When I first opened Nicolas Mugavero’s Eight Million Copies of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, a recent release from Gauss PDF, I was certain the file was defective. I drafted a sheepish email to the publisher to ask if there was some sort of mistake. Thankfully, I never hit the send button.
Spoiler: Every single page of Mugavero’s 1,000-page book comprises not so much English text as grayscale texture. Two stacked patterned blocks resembling a kind of woven fabric grace each and every page with no variation.
We all know better than to judge a book by its cover, but in this case, the title page of Mugavero’s Eight Million Copies of Moby Dick provides helpful context, especially when compared to the enigmatic pages that follow. The physical setup of Mugavero’s title page is nearly analogous to the title page of Herman Melville’s original Moby Dick; or, The Whale, right down to the mimicked serifed typeface, marbled background, text configuration, and line of tildes separating author from publisher.
Page sizes aside, the only glaring disparities between the two are Harper & Brothers’ listings of publication year and previous works by the author, both things Gauss PDF leaves out, though the denotation of “PDF” in the latter surely provides sufficient temporal context. The undeniable symmetry braces readers not merely for an homage to Moby Dick but for an interpretive imitation of the novel itself. If you are anything like me, reading Eight Million Copies of Moby Dick goes something like this:
Where are the words?…I think this looks like tweed…Are these supposed to look like waves?…Wait, is every page going to be exactly the same? If so, I probably shouldn’t waste my time looking at every single one of them… Oh, I think I detect a texture change now! A color change? The gray is certainly growing bolder…False alarm, it’s just the light…These patterns sure do look like whales. Whale after whale after whale, it’s like I’m staring at Moby Dicks all over the place.
And then several hundred pages later:
Everything still looks the same, but I’d be an idiot to stop scrolling now; I’ve come so far!…And to what end?…I’m sure something deep is happening; I just need to uncover it…I can’t stop searching, and yet I find nothing new…Maybe if I stop now, I can preserve some modicum of dignity…But what if I find a clue in the next hundred pages? I just need a small sign. A single letter. A different pattern. Anything? Surely, I will conquer this text…and when I find the answer, what a wonderful payoff it will be! I cannot abandon the journey, or my effort will have been worthless.
Upon reaching the final page, no different from the other pages, I realize that I have fallen prey to the futile quest for answers. Sound familiar?
In Eight Million Copies, Mugavero re-tells the story of Moby Dick by assuming the role of the whale. The text, in a sense, is the whale; it is both the source of our frustration and the thing we doggedly pursue. By subjecting us to page after page of the incessant pattern, the author tests us; rather than talk about the novel and its themes, we are thrust into it. Readers like me embody the monomaniacal Captain Ahab, Moby Dick’s absurdly relentless pursuer. My inability to master the text chips away at my pride just as the whale eats away at the captain’s. Though Mugavero’s whale has not physically bitten off my leg, he has certainly pulled it.
I cannot help but recall a rigged online IQ test I took as a child; unbeknownst to me, the more questions the test-taker answered, the lower her resulting score. I wasted an hour and a half solving mind-numbing questions, forgoing dinner and putting off homework, because the longer I worked at the test, the more invested I became in seeing it through to the end. I sought validation of my intellectual superiority. My brother also began the test but quickly abandoned it in favor of pursuing more enjoyable activities. He had nothing to prove. When I finally surrendered and viewed my incomplete score, a taunting pop-up greeted me: “Congratulations! You were stupid enough to keep answering questions for 90 minutes, placing you in the bottom 5% of IQ scores today!” The test was designed to punish obsessive egomaniacs. Ahab would have failed too.
But clearly, I did not internalize this shameful lesson, because today I find myself polling my friends to see if they notice something about the pattern that I do not. A large part of me still feels the need to outsmart Mugavero, to crack his code. Maybe if I can identify exactly what the image is, I will be closer to enlightenment. “It’s a bunch of hashtags,” my brother says after studying it for three seconds. “Censored text,” my animal activist friend insists. The other responses are equally varied and unhelpful: air filter, mesh grill, screen door, a halftone pattern created via dot diffusion, dish towel, horizontal corduroy, the stripes on a Cambodian silk blouse, a fractal, purposeful use of negative space, velcro, image processing art, houndstooth, a Steve Reich score zoomed really far out, plaster of Paris to make casts for broken bones, what a Bob Dylan poster looks like to someone on PCP, and — perhaps my favorite answer, from a literary colleague of mine — “it’s Eight Million Copies of Moby Dick. I saw it on Gauss PDF the other day.”
I must put to rest my journey with Mugavero’s text. More than simply a book, Eight Million Copies is an unnerving character assessment and a cheeky piece of performance art, the performance being the reader’s very experience getting through it. Rather than provide explicit commentary on Moby Dick, the author urges us to turn the lens on ourselves. Though frustrating, it is hard to argue with the results. The work simply is what it is, unassuming until completely overshadowed by our own ego-driven projections. Mugavero, just like the whale, wins.
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Chrysanthe Tan is a writer, composer, and professional violinist based in Los Angeles, CA. She is the Communications Editor of Black Clock Literary Magazine. When not writing or performing, you can find her cooking vegan food or watching Star Wars. www.chrysanthetan.com