Saturday, October 08, 2005

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

As predicted, I was unable to just cherry pick this book for a few scenes I was interested in. Once started, it was impossible to put down. So I read Steinbeck’s fine novel in the few days before our trip to Austin, finishing it on the plane ride home, while done up on diazepam, exhaustion and worry.

This is a tremendous book. It’s a sprawling epic tale of two families and the nation from the American Civil War to World War I. It’s also a study of the fable of Cain and Abel, which poses a number of insightful queries on the topic. Since Abel was killed, and we are all in fact offspring of Cain, what does that say about evil inherent in us? Why would God cast one son aside? Can man triumph over the evil in his own nature, etc. The Hebrew word “Timshel” is the answer, but like “42” it probably won’t do you much good without a much better understanding of the question.

The characters in this novel are old friends to me, as this is the third time I’ve read the book in the last fifteen years. Lee the cook-philosopher, Samuel, the beloved pater familias of Steinbeck’s mother’s family, mercurial Tom and his sister Lizze, Abra, Olive, Charles, Cathy, and all the rest are an unforgettable cast, whom I miss very much be the novel’s conclusion. It’s the kind of book which saddens you to finish, because you lose friends the minute you close it. This sounds cheesy, juvenile, and stupid, and if you’ve never finished the last page of Tolkien’s epic only to open again to the first page, then you probably have no idea what I mean.

Steinbeck’s language and style are haphazard, elegiac, filled with soaring truths and a love of landscape. On his style much has already been written elsewhere, with critics falling out of the proverbial woodwork to issue comment. He is not the brilliant and flashy stylist who garners so much acclaim in literary circles. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that his language, while still superb, is not what makes him a great American writer. It’s his sense for characters, motivations, and the poignant vignettes the laces the novel with. If you’ve ever read The Chrysanthemums, Tortilla Flat, or any of the shorts from The Long Valley, then you know what I mean.

The book did have some weaknesses that I’d never noticed before. The main one I take issue with is the character of Cathy, and the generally weakly written women in the book. With the exception of a few passages which describe his mother, Olive, one that deals with Lizzie, and one dealing with his Aunt, Steinbeck falls fairly short with women characters. I believe this is generally regarded as one of his shortcomings, and I’m sure he was chewed up and spit out by the seventies feminist lit circle for having his Eve (Cathy) a monstrous incarnation of original sin. He doesn’t bother to question this particular parable in the slightest, but then, his biblical analysis is restricted to only seventeen stanzas, so maybe that’s okay.

In re-reading the above, it bugs me how poorly written it is. But it’s been a few weeks since I finished the book, and this is scribbled for me alone. So, it’ll have to do.

In the time since I started this book I have: Finished SSX On Tour, visited home, returned, read much, and written much. Today is a grey and drizzly Saturday in Burnaby.


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