‘Oh strawberries don’t taste like they used to and the thighs of women have lost their clutch!’ A Love Letter to Steinbeck’s ‘East of Eden’

‘East of Eden’ is really old and is hardly ‘The Sixth Sense.’ So I am going to liberally sprinkle this with spoilers. Really, how likely are you to read this book if you haven’t already? Having said that, it is epic in both senses of the word so you probably should.

Here is my shocking confession. Forgive me, Mr Steinbeck, for I have sinned. I don’t actually like ‘Of Mice and Men.’ Yes, it’s emotionally affecting; yes, it’s a really good text to teach in a hurry and isn’t that hard to understand; yes, it is good when Curley’s hand gets crushed. But, my god, isn’t it really boring and repetitive? The first time I taught it, everything was fine. We were at least halfway through before the phrase ‘animal imagery’ began to make us want to die. But subsequent experiences of ploughing through George and Lennie and the bloody rabbits have left me cold. Apparently, Steinbeck left the first manuscript of ‘Of Mice and Men’ in the house with a puppy and came home to find it destroyed. I have two theories here: the first is that this puppy was very intelligent, read the book and thought, ‘mate, nobody wants to read this many adverbs.’ The second is that this first draft was 800 pages long and included – I’m just guessing here – character development and maybe more than one woman, but, upon discovering the naughty puppy’s exploits, Steinbeck couldn’t be arsed rewriting the whole thing and knocked the version we all know and love out in about an hour. I do not shed any tears for the removal of ‘Of Mice and Men’ from the GCSE syllabus. There are only so many times you can say ‘and this is like the Great Depression’ before you start to experience one yourself.

However, I vividly remember enjoying ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ as a teenager (before I put myself through 100 pages of ‘I’ve got you and you’ve got me, Lennie’ – incidentally, does anyone else find themselves doing the moves to S Club 7’s ‘Reach’ while reading ‘Of Mice and Men’?) and recently developed a weird urge to read something by Steinbeck that would restore my faith.

And ‘East of Eden’ certainly did that. It is difficult to truly express how good bits of this novel are. My enjoyment can be essentially summed up in two words: Cathy Ames. I became obsessed with her before Steinbeck had even revealed her name; the chapter in which she is introduced begins, ‘I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents’ and this precedes a wordy but compelling discussion of what makes a human a monster. We are told, ‘there was a time when a girl like Cathy would have been called possessed by the devil;’ okay, it’s not exactly ambiguous, but, when Steinbeck compares her to a witch, he doesn’t disappoint. Cathy’s crimes range throughout the novel: the murder of her parents; the deliberate entrapment of Adam Trask, prior to marrying him then shooting him and leaving him to care for the twin boys, who, incidentally, are probably his brother’s sons anyway; the kind of manipulation of the elderly which you might see being decried by Dominic Littlewood on BBC daytime classic ‘Saints and Scroungers’, before torturing and killing her victim, then assuming control of her brothel… Cathy really is a busy bee. Critics complain about the lack of ambiguity in Steinbeck’s presentation of Cathy, but is it really so important for a character to show shades of grey? And, in any case, Cathy is a more complex character than the out-and-out monster she initially seems. There are question marks over the veracity of stories of her childhood promiscuity and there can be no doubt that her final moments in the novel see her tortured by fear and doubt – albeit fear that someone will discover her crimes, rather than fear that they make her a bad person. Cathy knows she’s bad and she doesn’t care; in fact, she loves it. Her horrors are perpetrated sober, too; a girl after my own heart, Cathy cannot handle her drink and suffers from serious lack of filter with a bit of bubbly inside her. Let this be a lesson to all those who try to force me to drink instead of just leaving me alone with my tap water…

For me, ‘East of Eden’ came alive when Cathy was introduced, but what precedes her first appearance is compelling too. Cyrus Trask and his venereal disease (a recurring theme throughout, it must be said); the tragic way in which Steinbeck describes his first wife’s puddle-based suicide (also a consequence of venereal disease); the rivalry between Cyrus’ two sons (unless it was very subtle, there was no venereal disease here) – it makes for a more fascinating start than the first few pages of ‘here are some mountains…here is a tree…ooh, another mountain’ would suggest. Cyrus and his sons – Adam and Charles – are all intriguing and rounded characters whose actions resonate throughout the novel; it is, perhaps, a shame that it is Adam who survives the longest as he is slightly dull, but in a nice way. Sort of like Gary Lineker but obsessed with lettuce instead of crisps.

