Sunday, December 4, 2011

East of Eden

Giving John Steinbeck's East of Eden 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads seems harsh I know.

After all, it is an epic, and I liked the other epics I read. It spans a multi-generational family history, a sweeping geographical history, and an inherent Biblical metaphor. Steinbeck himself wrote of the novel: "I don't see how it can be popular. I am inventing method and form and tone and context." (Intro, pg vii) Anti-mainstream, drenched in self pity, fatalist, and if you turn a blind eye to the blatant (albeit at the time, culturally accepted) racism and sexism, the novel practically begs for a feverish cult status among the hipster crowd. It was even part of Oprah's book club.

It's true the writing is sublime, nuanced, honest and subtle - "Tom started to call after him, and then he leaned wearily down and picked up the telegram. He sat in the sun on the bench outside the forge, holding the telegram in his hand. And he looked at the hills and at the old house, as though to save something, before he tore open the envelope and read the inevitable four words, the person, the event and the time." (page 310)
Upon reading that soon afterward Tom rises and gets his black suit out of the closet, we realize that our heart is broken without ever actually reading the words that his father had died.

On page 159, Steinbeck captures emotion: "He felt his heart smack up against his throat when he saw Cathy sitting in the sun, quiet, her baby growing, and a transparency to her skin that made him think of the angels on Sunday School cards. Then a breeze would move her bright hair, or she would raise her eyes, and Adam would swell out in his stomach with a pressure of ecstasy that was close kin to grief."

The philosophy of the novel is sound without being overpowering - in fact, I almost wish it were developed further, and revisited more often throughout the text. The Salinas Valley was the perfect setting for the story - harsh, unforgiving, but not without glimmers of hope, much like the cast of East of Eden. But the honest truth is that in general, this a collection of characters that I just don't like. Even the best figures are not likable enough.

I can boil this down to seven words: "People are crummy, and then they die."

East of Eden makes it clear that Steinbeck understands people, complex emotions and interpersonal relationships in ways far beyond that of most, but his use of metaphor makes these things accessible to the average reader.

Like any of the heavy hitting writers of the American literary cannon, it is important to read Steinbeck - just as it is important to read Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson - because they tell us about our history, about American life in their time, about style and about our ancestors.

But this doesn't mean we have to like it.

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