Frank's Reviews > McTeague

McTeague by Frank Norris
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Apr 05, 2010

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Read from April 05 to 08, 2010 — I own a copy

You can’t make small of me!!!

Surely this book is a classic more because of the impact it had when it first appeared, and because it was made into one of the very first Hollywood masterpieces, than because of any lasting appeal it may have for later readers.

If this is representative of naturalism at its best, naturalism is a tawdry affair compared to the realism of Flaubert or Balzac, or the naturalism (if that’s what it is) of De Maupassant. If this is the American Zola, I hope the French one turns out to have a little more finesse when I get around to reading him. The grimness of this novel doesn’t stem from the people Norris describes or the fatalism of his plot so much as from his apparent lack of sympathy for the characters – first and foremost his protagonist McTeague, frequently referred to as a ‘brute’ with no redeeming qualities by the narrator himself.

In that sense, the novel reminds me of Conrad’s short story ‘An Outpost of Progress’, about two Belgian ‘brutes’ let loose in Congo. Here we also see two talentless petty bourgeois driven to extremes by exterior circumstances that are entirely beyond their control (because they are so stupid), and Conrad describes their descent into hell with the same utter detachment and barely controlled contempt you can see at work in the narrative voice of McTeague. But Conrad at least limits it to the confines of a short story, and setting it in the tropics gives him the opportunity to spice it up with some pessimistic ruminations about the fragility of what we call civilization. This makes his tale into a little gem, an entertainling little resumé of his pessimistic schopenhaurian (or so I’m told) worldview.

Also, the Polish writer’s style is more interesting. Norris’ style is nothing if not lacklustre, and his judgmental way of describing his characters creates no sympathy. In Von Stroheim’s film version Greed at least the mere physiognomy of Gibson Gowland playing McTeague ensures him of some sympathy.

Not the subtlest of novels, then. Certainly a far far cry from his contemporary Henry James! Although I have to admit the finale in Death Valley is magnificent and does redeem the novel to a large extent.

Further points of interest: interesting to see how much fun is made of German immigrants’ accent: probably a stock item of popular comedy at the time, witness also the later success of the Katzenjammer Kids.

Memorable catchphrases:
You can’t make small of me!
Had a flying squirrel an’ let him go.

This last is one of the more curious things in the novel – a weird catchphrase one of the minor characters keeps reiterating, and which is never explained.
Another such strange unexplained item is the appearance of an Indian towards the end of the novel, apparently a beggar. He presents McTeague with a letter.
“The letter was to the effect that the buck Big Jim was a good Indian and deserving of charity; the signature was illegible. The dentist stared at the letter, returned it to the buck, and regained the train just as it started. Neither had spoken;” McTeague leaves and sees the Indian “still standing motionless between the rails, a forlorn and solitary point of red, lost in the immensity of the surrounding white blur of the desert.” There is no link with what has gone before or comes after. Presumably its part of Norris’ (often rather heavy-handed) symbolism, although I can’t quite make out what it’s symbolic of here, except in the crudest, most obvious sense (mirroring McTeagues own loneliness at this point in the story).
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