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[310] The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

” The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed . . . In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage. ‘ [26:349]

Set during the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath traces the migration of an Oklahoma family to California and their subsequent hardships as migrant farm workers. The novel begins with Tom Joad returning home from jail on a parole, shocked to discover that his family has been driven out of the homestead. Forced to leave their home, the Joads pack up in an old truck and begin their journey on Route 66 to California, which they embrace with hope and disillusionment. Their trip takes them through the loss of some family members to sickness, separation, bullying from cops, threats of starvation, and depletion of money.

One man, one family driving from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and I am bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. [14:151]

As the Joads enter California, they fall prey to a parasitic economic system. Workers are exploited and taken advantage of. The west reacts to the massive migration with alertness and hostility. Migrants are treated like animals, denied livable wages, and shuffled from one filthy roadside camp to the next. Locals even threaten to burn down the camp in order to drive out the “Okies.” Through the minimal luck and continuous abuse, the novel draws the line that divides the privileged from the poor and identifies that division as the primary source of evil and suffering in the world.

In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad . . . [21:282]

Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. [28:419]

The novel is about a family’s slow road to sadness. Through their hardships Steinbeck is intent to publicize the injustices of migrant labors and to show the Joads’ dignity and honor. They are honest and hardworking men who scrape for a living. They refuse to be broken by the adverse circumstances that conspire against them. They thrive in silence. While I acknowledge the novel’s significance and value in American literature, the loose incidents that hardly contribute a manageable plot is a demerit compared to East of Eden. I experience trouble reading through the stagnant narration that is infested with continuous, abject despair. The Grapes of Wrath can be a tedious reading experience in literary superfluidity.

455 pp. Centennial trade paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[277] Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

” ‘I said what stake you got in this guy? You takin’ his pay away from him?’
‘No, ‘course I ain’t. Why ya think I’m sellin’ him out?’
‘Well, I never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy. I just like to know what your interest is.’
George said, ‘He’s my . . . cousin. I told his old lady I’d take care of him. He got kicked in the head by a horse when he was a kid. He’s awright. Just ain’t bright. But he can do anything you tell him.’ ” [II, 22]

Written in 1937 and set in post-Depression California in which farming was still affected by the economic downturn, Of Mice and Men depicts the grim, pessimistic and futile lives of migrant workers. Focusing on two characters who arrive in the Salinas Valley during peak season, Steinbeck creates touching scenes between Lennie a big, severely limited worker who does not know his own strength (often seen as a simpleton), and George, a whippet-thin man who serves as Lennie’s constant companion and protector.

George’s voice became deeper. He repeated his words rhythmically as though he had said them many times before. ‘Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place. They come to a ranch an’ work up a stake and then they go inta town and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they’re in’ their tail on some other ranch. They ain’t got nothing to look ahead to.’ ” [I, 13]

Through this unique friendship between George and Lennie, Steinbeck plays out yet another variation of The American Dream, and yet it still revolves around independence and the pride of being one’s own man. Lennie and George want this independence more than most men, but have less than most men to achieve that dream. In their case, it isn’t a white picket fence, but a farm where they can raise rabbits.

‘O.K. Someday—we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and—‘
An’ live off the fatta the land’,’ Lennie shouted. ‘An’ have rabbits. Go on, George! Tell about what we’re gonna have in the garden and about the rabbits in the cages and about the rain in the winter and the stove, and how thick the cream is on the milk like you can hardly cut it. Tell about that, George.’ [I, 14]

As the pair lands a job at the ranch, they realize the inevitable situation: the predatory nature of human existence. In order make a living, they have to interact with the community to which they are the obvious outsiders. But ironically, nearly all the characters on the ranch live in loneliness and isolation. Curley’s wife admits to Candy (the oldest and spent), Crooks (the only black person), and Lennie that she is unhappily married, and Crooks tells Lennie that life is no good without a companion to turn to in times of confusion and need. The characters are rendered helpless by their isolation, and yet, even at their weakest, they seek to destroy those who are even weaker than they. The novel suggests that the most visible kind of strength—that used to oppress others—is itself born of weakness. This is made the most obvious in the interaction between Crooks (the black with a crooked back) and Lennie.

[Crook’s] voice grew soft and persuasive. ‘S’pose George don’t come back no more. S’pose he took a powder and just ain’t coming back. What’ll you do then?
Lennie’s attention came gradually to what had been said. ‘What?’ he demanded.
‘I said s’pose George went into town tonight and you never heard of him no more.’ Crooks pressed forward some kind of private victory. ‘Just s’pose that,’ he repeated. [IV, 71]

The scene in which Lennie swears that George would never abandon him and that he can always count on George’s companionship sets up for the tragic ending that they are destined by their misery never to enjoy true companionship and happiness. But in sparing oneself of the continuous suffering and the lost hope of dream ever being attained, Steinbeck shows that escape can be another form of happiness.

