more than a day’s work.
By Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel
Norton, 240 pp., $26.95
Chris Vognar, a freelance culture writer, was the 2009 Nieman Arts and Culture Fellow at Harvard University.