There are few authors that can rival John Steinbeck. Some get close. Some writers are able to conjure a near perfect description of nature and sceneryThere are few authors that can rival John Steinbeck. Some get close. Some writers are able to conjure a near perfect description of nature and scenery so that you want to reach into the pages to pluck a ripe peach from its tree and sit along the banks of a roaring set of whitewater. Some writers are able to shine their light deep into the heart of the human spirit and bring out whole those points of commonality that all humans share, to speak some amount of truth as to the human condition. Few are the authors that can do both, and fewer still the authors that can do so without making you feel as if you're sitting at a Sunday mass listening to antiquated ideas of fire and brimstone. John Steinbeck is the rare author who can see all, the beauty and the horror, and render it in terms that stokes the fire in people's hearts with pride of what we're capable of in our better moments as well as blanket us in the shame of what we do in those less thoughtful moments.
I've read quite a few of Steinbeck's books by now, from the Cain and Abel allegory of East of Eden to the sweet whimsy of Cannery Row, but have never felt mentally prepared enough to tackle Grapes of Wrath. Not that the writing is particularly dense or the themes are too high-minded for me to wrap my mind around, but because I knew the story (it's been told in so many different formats from the aural to the cinematic)and knowing the story I knew that reading the actual words would fill me an almost unbearable amount of rage and unless I were prepared to funnel that rage into some sort of real world action then it would just coil and burn inside me, charring me with the self-destructive nature of impotent anger.
Because what makes Grapes of Wrath so powerful is that, while fiction, it recounts events that have happened in this country before: families torn from their lands by ever-hungry banks, uprooted from their very sense of history and identity, hurling themselves across the nation in the hopes of a better life just around the corner only to find themselves despised and spit upon wherever they go, treated worse than animals by those who are only one missed paycheck from realizing just how close they are to joining the Joads. There are families turning on families, workers undercutting workers, and no prayer in the world with the power to right these wrongs as long as people are unable to focus on anything other than their short-term self interest. This has all happened before and it is happening again. Sure, it has not yet reached the fever pitch that Steinbeck illuminates in his recounting of Okie workers pushed to the breaking point by the all-consuming maw of capitalist greed, but it wouldn't take much for us to get there.
Steinbeck's opus may be some of the finest writing I've yet come across of how a family who has never given more than a passing thought to capital, banks, or usury find themselves becoming acutely class conscious as they are hunted and harried across the land. His chapters, alternating between the specific story of the put-upon Joads to the more general musings of how workers are pitted against one another and how institutional power makes every attempt to keep them down lest they realize their own strength and organize for justice, are whip smart- never preaching when all he has to do is show. Like East of Eden before it, my copy of this book is well dog-eared and underlined, page after page now heavy with ink, but I think the most resounding passage for me occurred early in the book:
"The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was a part of the monster, a robot in the seat. The thunder of the cylinders sounded through the country, became one with the air and the earth so that earth and air muttered in sympathetic vibration. The driver could not control it- straight across country it went, cutting through a dozen farms and straight back. A twitch at the controls could swerve the cat', but the driver's hands could not twitch because the monster that built the tract, the monster that sent the tractor out, had somehow got into the driver's hands, into his brain and muscle, had goggled him and muzzled him- goggled his mind, muzzled his speech, goggled his perception, muzzled his protest. He could not see the land as it was, he could not smell the land as it smelled; his feet did not stamp the clods or feel the warmth and power of the earth. He sat in an iron seat and stepped on iron pedals. He could not cheer or beat or curse or encourage the extension of his power, and because of this he could not cheer or whip or curse or encourage himself. He did not know or own or trust or beseech the land. If a seed dropped did not germinate, it was nothing. If the young thrusting plant withered in drought or drowned in a flood of rain, it was no more to the driver than to the tractor.
