We hoist greatness high. We laud the achievements and enshrine the creators, tossing about terms like genius and authentic. There’s no doubt that great works of art deserve recognition. Deserve to be taught and examined and shared and loved. I’m reminded of lectures I’ve given regarding my love for Moby Dick and Herman Melville’s audacity. However, the offspring and relatives of these artists have a much different life. Theirs is a life of desperately trying to escape the ever-widening shadow of their kin. We look at the relatives of great writers with a loaded expectation—what greatness are you capable of? As we’ve learned from history, rarely is that talent passed on, and, if it is, it often manifests in a much different way.
It is no surprise that Paul Metcalf, a descendant of Melville, struggled with this pressure—the burden of expectations. Genoa explores this very concept in a fascinating and engaging way. Metcalf does not shy away from his relationship to Melville; in fact, he uses it to propel the text. He even goes so far as to use paratextual techniques employed in Moby Dick, comingling quotes from Melville’s fiction and biographical information with his own writing. This polyphonic writing creates a fascinating three-way interaction between Metcalf, Melville, and the reader. Metcalf uses this to his advantage as a way to generate meaning. For example, one of the more striking moments in the text is when the protagonist is contacted by someone at a mental hospital who informs him that his estranged brother, Carl (who is a violent man), has given them his address for contact. Metcalf writes, “[w]hen word came, after many weeks, it was not from Carl, but from doctors at the mental hospital, where he had again been committed. He had finally told them about me, had given them my address, and they wanted me to come: he was violent, and they thought I might help.” Metcalf pairs this section with the following biographical information, “Herman, writing to Fansevoort—unaware that the latter had already died: ‘Remember that composure of mind is everything.” In these sections one can see the way in which Metcalf uses the intertext to propel his work, that the two paragraphs work together to create meaning without Metcalf having to provide the answers for the reader.
Though Metcalf’s sentences do not read like Herman Melville’s, there are certainly comparisons one can make to Melville; the characters have a Mevlillian quality, as they are misunderstood and obstinate. For example, the protagonist of Genoa has a medical degree but chooses to work at General Motors instead of practicing medicine. It’s as if Metcalf too is giving us another Bartleby—a character who does the opposite of what anyone would expect of him.
There is much to like about this book. It’s honest in a way that I didn’t expect. It’s good to see that Coffee House Press has given this book another life.
Genoa: A Telling of Wonders
by Paul Metcalf
Coffee House Press; 264 p.