Literary Death Match is in fact a real-life competition in which writers match wits — though not to the death. If it worked more like Celebrity Deathmatch, it might be Howard Rodman’s new novel The Great Eastern, in which Captain Ahab faces off against Captain Nemo for mastery of the high seas.
Rodman is best known for his screenwriting (Joe Gould’s Secret, Savage Grace, August), and The Great Eastern comes with a cover blurb that has Jonathan Lethem describing the book as “twelve of your favorite movies at once — in full Sensurround.”
This isn’t one of those books like The Hunger Games, though, that’s so eager to become a movie it can hardly keep its ink on the page. It’s first and foremost an exercise in style, and while a suspenseful story eventually takes hold, Rodman is in absolutely no rush to get through his thickets of period detail and salty prose. If you’re the kind of steampunk who wears a striped tank suit and a monocle on vacation, this is the beach read for you.
The book’s title is also the name of an actual ship that slid into the Thames in 1858, at that point the largest ship ever built. Rodman uses actual details from that ship’s design and service — notably its engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and its 1866 deployment to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable — to join the fictional lives of the most famous fantastic captains before Hook and Kangaroo.
But wait…didn’t Ahab go out on the White Whale? Not in the world of The Great Eastern, where Moby Dick might have made it out of Melville alive as well. Rodman finds the peg-legged mariner disrupting a touring play about his own life, while the author fills out the back story of Nemo — a character who Jules Verne described as the son of an Indian Raja. Brunel, we learn, played a pivotal role in the design and construction of the Nautilus, Nemo’s instrument of vengeance against a British Empire that destroyed the life he knew in his homeland.
For all his fascination with the lore and language of the dawning electrical era, Rodman finds resonant thematic material in the uses and abuses of empire. Who will benefit, his characters wonder, from the marvels appearing around them? Will telegraphy foment homogeneity? Will the robber barons simply rob more efficiently?
In bringing Ahab and Nemo together, Rodman pits a seaman of the old order against an equally mad technological visionary — with the conflicted Brunel caught between them. His ungainly but epic creation, a steamboat with sails, is an apt inspiration for this rich, ripping yarn.