Monday, July 24, 2006

East of Eden

EAST OF EDEN (John Steinbeck) - Three Stars

For an epic novel that has no plot and no specific main character, East of Eden is a pretty good book. It is, however, a maddeningly frustrating novel, as Steinbeck whets your appetite with flashes of brilliance before receding back into chapters full of aimless wanderings.

I had two major problems and a bunch of minor pet peeves with this book. The major problems, of course, I mentioned in my opening sentence...

1) NO PLOT. Really, this book has no real plot. It follows/observes the lives of various interconnected people in turn of the (20th) century Salinas, but there's not a lot of STORY here. This led to some major pacing issues with the story, since Steinbeck would ramble on and on about persons X & Y while persons A & B are more or less forgotten entirely for 50, 75, 100 pages at a time. There's a few amusing anecdotes and set pieces, but for the most part it's just 600-pages of character development. Which might have been more effective if not for...

2) NO MAIN CHARACTER. This book doesn't have one. The arc of the book generally follows the life of Adam Trask, but can you say that at any given point he is the main attention point of the novel? He is the focus around which events revolve, but Steinbeck is always more attentive to the characters around Adam as opposed to Adam himself. The first part of the book is mainly about Cyrus Trask (Adam's dad), Charles Trask (Adam's brother) and Cathy "Kate" Ames; the middle of the book focuses largely on the Hamilton family (Adam's "neighbors" in California; the last sections focus on Lee (Adam's manservant), Kate, and Cal and Aron (Adam's twin sons; moreso on Cal than Aron). This leads to possibly the most adverse effect in the novel: that once a character has finally been developed far enough to make the reader care for him, his time in the story draws to a close and he disappears/dies. Once you finally start caring about Samuel Hamilton, he dies. Once you finally start caring about Kate (and understanding some of what causes her to be who she is), she commits suicide. Once you finally start caring about Cal and Abra and Lee, the book ends.

I think Steinbeck worked better on a smaller canvas. The Grapes of Wrath (nearly 150 pages shorter) was his far better "epic novel," and even short novellas like Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men were able to draw the reader in and tell their stories without as much distraction. Steinbeck obviously had grand plans for East of Eden, but he tries to shove so much content into the novel that very little of it gets the attention it deserves. I think he also hamstrung himself a little in his attempts to shoehorn the story into the form of a (fairly obvious) biblical allegory instead of just letting the story and characters go where they may.

Some of my more minor, but still notable, pet peeves...

1) FORESHADOWING. Steinbeck simply does not do this effectively in East of Eden. He has all the subtlety of a bowling ball dropped on the foot when he foreshadows an event and, to make things even worse, once the event happens the characters usually perform an "event autopsy" which serves no purpose other than to spell things out for the reader. It makes for some mind-numbingly tedious reading the third or fourth time it happens.

2) PANORAMIC DESCRIPTION. Steinbeck's initial description of the Salinas Valley is vivid and vibrant and make the area jump to life. So why does he need to do it four or five more times over the course of the novel? IT'S THE SAME LAND. He's just repeating himself.

3) A WEAK AND FLAT ENDING. Expecting a wind-up to a staggering conclusion, East of Eden just kind of fizzles away and ends with a whimper. Again, Steinbeck failure to focus on one or two main characters throughout the novel led to several "false codas" that sapped momentum away from the conclusion. Indeed, after the relatively unhurried pace of much of the novel, the ending seems more than a little rushed and forced (from Aron unceremonious dumping from the novel, Kate's suicide, Cal and Abra's courtship, Adam's stroke... more events happen in the last 50 pages than in the previous 200+, but they're just kind of glossed over, speed bumps on the road to the finish).

After 1,000 words of criticism, you're probably wondering why I gave East of Eden even three stars. The thing is, Steinbeck was a brilliant writer and still capable of writing passages of heartbreaking genius. East of Eden is peppered with these. That's what makes the inconsistancy, the aimless wandering, the lack of focus so much more frustrating. East of Eden, in a way, is a victim of Steinbeck's success.

East of Eden could have been, SHOULD have been, one of America's all-time greatest novels. It's not. It's just a decent book. And I expected more than that from John Steinbeck.

"The war, at first anyway, was for other people. We, I, my family and friends, had kind of bleacher seats, and it was pretty exciting. And just as war is always for somebody else, so it is also true that someone else always gets killed. And Mother of God! that wasn't true either. The dreadful telegrams began to sneak sorrowfully in, and it was everybody's brother. Here we were, over six thousand miles from the anger and the noise, and that didn't save us. It wasn't much fun then."


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