Wednesday, October 21, 2009

East of Eden: Part 1

First of all I think I should start this blog by mentioning that the picture you see below is printed on the back of the book. When I first saw it, I turned to the inside pages and read that the Latin inscription means "To the Stars on the Wings of a Pig" and that John Steinbeck described himself as a "lumbering soul, but trying to fly." Immediately I loved this, and considered it as a tattoo idea. I could only hope that I would like Steinbeck's work, so that the tattoo would be justifiable. Now that I'm 400 pages in, it seems like an even better idea.

Holy shit this book is good.
But it's really long.

I don't know if I could ever write a really long book because I have been trained to have such a focused story-line structure. Most ideas I come up with would best be represented by about 300 pages, or the equivalent of a two hour movie. I think I know why this is, too. It's because I read more short books than long books (because I find them to be easier to digest in a short period of time, and I find that more gratifying) and I've watched way more movies than I've read books.

Don't get me wrong, I've read a lot of books. I'm actually somewhat amazed by how much my reading history weighs whenever I have to pack it up and move it around. What if that's how people talked about how well read they were? What if it was totally normal for me to say, "I like to read, I've read about 1,000 lbs of books." You'd be like, damn, that's pretty heavy, he must be a smart guy. And you'd be right.

I think the reason East of Eden gets away with weighing eight pounds is that it spans a really long amount of time and chronicles the lives of many protagonists, who you stay with for 50-100 pages each and then leave. Multiple protagonists really appeal to me (like Megamorphs, that shit was awesome) and I really like books that give me as many perspectives as possible. As I Lay Dying is a great example of that. The reader gets about 40 different first-person narrators over the span of like 250 pages (roughly two pounds.) East of Eden isn't exactly like that, though. You have John Steinbeck (narrating as himself, which I think is at once strange and incredibly cool) looking back on what I assume is a fictional account of his family history. He is hardly in the book at all as a character so far, and when he does show up he's just a kid. Mostly the story of his family history focuses on his grandfather, his eight aunts and uncles and the Trask family.
Now, I haven't got all the meaning of Steinbeck's lineage worked out, and it might not be too exciting to read about anyways if you haven't read the book, so I won't bother with that. What I will bother with is the Trask family.

East of Eden is, as the title may hint towards, a retelling of the book of Genisis. As time in the story progresses, the roles to be played are shifted, which I think is a really interesting concept. Say a man's purpose in the story is to represent God. When he gets old and dies, that's a big deal, but the story still has hundreds of pages left, and it moves on. Then it finds another God figure. The same goes for the characters that represent Cain and Able. Charlie and Adam Trask at first represent Cain and Able, down to the character traits and Cain's marked forehead. After Charlie dies, it's Adam's sons Aron and Cal who continue on the legacy, and it seems that the family is doomed to repeat this pattern. There are, of course, Adam and Eve characters as well, and a lot more stuff I'm sure I'm missing because one book I haven't read is the Bible. That's probably like an 18 pounder, if it's printed on normal paper and not that impossibly thin stuff I always see it on.

One thing about writers, they love to read. And reading does things to a writer. Obviously it makes them better, as it conditions them to an amazing use of language, but it also infests them with epic greatness. T.S. Eliot said something to this affect: Not only can you stand on the shoulders of giants as a writer, but you should. In fact, you must.
That's not really very close to what he said, but it's the idea. In this field it's important to understand your background. It's important to understand the greats, and it's important to draw on that greatness and use it to your advantage. I can't name a single person more avid about this than Eliot, who name-dropped Shakespeare tragedies and characters from the Bible like it was going out of style. But he was good, that's the point. It works. As Steinbeck says in East of Eden, "I believe mankind only has one story." And that story is the classic retelling of good vs. evil. So what makes you think you can make up a brand new story, when really all anybody wants is to see conflict and conflict resolution, the clean, hard questions as Steinbeck puts it. The great stories are told, you can't invent them, you have to make them your own. You have to embrace the giants, stand on their shoulders, and make them into something unique.

Note: I might not do a part two of East of Eden if I feel like I've rambled all I can ramble. If the ending is awesome I'll let you know.

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