It’s a little hard to imagine, but this is a novel in verse written by a married couple that is part Melville biography and pandemic memoir, with doses of Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, “The Biographer” (of Melville) and others obsessed with him thrown in. Oh yes, and Hawthorne who was a friend of Melville’s. The narrator is working on a biography of Melville as her children are in the next room in zoom school. Her husband chimes in with funny observations and when he contracts Covid, moves into the basement. In the night when they can’t sleep, she reads to him from a letter Melville wrote to Hawthorne.
I can’t say I learned much about Melville that will stick with me, other than that he was awful to his family, he had terrible handwriting, and he spent many years working as a customs inspector later in his life. And that was fine with me, I knew this was not a book for learning about Melville. It worked as an audiobook for me, but if you like fully formed thoughts that have transitions and clear antecedents for pronouns, maybe this one is not for you. As I listened, I thought of it as stream-of-consciousness writing that reflects how one’s brain reacts to the isolation of the pandemic time.
One passage that I want to remember speaks of Thomas Travisano, brother of my friend Jim. The narrator reads from a letter that Lowell wrote to Elizabeth Bishop, “It seems unbelievable that I’ve statistically lived so much, much the largest division of my life.” Travisano edited a book of the correspondence of Bishop and Lowell and upon inquiry by the narrator of this book, responded that he too wondered if that was an error in transcription and checked to verify it.
Chris Bacheider and Jennifer Habel, Dayswork, W.W. Norton and Company, 2023, 240 pages (I listened to the audiobook).