Tuesday, July 26, 2011

East of Eden

By John Steinbeck

Five Things I Liked About East of Eden:
1. Timshel
2. The slow build
3. Rich and detailed storytelling
4. Evenhanded and thorough characterization
5. Carefully constructed relationships

Steinbeck and I go way back. In 8th grade I read The Pearl and Of Mice and Men, joining my classmates in the thoughtless dismissal of literature a bit beyond our years. When I was a junior in high school, I stayed up later than I ever have before or since to finish a scrapbook-style book report on The Grapes of Wrath (which I managed to like in spite of the indignant loathing inspired by the assignment). East of Eden is the first Steinbeck I’ve read of my own accord which, to be honest, might have as much to do with the fact that this is now my favorite of his works as the novel’s own (prodigious) merit does. Anyone who’s ever been a middle and high school student knows how easy it is to dislike books assigned for class by default, on principle*. Which is a shame, really. Think how many people are wandering around with grudges against perfectly good books simply because they were forced to read them at a formative and obstinate age by teachers who didn’t know how to inspire the right kind of enthusiasm.

But I digress.

If you were to sum up East of Eden in one word, it would be this: Timshel, which means “thou mayest” in Hebrew, and in the novel signifies a man’s freewill to choose between good and evil. East of Eden is laden with biblical imagery (which ought not surprise you, considering the title), but most ubiquitous are the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, and the question they pose regarding inherited sin – whether it is an inescapable burden or a birthright to either accept or struggle to throw off. Though there are certainly good and evil characters in East of Eden, the categorization is never so simple and definitive. Every character has good in them, and every character has evil. It’s just a question of the resistance (or lack thereof) involved.

More words to describe East of Eden: gripping, powerful, sweeping, moving.

East of Eden follows several generations of two families – the Trask’s and the Hamilton’s – settled in the Salinas Valley in California, as narrated by a member of the (then) modern generation, who I presumed to be John himself. Whether it is or not doesn’t really matter all that much, however, as most of the attention is given to the first three generations: the patriarchs Cyrus Trask and Samuel Hamilton, their children – the two sons of Cyrus (Adam and Charles) and the Hamilton brood – and their children’s children, mostly Adam’s twin sons Aron and Caleb. The story’s heart is Timshel and the age-old conflict between good and evil, and its outward trappings are the conflicts that arise between and within the two families**. Steinbeck’s knack for portraying the minutia of relationships is one of my favorite talents of his. The subtleties of filial, romantic, and platonic love in East of Eden are carefully and poignantly drawn.

I loved just about everything about this story, but a couple more particulars: I loved the way he built the beginning of the story, introducing various seemingly disconnected characters individually before slowly revealing their connections. In a way, you could say that he creates his own particular brand of suspense, furthered by the fact that the story kept me guessing to the very last page, when the full reality and significance of events built throughout the novel slowly but surely sank in. I was also surprised by just how readable East of Eden is for such a dauntingly sizable book. Once you really get going on it, twenty-five pages go by like nothing. It is an easy read both from the standpoint of being much less dense than you might expect, and from being much more engaging than you might expect.

I feel like for all that it is considered a staple Great American Novel, not that many people have actually read East of Eden. I’d guess they take one look at its spine and assume that it is 1) boring and 2) long and boring. And now that I’ve read it, to me that’s a great pity. I think a lot of people would be pleasantly surprised – both by the book and by themselves – if they just gave it a chance.

Books Read This Year: 58
Top 100 Progress***: 46/100

*In fact, I only remember ever really enjoying a handful of books I had to read for school: And Then There Were None, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, Hamlet, The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath.
**I know that’s kind of vague, but with books this big it’s actually quite hard to define a single specific conflict.
***How is this not on the Top 100 list? I think this will be one of the few times I will ever say this, but: Stupid BBC and their blatant anglophilia.

1 comment:

  1. Great new look! And, great review, of course.