What I took from Herman Melville’s weirdest novel

Balance Rock

Now that I have a published book I’ve had the giddy experience of having a few people ask me, “Where do you get your ideas?” First of all, there is nothing so flattering as considering all the noodling and dream flotsam I have in my head as “ideas.” Second, I often know where my ideas come from, but I’m not sure anyone else wants to know. But here goes nothing.

Bits of life as well as all kinds of books make it into fiction. So here’s one example of the strands of fictiony spiderweb that connect one book to another. In my case it’s a linkage from an element in Dreamwood to the flat-out crazy that is Herman Melville’s “Pierre: or, The Ambiguities.”

First, a word about Pierre. After Moby-Dick, Melville was broke and desperate for a commercial hit (after all, his early books had been bestsellers but after starting out big, he watched his career tank). So he wrote this kooky gothic romance (well, a kooky gothic romance as imagined by Melville) into which he poured a whole lot disdain for the genre and the publishing industry. The book ruined Melville. To quote the handiest source, Wikipedia:

The publication of Pierre was a critical and financial disaster for Melville. Reviewers universally condemned both its morals and its style.

Yes, an 1852 novel had scandalous morals—and it’s still pretty racy. If you read it today, you’re like, “So, this young man is living in a squat in New York City with how many women? And the one he’s obsessed with is his sister? … Or is she really his sister??? And are they really doing what I think they are???”

I read Pierre in a fabulous grad school course called “American Gothic” with Joan Dayan (who now goes by the name Colin Dayan). There’s too much to say about this weird, doomed book here. But one of the many elements I remember is a rock formation called The Memnon Stone (also called The Terror Stone). Pierre goes to it to contemplate his dilemmas and there does a mighty grappling with fate, thought, his ambition, his feelings, and all that good stuff.

Years later I still remember this odd Massachusetts rock. (It’s a real place too, called Balance Rock.) And when I was thinking of nature spirits and one that Lucy and her father might have encountered before meeting His-sey-ak on Devil’s Thumb, I immediately thought of Pierre and his Hugely Significant Rock Formation.

In Dreamwood I call my rock formation the Maran Boulder, and it’s a mysterious, dangerous place. It does try to “eat” Lucy, which is probably a years-distant echo of my memory of poor Pierre lying beneath the Terror Stone making his tragic choices. Plus, I wanted to tap the spirit of philosophy, search, and spiritual awe that writers of Melville’s era brought to descriptions of the natural world.

Which, I realize, doesn’t make any difference to anyone. But so what? These are my liner notes. When I find stuff like this in other writers’ work it’s kind of like encountering a sample of some old pop song from junior high years in a hip hop track.

Echoes are everywhere.

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