Friday, March 15, 2013

Life, Vigor, and Independence: Reflections on Steinbeck's East of Eden

Me in Monterey--Steinbeck territory

Percy Lubbock, one of my favorite critics, contends that William Thackeray (author of number 3 on my list of all-time favorite novels, Vanity Fair) was a genius at creating a sweeping impression of life in a certain place at a certain time. However, according to Lubbock, he was an inept scenemaker.  Thackeray failed to create a scene and let it carry itself, even when the opportunity for one arose.  Here’s what Lubbock says:

It is as though he never quite trusted his men and women when he had to place things entirely in their care, standing aside to let them act; he wanted to intervene continually, he hesitated to leave them alone save for a brief and belated half-hour.  It was perverse of him, because the men and women would have acquitted themselves so strikingly with a better chance; he gave them life and vigour enough for much more independence than they ever enjoyed.

I believe the same critique could be applied to Steinbeck’s East of Eden.  I finished reading the book recently, and I’m still finishing his Journal of a Novel, the notes he kept while writing East of Eden. In these notes, he anticipates that people will criticize East of Eden for lacking form or intentional construction.  In fact, the novel is very carefully formed—Steinbeck limits himself to 1,000 words a day because he wants the novel to have a leisurely tone.  More than that, the diversions to the main plot of the Trask family—side stories of the Hamilton family and its members—are part of Steinbeck’s plan of allowing the book to represent life in the Salinas Valley.  He even considers titling the book My Valley to show that the book is bigger than just the Trask family.

None of these considerations, in my opinion, is the reason East of Eden ends up being a bit of a let-down. I appreciated the simple tone of a family history, or even, almost, of a Bible story; I liked the colorful episodes of Olive Steinbeck’s airplane ride or Tom and Dessie’s time together.  Novels are allowed to sprawl a little—or at least, should be allowed to, as long as the characters and episodes hold interest and contribute to the overall gestalt, as is the case here.  These little tangents do indeed help build a sense of the place and the people. 

East of Eden is a response to the Cain and Abel story, and not just a response—by which I mean, it takes the themes and emphasizes certain points, such as Steinbeck’s emphasis of “Thou mayest triumph over sin” as mankind’s ultimate hope and goal—but a re-enactment.  What I’m about to say could count as a plot spoiler, except that Steinbeck himself is so blatant about paralleling the Cain and Abel story, the main events were already spoiled for you back when Genesis was written. So, we know that the novel is going to boil down to the conflict between Adam (Adam!) Trask’s sons, Cal/Cain and Aron/Abel.  We’ve already been through this Cain and Abel conflict in the previous generation when Charles, Adam’s brother, tried to kill Adam because their father loved Adam but not Charles. 

It would be wrong not to acknowledge Steinbeck’s genius here.  He takes an old story, yes, but he particularizes the characters and the circumstances so well that within the novel we have a clear and vivid sense of not only the conflict and its causes but also how that conflict and its causes repeat themselves through generations.  That’s no small thing to capture, and Steinbeck certainly succeeds here.

But, because we already know the outcome of the Cain and Abel story, particularizing it is everything to the novel’s success.  However, when we get down to what should be the scene in which Cal reveals to Aron the truth of who their mother is, a truth that Cal knows will kill a part of Aron, we never get that scene!  We end up piecing that scene together, and even an image or two from it, but the scene is not presented as scene and allowed to stand on its own.  

As a writer, I know that intentional choice lies behind much of the work (I say much because there’s still that mysterious part when you over-write yourself and achieve more than you in your conscious efforts could ever have managed).  I also know that I should trust Steinbeck in East of Eden.  But where he has been successful in drawing nuanced and complex characters, especially in Cal and Aron, it is a let down of the sort Lubbock articulates when he says that the author gave them life and vigor enough for much more independence than they ever enjoyed.