He loved the land no more than the bank loved the land. He could admire the tractor- its machined surfaces, its surge of power, the roar of it detonating cylinders; but it was not his tractor. Behind the tractor rolled the shining disks, cutting the earth with blades- not plowing but surgery, pushing the cut earth to the right where the second row of disks cut it and pushed it to the left; slicing blades shining, polished by the cut earth. And pulled behind the disks, the harrows combing with iron teeth so that the little clods broke up and the earth lay smooth. Behind the harrows, the long seeders- twelve curved iron penes erected in the foundry, orgasms set by gears, raping methodically, raping without passion. The driver sat in his iron seat and he was proud of the straight lines he did not will, proud of the tractor he did not own or love, proud of the power he could not control. And when that crop grew, and was harvested, no man had crumbled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips. No man had touched the see, or lusted for the growth. Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had no prayers or curses."...more
There's something both alluring and repulsive about compulsive hoarders. Once, a few years ago, I had to help clean out the house of one of my in-lawsThere's something both alluring and repulsive about compulsive hoarders. Once, a few years ago, I had to help clean out the house of one of my in-laws’ neighbors who had just died. Entering the man’s house was like stepping into an Egyptian tomb; relics from countless eras stacked methodically to the ceiling, knick knacks piled haphazardly in corners and on top of the mantle. Moving around was limited by the small pathways the man had carved through his treasures, though they were not so much paths as they were game runs for the legion of rodents that had made their home among the accumulated detritus. It took four people over a week to clear out everything and in the end over a dozen trips to the dump had been made. It had taken us that long to sort through every single material possession that this man had come in contact with over his seventy-odd years. There’s a kind of twisted beauty in that not-letting-go which, as a rabid bibliomane unable to part with any of my books without hours of soul-searching and deliberation, I can readily understand, if not relate to. Hoarding of this sort seems a uniquely 20th Century affliction, one that would not have been possible in any other era.
I do have to admit though that, as disturbing as the disease may actually be, it makes for some truly compelling reading. In his latest book, Doctorow tells the story of the Collyer brothers, a real-life pair of shut-ins who lived in the slowly-crumbling Fifth Avenue mansion of their parents. The younger brother, Homer, went blind as a teen and the elder, Langley, had more than a few hinges loosened when he was exposed to mustard gas in the first World War. Doctorow continues his Tolstoyan exploration of history, particularly how the larger movements of History (capital H) can sweep even the most recalcitrant person along with it. The clutter from the first of Langley’s late-night scrounging of the New York streets is temporarily beaten back in order to make room for the ersatz speakeasy the brothers begin just as the Great Depression hammers their wealthy neighbors, the Collyer’s two Japanese housekeepers are picked up and interred in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attacks, films go from silent to talkies, and the brothers meet their spiritual kinfolk in the new generation of youth that have taken to calling themselves hippies.
Doctorow has a tight grip on the flow of history, as evinced not only in this book but with Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, March, and a host of others. In each we get to see the individual confronting the larger issues of the era they live in. With Homer & Langley Doctorow lets the timeframe breathe out a bit, encompassing the events of nearly the entire 20th Century. It’s fun read of how the house fills up with each new invention Langley becomes enamored of, the house serving as a repository for dozens of typewriters, television sets, automobiles and computers, a museum collection in the offing. A really quick read, Homer and Langley is definitely worth the reading and one that makes me think I need to explore more of Doctorow’s works. ...more
I've never really felt comfortable writing a review of a Pynchon book. From the short and relatively accessible Crying of Lot 49 to the byzantine andI've never really felt comfortable writing a review of a Pynchon book. From the short and relatively accessible Crying of Lot 49 to the byzantine and complex Gravity's Rainbow, he's always left me standing agape, grasping for the right words to express just what it was that I had experienced, yet knowing that whatever choice I eventually make I will only be able to express the tiniest amount of what I had just been through. Because, if you're patient enough and not too thrown off by what seem like insufferably long asides with no contextual relation to anything that has come before in the book, Pynchon will take you on a journey to the farthest reaches of your imagination. From stitching together materials from a wide and eclectic group of influences, he will attempt to gain entry into the fabled halls of imagination itself, a literary paradise in which all is simultaneously effortlessly possible and maddeningly difficult. Whether he succeeds is a matter for great debate, but for me it's always the journey that makes it worthwhile.
