Ali's Reviews > An American Tragedy

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
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May 10, 12

Read from March 25 to April 21, 2012

Are you an aspiring writer? If so, have you been told that you are a little too wordy? Do people complain that the dinner parties you write about take longer to read than they would to actually happen in real life? When going through the editing process for your latest novel, do you watch in terror and sadness as your editor demolishes your creation, as the pages fall away and leave a measly pile of only seven or eight hundred pages behind? If you answered yes to any of these questions, I have some advice for you!

Shut the fuck up. Right now, in fact. Go to the homes of all your editors and all the people who have ever said you write too many words, destroy all their posessions with a sledge hammer, and beat them with a dead, partially decomposed trout. Then kidnap them, take them to a house stocked with all the provisions you can get, and force all of them to read a copy of An American Tragedy, because I don't care how verbose you are, you will never reach the heights of Theodore Dreiser.

People think books like Infinite Jest or Les Misérables are longer than they need to be, that they contain too many sections that could be pared down. Those people are wrong. Yes, Infinite jest and Les Misérables are long, maybe too long in some sections, they are verbose, but at least the story they have to tell is complex, spanning many years and the lives of several characters, and every character has importance to the story, even if they exist only for world building and verisimilitude, and to that end, I would venture to say that there are few sections I would, if given the chance, cut out of either of those books.

This is not the case with An American Tragedy. The story it has to tell is not very complex at all, taking place during about five years in the life of its main character, Clyde Griffiths. The narrative is straightforward, and if you took out all the extraneous descriptions and digressions, I would guess you could summarize it in five hundred words or so, as I did in this genius excerpt from an essay I did on the book during my college days. It got a horrible grade, and I may or may not have failed the class, but that's only because the professor didn't understand its masterful prose and profound discussion of the ideas of the book:

Clyde Griffiths is the son of nomadic missionaries, and he, like, really hates it, you know? he takes a job as a bellboy, and his workmates introduce him to the wonders of alcohol, prostitutes, and kitten huffing. he meets this like really hot babe called Hortence Briggs. I hate her. She's a bitch. At one point, Clyde and his friends are driving around in a stolened car, and they run over some kid, at which point he decides he has to get the fuck out of dodge, because that's what you do after you murder a child, especially if that child is a whiny little fucker who decides to destroy all your delicate valuables which cost thousands of dollars.. Not that I would know, of course. I read about it somewhere. In a book. That I didn't write. They couldn't prove anything.
So he gets out of town and heads off to Lycurgus, new York to work at the shirt collar factory of his long lost uncle. While working there, he meets Roberta Alden, over whom his genitals begin to twitch and make weird growling noises for some reason. They fall in love, have lots of sex, and she gets pregnant. Seeing as this is the 1920'S, condoms are not easily available, and he falls in love with yet another hot lass, called Sondra Finchley, who will give him access to the high social standing he craves, he struggles to find a way to get rid of Roberta's child so he can dump her in peace and move on. After several unsuccessful incidents, he decides that if he can't kill the little bastard alone, Roberta, unfortunately, has to go. So he contacts MTV, and says he has an idea for a cool new reality show, called "Let's Hunt and Kill Roberta Alden", and assures them that it will all involve special effects, no one will actually die, and let's be honest here, off the record, I never told you this, if you know what I mean, Roberta isn't even that hot and she's poor besides that, so if she dies, if, let's say, she gets hit in the face with a camera and drowns, the world won't lose much, America has no room for poor people who aren't attractive, and with a name like Roberta, she's probably Mexican, so there's three strikes right there, amirite or amirite? They agree, and he takes her out on a row boat with all of America watching, and hits her in the face with a camera until she falls off the boat and, you know, gets her drown on. One of the six intelligent viewers in the country notices that the death looks a little too realistic to be caused by any special effect, and calls the police. Clyde is arrested, a trial takes place during which we get to hear all the events we've spent the last seven hundred pages reading about repeated for an additional two hundred pages, and shockingly, he is found guilty and sentenced to death.
While waiting for his execution, Clyde takes a few funny looking pills he got off of a fellow murderer one cell down, and tries to get in contact with God by praying really hard as the pills enter his system and hoping something happens. It does. To be more exact, an angel comes down from heaven, picks him up by his head between its giant fingers, and flies him up to God's bedroom. God is sprawled on a divan, watching American Gladiators and scratching his nuts. Clyde begs for God's help, explaining his situation, barely able to get his word's out propperly.
"So I was wondering if you, um, if you could just think about, maybe arrangeing something, of course it wouldn't be one-sided, I would try to repay you in any way I could, but if you could just think about maybe letting me just have, uh, maybe life in prison, of course it would be preferable if I could have no time in prison, that's another option too, but, uh, sometimes you have to make sacrifices and I think I'd be willing to spend some time in ..."
"That's terrible!" God yells out.
"I know! It's injustice! It's down right criminal, if you ask me! It's c--"
"Not you. I've got this woman who won't stop praying at me for some new shoes, I looked down at them, and fuck those pumps are unforgiveable! I think she'll need to find fifty dollars in her coat tomorrow. Anyway, about you... there's this expression the kids are using these days, I see it on TV a lot, it comes most often from stereotypical black women, and I think it would apply here. It sounds a little like...uh... HAIL NAW! No, I don't think I can let this slide. You were a shitty killer, to be perfectly honest. Anyone who made as many mistakes as you did deserves whatever they get."
Clyde attempts to beg some more, but he is dragged from the room, and sent down to Earth, the last words in his ears from God saying something about giving those fucking kids who keep puling at him cholera, that'll shut them right up, give it a few days and they'll stop fucking talking... And he finds himself back in bed, being kicked in the ribs by one of the guards and listening to inmates tell him to shut up.
So he waits. After several months, a team of officers come into his cell, and pump his face full of lead. No one cares all that much.

