Many will give up on Dayswork by Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel for its odd quality, a hodgepodge of observations and facts mostly about Herman Melville, arranged in brief, chatty sentences and paragraphs. Dayswork reads like a combination of documentary and poetry, or perhaps a couple playing six degrees of separation with Melville as base.
A husband-wife team wrote the book; he’s a novelist and she’s a poet. The title page lists his name first, though strangely, most of the text is poetic with a first-person point of view, a woman chatting back and forth with her husband about her research on Melville during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the course of her research, she discovers other writers who revere Melville’s work, whether Nathaniel Philbrick who called Moby-Dick “the one book that deserves to be called our American bible” or a David Gilbert who suggested it was “bible written in scrimshaw.” According to Bachelder and Habel, Gilbert relies on the book “When in doubt, or simply in need of something,” and "opens the book at random and reads aloud, his voice ‘hauling forth the words like a net full of squirmy fish.’”
The book analyzes Melville’s themes – time, whales, friendships and more – in haphazard ways while embracing Melville’s sentiment that “Life is so short, and so ridiculous and irrational.”
The book examines the dreamy quality of a writer’s dreams and disappointments, explaining that Melville was fascinated by the sea – endless, masterless – even while spending much of his life on land, often quarreling with his family. The authors quote from the Odyssey: “For I say there is no other thing that is worse than the sea is / for breaking a man, even though he may be a very strong one.” The researcher-protagonist ponders how Melville endured a series of hardships – the death of his oldest son at age 18 and another dead at age 35 as well as a daughter who could not bear her father’s name.
One devastating sentence, albeit from another writer, captures uneven and tragic portioning of luck in life. “‘It’s brutal,’ writes poet Robert Haas, ‘the way some lives / Seem to work and some don’t.’” And the reader understands, though wondering whether Melville would agree that literary greatness is enough.
The characters yearn for meaning in the midst of forced isolation and the style suggests that the authors set out to play a game with words and plot even as the pandemic had a way of making everything people did seem both more notable and mundane. At one point, a character notes. “Even a quiet person says a lot in a day, almost all of which is forgotten. Not forgotten, I suppose, but unremembered.”
We can use more care with our words, whether meant for everyday conversation or destined for posterity.