A novel about marriage, mortality, and making art. In the endless days of the pandemic, a woman spends her time sorting fact from fiction in the life and work of Herman Melville. As she delves into Melville’s impulsive purchase of a Massachusetts farmhouse, his fevered revision of Moby-Dick there, his intense friendship with neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne, and his troubled and troubling marriage to Elizabeth Shaw, she becomes increasingly obsessed by what his devotion to his art reveals about cost, worth, and debt.
You’d be forgiven if this doesn’t strike you as the making of a great novel. But Dayswork, a spry, compact book by the husband-and-wife team of Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel, is quite weird and wonderful, a novel in verse that immediately casts a spell and keeps it going until the last little missive. It’s the kind of book you miss as soon as it’s over, its sway and power nearly as mysterious and unlikely as that of a leviathan tome about whaling ... Vivid ... This is the rhythm of Dayswork, somehow jagged and smooth simultaneously, quotidian and deeply felt, and capable of lulling the reader into a sort of literary trance. It’s a nimble merging of poetry and prose, written by a poet and a novelist in perfect synch.
Brief, illuminating ... It calls itself a novel, but it is also a biography, a work of literary criticism, a poem and a pandemic diary ... Habel and Bachelder’s form works beautifully to at once evoke and hold back the tide of information ... iterary projects often feel long and hopeless, and require dedication and stamina. But there is a loveliness to Dayswork, a spareness, that is in productive tension with the idea of dangerous waters and lunatic missions.
As charming as it is unusual ... Part of the appeal of Dayswork lies in its unclassifiability ... It reads as a clever mash-up of a fictionalized memoir, a meditation on a literary forebear and a portrait of a marriage ... Melville...comes alive in these pages of wry, epigrammatic observations.