Friday, March 27, 2015

John Steinbeck: East of Eden

My hunt for the Steinbeck book that started my Steinbeck phase in high school has ended. When I was in Portland at Powell's, unsurprisingly, they had at least 15 copies of East of Eden on the shelf (and who knows how many more in the back). I wasn't able to find the version I really wanted- the yellow old Penguin kind- but truthfully, even I know that the book was exactly the same behind the cover. Sometimes change is just cosmetic.

When I wrote last month about being embarrassed to say that I didn't love Grapes of Wrath, and couldn't quite remember the whole thing about Steinbeck, that must have been because I wasn't reading East of Eden. If Steinbeck didn't invent historical fiction or the saga, I'm not sure who did. And he got to write historical fiction and still be considered serious! I suppose this is because he's a great writer while he writes sagas complete with love triangles, whores, mistaken identities, war, etc. Sadly, I don't remember that any other of his books are so LONG which means they probably aren't sagas, and historical fiction that isn't a saga just isn't going to keep me awake reading like this did! I will say, at about page 500, I got a little tired and the book probably would have been equally good if it were 550 instead of 700 pages, but isn't that true of all 700 page books that you actually finish?Also, my version has a hideous cover from the "ABC Motion Picture for Television" on it, and my experience definitely would have been improved without having to look at the 70s looking version of turn of the century Salinas on it. But I also can't really blame Steinbeck for that.

I think there are also a few layers of this book that I need to think about more, in a literary criticism kind of way (which will also make me wonder, did John Steinbeck do this intentionally? What was he trying to do? Am I overthinking this? Is fiction just meant to be enjoyed?). The second half of the book centers on Adam Trask and a Chinese-American servant, Lee, who becomes essentially Adam's partner. Lee disguises himself at first by speaking pidgin and wearing a queue. He "comes out" to one of Adam's friends, an Irish man who has been accepted into white society due to certain characteristics and admits that not only does he speak English, he is extremely educated and intelligent and that he and other Chinese servants only speak pidgin to get by. Does Steinbeck give Lee humanity because he understood the ridiculous racism of the time? Does he give him humanity because he had a Lee- kind of like a mammy figure? (There is a John Steinbeck in the book, a young child who is sort of the omniscient narrator, but it's never quite clear.) Lee's humanity isn't without stereotypes- he has run in's with opium, he never spends a dime, and he is effeminate. He takes care of the house, the kids, and of course, Adam. He is wise like a sage. But he is human.

And what of Lee and Adam's relationship? I did a brief search and found an author that suggested that Steinbeck allows these two to live in a sort of early gay marriage. I sat with this for awhile and loved the idea. But the reason that Adam is sexless is because of the horrible woman he married, who is portrayed for hundreds of pages as a monster. I wonder if, rather than approving of alternate sexuality, there is a bit of misogyny here: when women are bad, men are forced to live together, and sure, it can work out okay, especially if a noble savage (to mix racial stereotypes and throw Lee in there) is involved. The female characters in East of Eden that we're supposed to like are amazing, stoic, loving motherly types, or are otherwise witty, strong and smart. They have 9 children and make something out of nothing. They grow up early and understand complex situations. The rest of them die (literally), are prostitutes (literally), or are terrible. Granted, I read this book for fun, not for the sake of litcrit, so I could well have forgotten some of the women, but the main characters basically fall into these categories.

I hope I haven't ruined Steinbeck for those who haven't read it: if you haven't read it, you've gotta read East of Eden for the sheer enjoyment of it. Distances in Monterey County seem just so FAR. Life seems so different, and the lives of his characters are just so out there. If you have read it as an assigned book many years ago, you have to reread it because it's still beautiful, and it's much more complex than you might remember. And it's a great read if you are in the middle of a reading rut. Thank god for those authors who can pick you up when you're down- Graham Greene, Steinbeck, Stegner, etc. They bring reading back to where it ought to be.