The Eighties were a dynamic period in US history: there was an actor in the White House, the economy took major swings, the Cold War petered out amidst scandals and hush-hush wars, and the game changer—the computer—saw its first major steps into the private sector. It was also a time when much of the counter-culture of the 60s and 70s, after having abandoned its extreme left-wing views, had integrated itself with conventional American life. Money, home, and old age having taken on different perspectives, numerous ex-hippies could be found working in mainstream of society, their youth an entirely different scene than their middle age. John Kessel’s 1982 novella Another Orphan examines the life of one of these ex-hippies through the lens of Moby Dick (interestingly enough) in fine, philosophical fashion.
Another Orphan is the story of Patrick Fallon, an analyst working on the Chicago stock exchange. An ex ‘longhair’, the man found himself in need of real employment as the exigencies of life made their demands and the counter-culture movement drew to a close. Starting as a runner, Fallon worked his way up to stock analyst in a few years, and at the opening of the story is leading a standard yuppie life in the metro area with a girlfriend he’s unsure he loves. Mundane to the max, Fallon feels little motivation or excitement in life, and moreover, is unaware of the lack. Waking up on a whaling ship at sea in the opening pages, however, existence takes on a whole new dynamic—one he quickly realizes is a manifestation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The novel coming alive around him, life at sea in contrast to life in Chicago, and the questions which arise as a result, provide a context to existence Fallon never had.
Wholly an intertext, Another Orphan is in full dialogue with Moby Dick. Forgoing the minutiae of life on a whaling ship (and the hundreds of resulting pages), Kessel cuts to the existential heart of Melville’s novel (to tell a story in a mere dozens of pages). The burning desire of Captain Ahab, the varying perspectives of the crew, the significant milestones of the story, and its ideological undercurrent (ha!) are on display. But it is in the unpacking of Ahab’s desire and Ishmael’s worldview, and the subsequent contrast, which the novella expresses its value: the disparity of a bored yuppie in Chicago with a sailor at sea is all the distinction Kessel could hope for.
In the end, Another Orphan is in a minority of fiction (literary, science fiction, fantasy, or otherwise) in that it successfully utilizes literature of old to comment upon the present with relevancy. Certainly society has changed since Fallon’s existence was considered the norm (technology and life have evolved), but the complacency and unknowing sense of purposelessness he exudes are intact till this day, making Kessel’s commentary powerful reading. (I would consider Moorcock’s Behold the Man an equally impacting story of a search for meaning for those looking for contemporaries.)