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East of Eden, John Steinbeck (1952)

Well, I cried at the end.

I cried, not over the recurrence of timshel, which felt a little Dramatic, but because of Adam’s blessing. I felt he was redeeming not only Cain but Esau, if you like.1

I loved Lee's final lecture to Cal best, better than the discussion of timshel, or the oddly Manichean authorial intervention that shows up somewhere between the two. That rough shove out of self-hatred into humility is a chastening and a gift.

Moreover, I loved Lee. There's plenty that's problematic in Steinbeck's portrayal: Lee’s the Wise Other; he’s the feminized Asian man, crypto-mother of the cobbled-together Trask family. What Steinbeck does manage, despite these failings, is to make me care about and identify with Lee's wishes, desires, dreams, and inner life. His role is to be one of the motivating minds of the novel, not to play a bit part.

I like, too, the feeling of chosen family about the Trask household. Lee arrives as a servant, but he ends up as a parent. The deal is never wholly fair or equitable, but their home feels like a real and loving household to me.

Woman and Women and Cathy

The last hundred pages or so of the novel do a lot to revise and reknit what felt like frustrating problems in the first part. I do think the first two-thirds of the novel suffer from Steinbeck’s fascination with Cathy/Kate’s Pure Evil.

His portrait of Cathy is a perceptive reconstruction of the inner life of psychopathy. I love that Steinbeck notices Cathy can still feel afraid, just not over the same things a person with empathy would fear. Cathy fears, not rejection, but the to-her-unknowable responses of love and grief in others. She may be marked, but she’s not a Cain in that sense. She lives Greed, but not Envy.

Unfortunately, Cathy mostly exists for the central men, the various Cains and Abels, to test themselves against. They triumph over her lure (or whatever) often enough to make that testing pretty uninteresting. And Steinbeck can’t resist punishing her with fading looks, arthritis, addiction – clearly he wants to contain the power he conjured.

More misfortune, there's no continuous portrait of a richly alive, flawed and struggling female character to counterpoint Cathy, though there are some vivid set-pieces with Hamilton mothers and sisters who mostly die tragically.

Abra's okay, I guess. I suppose Cathy is a sort of demoniac Lilith to Abra's fallen but warmly human Eve.

Cathy’s death scene does move me. I wish she'd been given something like that before she died, but maybe death is the only moment something like that could happen.

Human and Humane

Just right now – having only just set down East of Eden – I don’t feel called to announce to you, as at least three people have announced to me, that it's the most humane novel I've ever read.

I did live right in Cal's response to Lee – indignation (how dare you mock my self-punishment) and then realization that it is a gift to drop out of the fated, the grandiose, the doomed, and simply be human with human drives. There's even a hint of Blake in Lee's evaluation of Cal as energetic rather than evil.

So that I liked, but in the end Steinbeck's ethical imagination is pretty different from my own. The story of Cain and Abel is universal for him, and he almost talks me into it with the force of his writing, but in the end I am still more worried about failures to act than lapses into cruelty or envy. I feel those more fiery impulses, but I am more afraid of my apathy than my anger. Too much energy is not my problem.

It's very good, if not quite my cup of ethical struggle.

P.S. What are the Hamilton-Steinbecks even doing in this book? I kept expecting them to intersect more directly with the Trasks.

The Snow Ball, Brigid Brophy (1964)

This is a small book forged from dense, ravishing language. It doesn't really function like a story; it works like music, with motives and themes appearing, submerging, reappearing in new forms. (And motive, here, has a lovely double valence of character motivation and recurring image or idea – the cherub's face, the mint cream, sex and death.)

The book is like a small, ornately-carved case that, opened, reveals itself to be a music box and begins to play, with little dancers twirling inside – and then, when the music reaches its final crescendo, suddenly snaps shut, almost on your fingers.

When I arrived at the finale of the book, I thought: am I disappointed with this ending? It's abrupt and it's not what I wanted for these people, as people. Then suddenly I could see, dimly, back over the course of the novel, the way its central characters, while being wholly and recognizably human (and in fact specifically really quite 1960s British humans), each also embody Eros and Thanatos, in immortal-mortal dance. The book ends as music ends, in the meeting and resolution of themes, rather than as a narrative: and maybe there is something unsatisfying in the resolution of even the most perfect music, precisely because it works at the edge of signification but never enters in. To do this from the other side, to take the tools of narrative – image, dialogue, event – and make them function like music – is pretty astonishing.2

This is more my sort of thing than East of Eden -- scintillating, amoral, elliptical, strange.

The Snow Ball was my favorite recent encounter with art until I listened to S-Town and saw Legion, and now I think there must be so much good creative stuff in the world that my heart can’t contain it all.


1. I guess I mean not just the archetypal murderer but also the ones who lose out through some ordinary mistake, appetite, miscalculation, and the treachery of others.

2. Partly I get this musical stuff from knowing that Brophy was inspired by Mozart's Don Juan, and was a serious scholar of his music.

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