Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Moran of the Lady Letty by Frank Norris

Pulp fiction with a twist
Frank Norris
Moran of the Lady Letty, originally published in 1898, was Frank Norris’s first published novel. Although an avid fan of Norris, having read some of his nautical adventure stories in the collection A Deal in Wheat, I did not approach this work with very high expectations. Soon after diving in, however, I was pleasantly surprised by how well-written and entertaining it is.

Ross Wilbur is an educated young member of San Francisco’s upper class. Killing time one afternoon before a society ball, he decides to take a stroll along the waterfront, where he is abducted by a sea captain and forced into service among the crew of a schooner. After an abusive welcome, he is informed by the captain that they will be fishing for sharks along the coast of Mexico for a few weeks, after which time Wilbur will be returned to his home port. After overcoming the initial shock of his capture, Wilbur resigns himself to his fate and actually begins to enjoy life at sea. The shark hunting is interrupted, however, when the crew stumbles upon a drifting, apparently abandoned ship named the “Lady Letty.” Upon investigation they discover one survivor aboard, who, much to Wilbur’s surprise, turns out to be a woman. Far from a damsel in distress, Moran, as the young woman is named, soon proves herself as fiercely independent, coarsely mannered, and physically powerful as any masculine sailor on the high seas.

Norris was a disciple of the naturalistic writing style of French novelist Emile Zola. The best thing about Moran of the Lady Letty is that, despite the pulp fiction absurdity of its subject matter, Norris employs the same naturalistic style he would later utilize in the writing of masterpieces like The Octopus and McTeague. While the events of the narrative at times venture into the extraordinary, Norris’s impeccably drawn characters and settings ground the story within the real world.

The book does have its flaws. The Chinese characters in the book are at times portrayed as unflattering racial stereotypes. There is a “mystery of the sea” that’s neither very mysterious nor satisfactorily resolved. The middle of the book drags a bit, but eventually crescendoes into a thrilling, climactic battle scene. Overall, however, the novel is not so much about adventure as it is about the relationship between Wilbur and Moran. She is unlike any woman he has ever seen before, so how could he help but fall in love with her? Wilbur is no weakling, but an athletic man and veteran of the Yale rowing team. Nevertheless, unlike Moran, who was raised at sea, his killer instinct has been dulled by civilization, and in many ways she is more macho than he. Only by getting in touch with his inner animal can he hope to earn her respect. Not only does Norris take the reader on a thrilling ride, by including this added degree of psychological and philosophical complexity to the story, he lifts it above the level of a typical adventure tale.

The Kindle edition that’s offered for free on Amazon has one major flaw. In chapter one, the hero receives a letter from a friend. In chapter four, a character sings a song. In the Project Gutenberg edition of the book, these two excerpts are set as indented text in a different font. When Amazon took that file and converted it to Kindle format, those two paragraphs were deleted. While these two omissions won’t greatly hinder your understanding of the work, the loss of the letter in chapter one does create an awkward moment of disorientation. It’s not a huge loss, but be forewarned if you download this file you’re only getting 99.99% of the book.

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