Monday, April 18, 2011

East of Eden

It took over a month, and I read two novels and three graphic novels and one short story on top of it, but I finally finished all 601 pages of John Steinbeck’s epic East of Eden.

I’ve been slowly rediscovering Steinbeck thanks to book club. I guess “re”discovering is a bit of a misnomer. I read some in high school. For sure Grapes of Wrath, which I didn’t care for at all. Possibly also Of Mice and Men which left no impression. I never really understood what the big deal was. Then last year we read Cannery Row and I fell in love.

East of Eden is a big book. Much bigger in tone and reach than just page count. It covers three generations of two families, one being Steinbeck’s own maternal grandfather. The main family focus is the Trask family; I don’t know if they are entirely fictional or somewhat based in local legend and frankly I don’t know if it matters. As we follow these characters through time we also cross the continent, to the Salinas Valley of California, which is where the author grew up. His grasp of the land itself, not just the geography, is gorgeous and visceral. His narration of the lives of these families is occasionally interrupted by musings on humanity, which to me seemed to point the reader in the direction of that section’s theme and enhance and enrich the reading experience. And his characters themselves, while usually larger than life, still seemed real, even when clearly they were archetypes filling a role on an epic stage.

Essentially, East of Eden is a retelling of the Book of Genesis. The players change roles as they age and mature. The plot doesn’t follow the Bible’s order specifically. But there is sacrifice and love and hatred and betrayal and choice and learning. At times I felt like I was being hit over the head with allegory, “Look at me! I’m playing with Cain and Abel! Aren’t I clever!” But then the characters would actually discuss and dissect the actual verses of Cain and Abel and fascinating things would come of that. The writing felt extremely modern as did the handling of various social issues from Chinese immigrants (the reveal of manservant Lee’s innate intelligence was both hilarious and telling) to sexuality (Kate the evil whore’s brilliant blackmail scheme after she took over as madam).

In that way I both liked the book immensely and couldn’t love it entirely. It is clearly The Great American Novel. It’s beautiful and moving and brilliant and amazing. But it’s a little *too* good. It’s a little *too* perfect. It’s not lived in the way that Cannery Row was. Yet I was crying at the end. I would put the book down at points and be just completely exasperated by the characters, usually Cathy. There was never any question of me not finishing it. But it took time and I didn’t just fly through it. I wanted to digest the story. And I decided that the public school system is doing a disservice by making kids read Steinbeck so young. I think you need age and experience to fully appreciate these stories and this style of writing. I plan to go back and reread Grapes of Wrath and I expect to adore it.