You’re seriously just going to shit all over everything, aren’t you?
Nah, dawg. I actually dug East of Eden. I got a soft spot in my heart for Steinbeck - we’ll get into that. It’s just…
‘k, hang on. This review needs a soundtrack.
Whisky Tango Foxtrot, over.
No, seriously. Go look up East of Eden. Look it up on Wiki. Look it up on Goodreads. It’s all about how it’s a parable for Genesis’n’shit. “Steinbeck’s greatest.” A meditation on good and evil.
Sure. Whatever. But it’s also about a goddamn serial killer. And had someone told me that 20 years ago, I would have eaten that shit up.
That’s, totally, like a spoiler.
No, not really. Steinbeck rolls right into Cathy by pointing out that she was born a monster. And a monster she is for the rest of the book. And the book is pretty much about how people deal with monsters.
It’s totally not. It’s totally about good and evil.
Right. Sure. Fine. Timshel this.
So let’s get this out of the way: The scholars of the world have decided that people aren’t allowed to enjoy East of Eden because it’s too important or some shit. Steinbeck himself was wrapped up in the nature of man as it relates to good and evil, so he spun up a parable. This is both a good thing and a bad thing -
Don’t cut me off, me. See, the shitty thing about parables is your characters act the way you need them to act, not the way they would act. So sure. Symbolism. Metaphor. yadda yadda. But it also means that characters do stupid shit.
So set that shit aside, or tone it down. Turn it down. Because while there’s a very real effort to shoehorn Cain slaying Abel into this book, it’s a lot more (and a lot less) than that. On the face of it, East of Eden is Steinbeck’s meditation on the nature of free will. He was clearly wrestling with the ability of good people to do bad things and the ability of bad people to do good things. And he’s got good people doing bad things, and bad people doing good things, but he’s also got unredeemably bad people, and unrelentingly good people.
The bad people are mostly weak, while the good people are mostly stupid. It’s almost as if Steinbeck were arguing that truly good people are idiots while truly evil people lack the fortitude to be decent. But wharves.
Whatevs? Srsly, asshole? This is Steinbeck we’re talking about.
Give me half a chance and I’ll shit on pretty much every person I was ever forced to read in school. Steinbeck is no exception. He likes to write characters that struggle against the tide of humanity until they just can’t take it anymore and off themselves. It’s a trope, and a tiresome one. And he kills important characters off, off-screen, for no good reason. Steinbeck’s world is full of fickle fate, but he doesn’t really want to explore that because it messes with his message of the evils of capitalism.
I thought you liked Steinbeck.
I do. Listen - the first time I read Grapes of Wrath and Tom Joad is grabbing used piston rings out of junked cars and replacing them using brass wire, I got Steinbeck. He was writing about my people. That’s exactly the kind of redneck jury-rig my grandfather would have pulled, who was kicked out of Bastrop County, Texas as a boy by the Dust Bowl, I might add. Okies? I come from Okies. Farmers? I come from farmers. And the way Steinbeck writes them, I can tell he does, too.
Of course, I doubt my experience with Tom Joad is unique. I’ll bet everybody feels like Tom Joad could have been their great grandfather. That’s the beauty of Steinbeck - there’s somebody in there that you know down to your very DNA.
So, empathy but not sympathy, then.
Not at all. The man starts East of Eden with a chapter that does nothing but set up the Salinas Valley. The effect is to cast the rest of the book in a perpetual Magic Hour - everything limned in alpenglow, a soft focus filter over life. Which, hey - if you were cribbing from the book of Genesis, you’d want that. The little details that make things real? Steinbeck’s all over them. It even makes the heinously unforgivably vicious Cathy a metaphor; the stupidly unforgivably generous Adam is then just a foil. Like I said - if it’s a parable you’re going for, it’s set up exactly right.
But you reject the parable.
I don’t. I just don’t think it’s useful. I think the story would have been better if it weren’t trying so hard to be important.
There’s a pretty cool thread throughout the book that’s straight up about a serial killer. There’s an okay thread about kids growing up with too much money. There are some interesting dynamics about class and privilege in rural America. But just when things get interesting, somebody dies offscreen or does something out of character and stupid or otherwise shoehorns a parable into the goddamn story.
And it’s not like the nature of good and evil haven’t been explored before, and it’s not like we’re breaking new ground here. And it’s kind of interesting to set it against the Indian conquest, and kind of interesting to set it against the expansion of the West, and kind of interesting to set it against the rise of WWI. But it would be a lot more interesting if Sam the Chinese Greek Chorus didn’t bust it up in regular intervals to deliver Morals.
Say something nice.
It’s a good book. I enjoyed it quite a lot. I’m glad I read it. The language is evocative, and if you hadn’t thought about the nature of free will or the inevitability of good and evil before, you will after reading it.
But nothing. It isn’t an amazing book but it’s pretty good. Life changing? No. Would I recommend it? I already have - my wife is currently slogging through Consider Phlebas and, like me, she pretty much lost all interest (that she had left after wrapping her head around a million terribly-spelled, unpronounceable names) at the Space Cannibals.
East of Eden is utterly devoid of Space Cannibals. And as I listened to it, there was driving guitar and Iggy Pop in the back of my head.
All in all, pretty dope.
Dunno. Taking a break. Michael Lewis is hella fun to read, and he’s got a new one out on one of my favorite schadenfreude subjects. As this one was not recommended by anyone, it’s review-immune.
The person who recommended me the book hates this chapter. But to me, it's a beautiful exercise in painting a picture with words:
How can you not want to travel to Cali and roll around in the Salinas fields after reading that?