Onboard the Fidèle, a steamboat floating down the Mississippi to New Orleans, a confidence man sets out to defraud his fellow passengers. In quick succession he assumes numerous guises - from a legless beggar and a worldly businessman to a collector for charitable causes and a 'cosmopolitan' gentleman, who simply swindles a barber out of the price of a shave. Making very little from his hoaxes, the pleasure of trickery seems an end in itself for this slippery conman. Is he the Devil? Is his chicanery merely intended to expose the mercenary concerns of those around him? Set on April Fool's Day, The Confidence-Man (1857) is an engaging comedy of masquerades, digressions and shifting identity, and a devastating satire on the American dream.
It was difficult to get on top of this book and balance, to feel confident in your hermeneutic agency.
on the one hand, it's dreamy, allusive, full of hints of this and that, in particular Melville's fixations with the mystic history of the West, the mystic history of the East, the relation between our relations with one another and our relations with God, and the infinite possibilities of the American West as a canvas on which to play them out for good or heartbreak (Martin Chuzzlewit is referenced). The fabulous riverboat Fidèle definitely fits in the midsummer night or rabbit hole or a dark carnival or a broom ride over Moscow vein--things are different and you have no idea how, or who to trust, and trust, of course, is the thing.
On the other hand, it has an idee fixe quality--we are being manipulated, and by an operator so refined that it's hard even to catch hold sometimes, hard to recognize what valences the succession of encounters is stoking and how to engage in dialogue with them. Someone said, in a con game you always want to make sure to look where your attention is being directed away from, but I found that difficult--you get so befuddled that you grab onto whatever oar Melville extends, and you feel passivized. Just as the confidence-man always wins, pretending to engage straightfaced, always walks away with the purse, the monologic masquerading as the dialogic--so I sometimes felt like Melv was operating on levels that left me unsure how to proceed except by grabbing the low-hanging fruit, and that that was just what I was meant to do, and sometimes that sent me on an intoxicating ride as per the above and other times it just felt like being carried along by the river.
And so there's a magician's-nephew fascination to the tricksy and portentous with which the book is chock a block, but I'm left feeling a bit pawnlike, and also a bit like stuff flew over my head. it makes me think that there are some books that just demand more time; it makes me think that if Henry James were able to imply significance better instead of just wheezing dimly like he do I would like him better. I'll remember the characters most of all--the Confidence-Man like flies in honey; the Cosmopolitan, who feels friendly and good in a way that the C-M doesn't and that's more suspicious yet; barber and his sign, NO TRUST; the miser, the woodsman, the wicked takedown of Emerson and Thoreau. The Krishna angle--the way the C-M gives us the change to believe! and absolve our conscience, bare a clean breast to a world that's gonna take us for whatever we're worth under any circumstances--that fascinates, and I'd like to go through again with it more in mind. Joyce is here too, and the anxiety of words always meaning more than you can exhaust and never matching up properly to things, even with the nest of intentions. This book is an enigma wrapped in a puzzle sailing down the Mississippi.
We see a charlatan putting on various disguises and tricking people out of their money. The different scenarios are very amusing. I think it is a good read.