107 pp. Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[273] Cannery Row – John Steinbeck

” Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots . . . ” [Prologue]

Set in the 1930s, on the heels of depression, in Monterey, California, Cannery Row is an utopian novel peopled by good-natured bums (Steinbeck calls them ne’er-do-wells), warm-hearted prostitutes, philanthropic grocer, lonely marine biologist, and other personalities who are forgotten, rejected and exploited. But Cannery Row itself is no utopia. The novel paints a portrait of humanity, which asserts all the ironies including happiness and despair, success and failure, conventional wisdom and it’s failure to improve one’s existence, in a natural genre. Interspersed the pages are day-to-day changing scenery of a small town whose biological clock is dictated by the workings of the cannery.

Then cannery whistles scream and all over the town men and women scramble into their clothes and come running down to the Row to go to work . . . The canneries rumble and rattle and squeak until the last fish is cleaned and cut and cooked and canned . . . [Prologue]

Ticking away under this working rhythm is another rhythm, an ineluctable and more powerful one, that governs the existence, or rather one’s time on earth. There exists a dreadful awareness of death in the book. The sight of a dead girl (Ch. 18) confronts Doc the memory of his loss. But there is something more expanded and mystical about that moment in which the author manages to suggest the inextricable relation between life and death.

The body was out of sight, caught in the crevice. The lips were slightly parted and the teeth showed and on the face was only comfort and rest. . . . It seemed to Doc that he looked at it for many minutes, and the face burned into his picture memory. [18; 109]

The characters themselves are ironies in Cannery Row: they are neither wholly good nor evil, all possessing redeeming values. Mack and the boys, a group of down-and-out bums, are more content and fulfilled with their lot in life than is Doc, a marine biologist who is alone in the world.

In spite of his friendliness and his friends Doc was a lonely and a set-apart man. Mack probably noted it more than anybody. In a group, Doc seemed always alone. [17; 100]

Contrasted with Doc’s loneliness, one finds camaraderie among Mack and his boys, who live in a ramshackle warehouse that they have coerced from Lee Chong, the Chinese grocer to whom many are indebted in town. Dora Flood, owner of the brothel, lives a ticklish existence. Being against not the law but rather the letter of it, she is twice as law-abiding as anyone else. Her philanthropy has touched the poor during depression. When influenza strikes down adults and children of the Row, she sends her professional girls, bearing therapeutic hot soup, to sit with the sick.

The girls slipped out the back door, and sometimes staying with the sleeping children the girls dropped to sleep in their chairs. [16; 99]

The many open threads of the book finally converge toward a singular direction, as it grows in people’s mind that they should throw party to the benevolent Doc. Cannery Row is a fantasy, and yet the instrument by which Steinbeck achieves this utopia is so human, so flesh-and-blood. In the midst of impoverished existence, life goes on. Connections are made as individual alienation is conquered. The lonely is reached out to; the sick is taken care of; the starved is fed. Humanity prevails over conventional wisdom.

196 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[265] East of Eden – John Steinbeck

” I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hunger and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and roof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last . . . ” [34; 413]

The central concern of East of Eden is with the pitting of good versus evil, both between individuals and within the heart. As Steinbeck disclaims and reiterates throughout the novel, the struggle between good and evil is not only a recurring narrative within the frame of the story, it will always coexist with human history. The same ancient problem, dating back to Adam and Eve, will always confront future generations.

A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions? Was it good r was it evil? Have I done well—or ill? [34, 413]

East of Eden dramatizes the perpetual conflict between good and evil within the individuals of the Hamiltons and Trasks. While their destinies cross path, Hamiltons serve more as a chronological collage, it is the Trask family on which the reenactment of the fall of Adam and Eve and he vicious rivalry between Cain and Abel are staged. The novel, which is parallel to the book of Genesis, bears the primordial power and sheer simplicity of an allegory. After inheriting a questionable fortune from his father, Adam Trask leaves behind an awkward relationship with his brother Charles and heads west to the Salinas Valley to set up a farm. His new bride Cathy, who sets off the glory in him and releases him from bitterness and rancid memories, is a wicked ex-prostitute. But nobody has sent him a memo about her troubled past, in which she incinerated her parents house. After all, Adam is an upstanding type who is, perhaps, somewhat obtuse. He is a man who moves through his life as though absent from it. The Edenic theme cannot be more explicit: Adam has fallen for an Eve with whom it is impossible, given her monstrous tendencies (that would eliminate all this is good), to share the garden, which shall be built with the help of Samuel Hamilton.

Perhaps Adam did not see Cathy at all, so lighted was she by his eyes. Burned in his mind was an image of beauty and tenderness, a sweet and holy girl, precious beyond thinking, clean and loving, and that image was Cathy to her husband, and nothing cathy did or said could warp Adam’s Cathy. [13; 133]

I mean to make a garden of my land. Remember my name is Adam. So far I’ve had no Eden, let alone been driven out. [15; 169]

Were they cold? Was it her eyes? [Samuel] was circling to the point. The eyes of Cathy had no message, no communication of any kind. There was nothing recognizable behind them. They were not human eyes. [16; 177]

East of Eden assumes a symmetric structure. The first half of the novel belongs to Adam; and the second his son Caleb. The novel as a whole reinforces the relationship between Charles and Adam as a surrogate for the relationship between Cain and Abel, a relationship that Caleb and Aron repeat in their generation. Both Adam and Caleb are sons caught in a drama of rejection. Therefore the story concerning Caleb is not a repetition but a revision of the first. Adam is the favored son of a private soldier but he hates his father for pruning him. Adam himself displays the same arbitrary favoritism in his relationships with his two sons.

