Sunday, June 08, 2008

Herman Melville – ‘The Confidence-Man’

In my last year at school, my English teacher gave me a list of books he thought I might like to read. It was his first year as a teacher and he was only five or six years older than us – a class, oddly, of only five. I don’t think we were the remedial class, and it certainly wasn’t any kind of fast-track super class either: I think I was the only one who liked books, particularly. Irwin in the film of The History Boys reminded me of him, a bit, in his tricksy teaching methods. For instance, getting another class from the year below to make up some ‘poems’, then giving them to us to do practical criticism on. They were cobbled together from all over, and one contained the line, ‘Fuck me and marry me young’. ‘Oh,’ I thought, ‘that’s in a Sisters of Mercy song. I didn’t know they took it from a poem.’ This is how credulous I was / am. We remained fooled for most of the rest of the lesson, until he told us.

This list, though: The Third Policeman, The Crying of Lot 49, some things I have forgotten, and The Confidence-Man. It’s a reality-busting, perception-shifting list, of novels without plots, which set out to confuse and thereby point out how flimsy the stories which constitute the world are. How unreliable language is. I may have given the impression that I was interested in this kind of thing by going on about Throwing Muses, and possibly regurgitating some of Simon Reynolds’ literary-criticism-of-music pieces in my essays. But I wasn’t, really. I loved Throwing Muses because they blew my head completely apart, not because their lyrics weren’t linear. And, really, this is the way round it should be, the effect outweighing the method. I’ve never been interested in puzzle literature, or even in plots, very much. Reading (and failing to finish) the first two of the books mentioned above, I felt that they were subverting something I wouldn’t want to defend (plot), and sacrificing something I would (readability) in the process. A niggle must have remained, though, because here we are, years later, with another book from the same list.

The Confidence-Man’s motives are complicated. The plot, such as it is, consists of a series of approaches made by various confidence tricksters to people aboard a Mississippi streamer. It all takes place on 1st April, and the steamer is called the Fidèle. There is a herb doctor, who sells bottles of his ‘Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator’ (p. 91), and ‘Samaritan Pain Dissuader’ (p. 103). One confidence man tries to sell shares in the Black Rapids Coal Company, which may or may not exist; another begs for alms, and is accused of faking his injuries. It is never revealed whether any of them is actually lying. Most of the book is taken up by conversations in which these men explain why people ought to give them their confidence, and therefore their money. The notes refer to them as ‘avatars’, as they are all essentially versions of the same character. It doesn’t take long for the word ‘confidence’ itself to assume a portentous ring, and Melville delights in introducing it in many contexts and guises:

No, no. This austerity won’t do. Let me tell you too – en confiance – that while revelry may not always merge into ebrity, soberness, in too deep potations, may become a sort of sottishness. (p. 161)

This quotation gives a flavour, too, of how arguments tend to get flipped around, generally with an anecdote backing up an untenable position. The most telling of these appears in chapter 40, entitled ‘In which the story of China Aster is, at second-hand, told by one who, while not disapproving the moral, disclaims the spirit of the style’ (p. 245). How unreliable do you like your narrators? China Aster is a candlemaker, able to scrape a living from his trade, but no more. A friend, Orchis, wins the lottery and insists on loaning him $1000 to develop his business. The point the anecdote is supposed to be there to reinforce, is that lending money to a friend is a bad idea: China Aster ends up crippled with debt, and dies a broken man. As it is his confidence in human nature (specifically, in Orchis’) which brings him down, it undermines everything the confidence men have been saying. And why would you believe them in the first place? Because, as Stephen Matterson’s introduction points out, their primary concern never seems to be the money they make (which is mostly very little): advocating confidence is for them an end in itself. They are preachers more than businessmen – but whether for God or the Devil, as Matterson says, is open to debate. And isn’t it true, actually, that it is impossible to get anywhere without confidence? That reality is defined in terms of the stories people absorb, whether individually or collectively, and that the confidence with which they are told is therefore very important indeed? The effect of The Confidence-Man is decidedly unsettling.


Richard said...

I prefer to think that you were the remedial class, of course! I don't think there was any streaming at that point. Interesting story about the poems, I'd never heard that before. There were some pretty bright people amongst the Sisters of Mercy fans in the year below- including future young journalist of the year Sathnam Sanghera, who had his first book published this year.

Chris said...

Well yeah, maybe I should just face up to it...

Don't think I knew Sathnam, but 'If You Don’t Know Me By Now: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton' is the best book title I ever heard. Wonder if it means to recall Ricky Gervais?

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