The end. That's it. But where it took me 910 words, Theodore Dreiser did it in 372,000. It has been said before, but An American Tragedy may be one of the worst written classic novels currently in the literary canon. Dreiser needed a few rounds with an editor, by which I mean that an editor should have threatened him with a gun until he cut this shit down to something more manageable. His grammar and syntax is cringe-worthy. his sentences are long, but not in a good, David Foster Wallace, William Faulkner, William Gass, Thomas Pynchon, or H. P. Lovecraft way. Those authors could write sentences humming with beautiful prose, with perfectly placed phrases that make you first give up any ambitions you may once have had of being a writer, because you can't possibly write that well, no matter how hard you try and how long you work at it, your prose is pitifully bad after you read their work, then motivate you to try harder and write better, because you may not ever write that well, but you're going to try goddamnit, and no one is going to stop you. No, these are just long. And clunky. And unmemorable. I don't remember a single quote-worthy line from the book's prose, only that Dreiser really likes the word "social", as well as the phrases "not a little" and "in so far as".

And that's just the writing. The insane amounts of exposition is a different story altogether. This novel has perhaps the most omniscient narrator I have ever seen. About half the time, it focuses on Clyde, and the other half is spent on every single character in the book, no matter how minor and inconsequential. It shifts points of view several times in one chapter, sometimes even in one page. Dreiser makes damn sure you don't simply read An American Tragedy; you live in An American Tragedy. Every character's motivations and feelings are laid out with no ambiguities. One incident that stands out involves Roberta going to a doctor to try and convince him to give her an abortion. He spends fifteen or so pages talking about how Clyde goes around looking for a doctor who will perform an abortion and then finding one, then ten more showing us exactly how Clyde and Roberta plan to get this done, then another ten pages talking about the doctor and his life and motivations, then another ten talking about the visit, only to reveal that the doctor ain't doing none of those sinnful abortions, cuz he's a good Chrishchan! So while the description of the visit is necessary, of course, we end up learning about the doctor's life story for absolutely no reason because he has almost no impact on the story. And the entire book is like this. There is repetition of stories three and four and five times, there are digressions going on for several pages that have nothing to do with anything, you are told how you should feel and who your sympathies should lie with. I shudder to think what Dreiser would be like if he was living in the 21st century, calling himself TeddyD69 and writing porn on IRC chat. He would get on Sexnet and describe the intricacies of nose sex for everyone to see, and someone would send him back a message saying something like "i am totes righting w/1 hand write nao d00d", and Dreiser would write back "Well thats good, cuz i gotz 68 more pages2go!"

Yet for all my complaining, there is one thing that cannot be denied. As verbose and unnecessarily dense this book is, the effect it sets out to produce works. Because everyone's thoughts are laid out in such a straightforward manner, you experience every event just as the characters do. Or at least I did. To demonstrate what I mean, I knew exactly what was going to happen in the book when I started reading it, because earlier I had read most of the plot summary on Wikipedia. But because Dreiser forced me to live in his book during the three weeks I read it, I felt Clyde's doubts and fears, his contradictions and hypocrisy. As a result, there were maybe three or four times during my reading, when Clyde sets out to kill Roberta, for a non-spoiler example, when I seriously wondered if someone had vandalised the Wikipedia entry and he wasn't going to kill her after all, because his internal struggle is portrayed with such realistic pathos that for a moment, I lived in him. That likely doesn't make sense at all for anyone who hasn't read this or a similar book, but that's how it went. As I read, The clunkily written, often infuriating novel began to transform, slowly, into something great.

I have to wonder if this was what Dreiser intended, if an editor did try to get him to cut it down by a few hundred pages, but he refused because he knew that such an edit would kill the effect. Would I have felt Roberta's grief over Clyde's breaking away from her if the relationship had not been described in microscopic detail? Would the scene where Clyde kills Roberta lose any of its impact if the abortion doctor bit, as well as all their other attempts to get rid of the child, had been shrunk down from a hundred pages to ten? After reading the book, my answer is an emphatic yes, but when I look at it in a little more depth, my answer is something like, "Uh, noyesno." In the end, it doesn't matter, because the book has been written, and no one is going to be changeing it, but what I can say is that if any of the 1.5 people reading this should someday write a piece of literature and wonder if they should cut it down and remove the exposition, I would advise them to think carefully about that decision, because if they are very lucky, and they manage to create an immersive enough book, they may wind up creating an experience similar to that of An American Tragedy.
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03/27/2012 page 167
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Amy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Amy Hrynyk You think this needs editing, read his Philadelphia trilogy. Look for the word "trig."


message 2: by Stacey (new) - added it

Stacey I'll read YOUR book!


message 3: by Lee (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lee Butterfield Echoes my feelings.


Suzanne I think your review was too long. I didn't read it all, to be honest, but this part made me laugh out loud - "America has no room for poor people who aren't attractive, and with a name like Roberta, she's probably Mexican, so there's three strikes right there, amirite or amirite?"


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