In & Sons, Gilbert filters a Karamazovian family saga through the literary sensibility of Nabokov's Pale Fire. To tell the story of A.N. Dyer (a reclusive and enigmatic Great American Novelist) and his three sons, Gilbert employs handwritten notes, a novel-within-a-novel (titled Ampersand), and a deliciously unreliable narrator whose fannish devotion to the Dyer clan undercuts the truthfulness of his presentation of events. Gilbert's other books are Remote Feed and The Normals; his short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, and GQ.
David Gilbert: Let's make one thing clear: I have nothing specifically smart to say about Moby-Dick mainly because I can't pretend to understand Moby-Dick. The book is nearly impossible to place, to categorize, to hold without feeling the vertiginous swell of its creation. More than any other book, it fills me with awe and dread. I have read it twice, listened to it once. My first reading was in college and it was a struggle because I was in college and reading Moby-Dick was low on my list of college-worn priorities. But I finished. Or I pretended to. I skipped a fair amount. And then I told people I had read Moby-Dick. That seemed the point. I believe War and Peace was next. I was a big game hunter who only wanted heads to hang in my wood-paneled den. Proust was the equivalent of a bearskin rug.
Ten years later I regretted my ways, and I removed those spines from up high. And so began my second reading of Moby-Dick, and I was quickly embarrassed for that Junior back in college. You cannot read this book for speed. It is designed for the long haul, the chapters never too long, naps seemingly built into the text. It is, dare I say, a voyage. When in doubt, or simply in need of something, the something uncertain, a scratch like the scratch Ishmael feels in those opening lines, instead of the sea I will take to Moby-Dick and turn to a random page and read a few paragraphs out loud, my voice hauling forth the words like a net full of squirmy fish. It gets in your blood. It is your blood.
It is one of a few books that I have dreamed about -- and dreamed about often: Tashtego falling into the whale's head and Queequeg's heroics; Pip adrift and utterly changed, the strange presence of Fedallah. Moby-Dick is about everything, a bible written in scrimshaw, an adventure spun in allegory, a taxonomy tripping on acid. It seems to exist outside its own time, much like Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, the poetry of Emily Dickinson. It is so broad and so deep as to accept any interpretation while also staring back and mocking this man-made desire toward interpretation.
What does it mean? There are so many symbols as to render symbols meaningless. And yet, like Ahab, we insist on plucking the heart of its mystery. As Ishmael says, "And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by the cartload, as they do the hills about Boston, to fill up some morass in the Milky Way." Moby-Dick might as well be that enigmatic doubloon nailed to the main-mast, the prize for anyone who first grasps the white whale.