In Against the Day, Pynchon chooses one of the most interesting eras in modern history, a time in which the old world was making way for the new in drastic violent upheavals in nearly every realm of life. Beginning with the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893 and meandering along through time until just after the end of the Great War, Pynchon paints a surreal portrait of a world on the cusp of multiple revolutions. From the political struggles of the time- Colorado miners to unionize for better working conditions against the mine owners and their Pinkerton thugs, the blooming revolutions in Mexico and Russia, and the anarchists everywhere in between struggling to advance the freedom of all humanity to the scientific struggles and breakthroughs of the era- Nikola Tesla struggling to gain funding from capitalists to develop ways to transmit electricity wirelessly, the endless debates between rival scientists as to whether the gaps between the stars are filled with aether or nothingness, and all of the quaternion and vectorist mathematics that can explain it. Not to mention hydrogen-fueled airships, expeditions to the North Pole and into the center of the Earth, treatises on the unique nature of Venetian light, and enough bdsm power games to make your hedonist cousin blush, I'm not kidding when I say that this book really has it all.
Supported by a rotating cast of hundreds, the story primarily follows the fortunes and trials of the Traverse family as they attempt to get revenge for the assassination of their dynamite-chucking anarchist father. There's Frank, the staid and reliable middle son who uses his schooling at the Colorado Schools of Mines and his family's penchant for dynamite to attempt to get revenge on the two men who murdered his father, an odyssey that sees him rambling back and forth across the US-Mexico border more times than a character in a Cormac McCarthy book. There's Reef, the eldest son whose quest for revenge gets derailed along the way when he finds that it is far easier to use his skills as a cardsharp to defraud decadent aristocrats in Europe. There's Kit, plucked from his family's poverty and sent to private schools in the East by a powerful industrialist who may or may not have been the man who gave the order to have his father killed and who becomes a pawn in a massive game of intrigue between the forces of repression and freedom. Then there's their wayward sister Lake, so filled with self-loathing that she runs away with one of her father's assassins to a life of monotony and beatings.
All of these events occur within the pages of Against the Day but it doesn't really say anything with regard to what the book is actually about. Truthfully, after reading almost 1100 pages, I'm not entirely sure. It would be a bit of a cop-out to say that this book is about the search for paradise, both literal and metaphoric. Sure, there's a lot of that in here- the quest for Shambhala, the search for inner peace, the idealism of the anarchists- but what stands out more to me is Pynchon's playing with and breaking down duality. The vectorists and quaternions eternally quarreling, the breaking down of the gender binary that goes on between Yashmeen and Cyprian, the feud between the Traverses and the Vibes, the permeable boundary between the two worlds that is viewable only from within the epicenter of a large explosion or by peering through a piece of Icelandic spar. Not to mention the endless allusions to light and dark and how they're not really all that different, a listing of which would create a book nearly as large as the source material.
While the story does tend to feel a but unwieldy around page 600 and I found myself wondering on more than one occasion whether Pynchon had even the slightest clue as to where he was going with the tale, in the end I found myself just enjoying the ride. While a bit lengthier than his opus, Gravity's Rainbow, I found the writing to be vastly more accessible and didn't find myself reading and rereading a page half as often as I did with GR. I think this probably has more to do with being more familiar with Pynchon's rather unique way of spinning out a tale than with a change in his style, but it leaves me wanting to return to Gravity's Rainbow for a reread to see what new discoveries I can find within those pages. If you should find yourself stranded on a desert island, or locked away in prison for a length of time, you could do a lot worse to occupy your mind than reading Against the Day. ...more