Tuesday, July 1, 2008

THE CONFIDENCE MAN by Herman Melville

Melville's Confidence Man is the literary equivalent of the Big Con. (If you don't know what that is, go to a video store and rent The Sting.) Anyone who reads past page 50 eventually sees that the joke's on him, that the book is tiresomely repetitive and peppered (or should I say 'papered'?) with passages of dry, failed pastiche that are too imitative to be funny. As on my previous embarkations aboard the Fidele, I find myself wanting to like this book but being repelled by its transparently conning nature. Melville makes a serious mistake early in the game when he shows his hand to all careful readers; his narrative voice is so rarely poker-faced that we can't really give him our readerly confidence. The book, in other words, is a failed confidence game at the reader's expense and its narrator an incompetent con man. We don't--and shouldn't--believe him for a minute. The first sentence, with its outlandish 'Manco Capac' simile, is fair warning. The major artistic problem with all of this is that an incompetent con man isn't interesting, just irritating. (By contrast, the expert conmen in David Mamet's House of Games and Glengary Glen Ross interest us because they successfully con us into identifying with them--which is, not incidentally, a pretty good description of the actor's job.) If the narrator were a better con man, we would let him entertain us; as it is, after 60 or 70 pages (or sooner) the only thing we want to do is put the book back on the shelf and re-read Moby Dick or Bartleby the Scrivener or Billy Budd.

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