But from the very first people were won instantly to Aron by his beauty and his simplicity. Cal very naturally competed for attention and affection in the only way he knew—b trying to imitate Aron. And what was charming in the blond ingenuousness of Aron became suspicious and unpleasant in the dark-faced, slit-eyed Cal . . . Where Aron was received, Cal was rebuffed for doing or saying exactly the same thing. [38; 444]

Why am I [Cal] giving the money to my father? Is it for his good? No. It’s for my good. Will Hamilton said it—I’m trying to buy him. There’s not one decent thing about it. There’s not one decent thing about me. I sit here wallowing in jealousy of my brother. [49; 538]

In Cal’s struggle to stay on the path of good, in the face of his father’s arbitrary favoritism on his cowardly brother and in the fear of his inheriting a legacy of sin from his mother, he is enlightened by Lee’s (the faithful and witty Chinese servant) belief that evil can be overcome and that morality is a free choice. This gives light to who Cathy is, or what she stands for,

The moment [Lee] think about her my feeling goes into darkness. I don’t know what she wanted or what she was after. She was full of hatred, but why or toward what I don’t know. It’s a mystery. And her hatred wasn’t healthy. It wasn’t angry. It was heartless. [38; 448]

Her life is one of revenge on other people because of a vague feeling of her own lack. She insists there is only evil in the world. So she immerses herself in it and exploits other human’s weakness to her own advantage. She doesn’t believe, rather she can’t believe, Adam’s love for her because she is not capable of believing men could have goodness and beauty in them. She makes the choice to dig evil. Whereas Cathy’s evil remains untranslatable, Adam’s rigid morality is just as incomprehensible. That is why his kindness and love to her is monstrous. To me the most monstrous action to be remembered about East of Eden is not Cathy’s vice but Adam’s withdrawal, which has profound impact on the course of his sons’ lives.

You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous. [8; 72]

East of Eden, after all, is a story about love and how one perceives love. Through a family romance, with betrayal and denial, Steinbeck explores how humans can spend a lifetime trying to decipher their expressions of love. But whether one is really loved sometimes cannot be known. The only love one feels is the love one feels for someone else.

602 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Reading Notes: East of Eden

The blog has been quiet for the past few days because I’m riveted in a very good book: East of Eden by John Steinback. The original plan was to peruse this landmark novel of the Salinas native who was awarded the Nobel Prize and and finish it as the Amtrak Coast Starlight chugs through the Salinas Valley on Friday. With less than 150 pages away from the end, I might very well have turned the last page before I get on the train. To while away the 11-hour train ride, I consign to Plan B: doubling up Ian McEwan with The Comfort of Strangers and The Cement Garden. Both are very thin volumes under 150 pages that hopefully would suffice filling the hours that will be interlarded with eating in the dining car and journaling in my roomette.

Once upon a time a meme asked the question of what fictional character I would like to be and my mind drew a blank. I have found the answer by reading East of Eden—Adam’s servant Lee, the son of an imported laborer from China to build the railway is what I want to be. Lee was an accident: he was conceived at a dangerously inconvenient time. His mother, already pregnant, disguised as a man to sail across the Pacific with his father and gave birth to him. What I resonate most with Lee, a loyal and smart servant filled with wits and insights, is that he hides his English fluency in order to preserve the stereotype that befits a Chinese man. Winning the trust of a master is conducive to the survival of any foreign man who contrives to make a living. Lee’s reverse assimilation makes me question whether the obsession to assimilate to white America now (i.e. whitening skin, all-American labels like Abercrombie & Fitch, speaking like white folks) actually does the minority any good? What has caused the tipping over the balance?

I was watching the Chinese New Year Parade, turned my back to the television and checked on work on the computer. The anchor was interviewing this girl who just spoke like a Caucasian girl, who enunciates certain consonants and stressed on a syllable (and said “amazing…” at least 3 times). I turned around and was surprised to see that the interviewee was nobody but our very own Miss Chinatown USA 2010, who grew up in the Richmond district in San Francisco! (Note: She speaks no Chinese.) In my day-today encounters, I cannot help feeling a misgiving about the impression that if someone speaks English with an accent, be it Chinese, Tagalog, Spanish, or Hindi, then the person is thought of less. You’re FOB (fresh off the boat), or more accurately, FOJ (fresh off the jet). Lee rules.

Another big kudo to Lee, and this especially close to my heart, is that he aspires to save up, move to San Francisco, and open his own bookstore! Steinbeck must have imbued his literary gene into this minor and yet pivotal character who has maintained a collection books that has never been unpacked during his service at the master’s house in King City. Lee might be be the backbone of East of Eden, his relationship to his master and the two boys is one of the reasons why I have been so taken up by the book, which is literally and literarily a page-turner.