Now, Steinbeck is not Thackeray.  Thackeray does indeed have a way of letting the narrator speak over his characters, and for them, quite blatantly.  In fact, that narratorial voice is his charm.  But Steinbeck has a similar tendency, if subtler, to speak for his characters in East of Eden.  I’m thinking of where he introduces Cathy, the Eve character, and prefaces it by a long section which begins “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents.” He even goes one farther than Thackeray by acknowledging the narrator is John Steinbeck’s own persona.  And so it seems to me that he, like Thackeray, falls into a trap of keeping his hand too carefully on his characters.  Steinbeck was out to reflect on the Cain and Abel story; even if he doesn’t intervene as continually as does Thackeray, he still fails to trust his characters enough—fails to leave things in their care and stand aside to let them act.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Insight, Not Information: Reflections on Sands Hall's Catching Heaven

Last August, in one of my follow-up posts to the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, I talked about Sands Hall, the novelist who led workshop the day my chapter was up for discussion.  She is one of those people that when you see her, you know instantly you’ve found someone intelligent and capable—and the more you get to know her, the more the impression proves true.  At Squaw Valley, she runs an “open workshop,” an afternoon session in which writers read a page or two of their prose out loud, and then Sands leads discussion of it.  I never got to attend one of these sessions, since I was busy with another workshop in that time slot, but I heard they were great.  What made Sands so good a workshop leader in the normal workshop format (where writing is distributed and read in advance) was her wisdom in trusting the writer’s intent and guiding the discussion towards how to improve upon that intent, rather than letting the workshop group dither on about how to change things in ways the author might not want.  My case in point: Sands trusted that my use of a third-person narrator outside of the characters was intentional, and she asked for the workshop to discuss where it was working and where it needed a tune-up, rather than let people talk on about how I should get rid of it.

So, when you find an intelligent, capable novelist, you naturally want to read her work.  Which is what I did some months ago when I treated myself to Catching Heaven by Sands Hall.

It is the story of two sisters, both artists in their way, but Maud is the truly artistic spirit.  She is a searcher and sojourner whose heart has been broken by the crass selling-out Hollywood requires but who remains steadfast in her love of Shakespeare and the life-changing transport she believes acting can be.  Lizzie, a painter, expresses her creativity not simply through her paintings but also through her family life.  She has three children, and while her difficulty in committing to a husband provides much of the book’s conflict, her life is yet the more stayed version of family and job that Maud lacks.  The chapters rotate among the third-person limited perspectives of Maud, Lizzie, and Jake, the father of Lizzie’s most recent child, and while all three characters are intertwined and important, Maud comes through, in my opinion, as the real interest of the story.  Her presence is so clearly rendered, not just through her own sections but in other sections where Lizzie’s children look to her as the cool aunt or where Jake encounters her in a restaurant and feels drawn to her free-spirited, but sad, aura.

Not long ago, I came across the very simple but very true observation that, when it comes to character, information does not equal insight.  Lesser novelists have a tendency to heap on information, thinking it makes their character interesting and quirky if they tell that the character eats ketchup on her scrambled eggs or likes the color blue.  But these things alone don’t add up to any sense of vision.  Consider instead how Flaubert, say, in Madame Bovary makes Emma’s love of Paris not just part of her likes and dislikes, but a key to her psyche.  She takes this city that she has never visited and builds it up into something grand and beautiful, romanticizing it to the point that it becomes another vehicle through which her own provincial life becomes intolerable to her—dull, boring, mundane.  Thus, it’s not information that she orders magazines about Paris life; it’s insight, down to the very frivolity and desire for novelty implied by a light periodical.    

As I mentioned, I read Catching Heaven a few months ago.  The piece of it that stuck with me the most and that will continue to stay with me is Maud’s love of Shakespeare.  This isn’t just the cheap laying on of information; instead, Hall uses Shakespeare to shape Maud’s very being. Shakespeare provides the key to Maud’s depth of feeling and the lens through which she views the world, thereby becoming an animating feature of both the character and the novel itself.  To my mind, this is the real achievement of Catching Heaven, and one with a lovely side effect: it will make you want to revisit Shakespeare for yourself.

Speaking of the line between information and insight, perhaps the best information I could give to offer a sense of Sands Hall herself is this—when introducing herself, Sands said, “Sands, like sands of time.”  Of course.  Not “shifting sands” or “sands like the beach,” but “sands of time,” with all its ring of sagacity.