I’ve mentioned the lack of subtlety on show and that is something that provides a slight irritation at the beginning and end of the novel. I suppose you can hardly be surprised that, with a title like ‘East of Eden,’ Steinbeck wants his reader to draw some religious parallels. As with the itinerant workers of ‘Of Mice and Men,’ a large number of the men here seem obsessed with living off ‘the fatta the lan’,’ attempting to create their own Eden in the Salinas Valley. Even with my highly limited knowledge of the Bible (apparently Steinbeck’s favourite book – it’s okay, they didn’t have ‘Fever Pitch’ then), I clocked onto the fact that the brothers who appeared to hate each other and their names (Adam and Charles, Aron and Cal) were probably an oblique reference to Cain and Abel. Although none of them actually kill each other, there is at least one nasty attempt. The relationships between siblings, fathers and sons, father figures and surrogate sons form the background of the novel and this does give rise to some nice moments. Quite partial to a literary family saga, I enjoyed this aspect of ‘East of Eden.’ It would be nice if mothers and sisters were given something more interesting to do than just dying, but I suppose you can’t have everything.

Dying is something that happens a lot in the novel. In fairness, it is very long, takes place over a lengthy period of time and there are a lot of characters. But it did feel like all that happened in the last 100 pages was people getting letters to tell them someone had died. Sometimes variety is provided through the use of a telegram instead, and that added some real excitement.

My only real moan about ‘East of Eden’ is Lee, who is a particularly annoying character who somehow becomes really integral to everyone’s lives in the last third of the novel, thanks to his position as house-keeper, au pair and all-round pain in the arse in Adam’s household. He is the literary equivalent of that person who corners you at work to tell you they’ve just sent you an email and then tells you at length what’s in the email. I basically wanted to reach into the narrative, grab him by his feet and drag him out to poke him in the eye and tell him to shut up. He seems to spend about half the book having deep, ponderous conversations about the use of one word in the Bible; the word is ‘timshel,’ in case you’re wondering, and the only effect this had on me was to make me think about a really dull Mumford and Sons song, which is probably not the effect Steinbeck had in mind. At one point, Lee starts an anecdote with the words, ‘I’ll keep it very short,’ and then is still talking a week and a half later. You could watch ‘Django Unchained’ twice in the time it takes him to tell this story. Okay, it’s a fairly dramatic story of how his mother had to pretend to be a man while pregnant and how this ended in a particularly horrible way. But by this point, you do wish someone had sent one of those telegrams I mentioned about him rather than any of the more interesting and less verbose characters.

Although nearly everything in the novel is basically amazing – apart from Lee, obviously – it is almost a shame it isn’t a bit shorter. Generations of children have probably read ‘Of Mice and Men’ and then never felt inclined to read anything else by Steinbeck, but ‘East of Eden’ offers far more varied plotline, an actual fully-realised female character who does more than just wear red and talk about being in ‘pitchers’ and some exquisite language which I would have enjoyed unpicking far more than Lennie having paws. As an example, Samuel – someone else who never seems to shut up but makes up for it by referencing ‘Othello’ despite being a presumably quite uneducated farmer (now, there’s a well-rounded character) – benefits from the following description: ‘places were important to Samuel. The ranch was a relative, and when he left it he plunged a knife into a darling.’ How glorious is that? It certainly beats George speaking sharply for the millionth time.

Sigh. I want to read all the bits about Cathy again now. Except for the part where she uses a knitting needle for something that it clearly wasn’t designed for and Steinbeck sees fit to use a word I never needed to see in writing and which would mean I could never teach this novel anyway.

I see now that this discussion of ‘East of Eden’ is nearly as long as actual ‘East of Eden.’ So I’ll let Steinbeck sum it up himself, cannily placing this novel in the pantheon of all literature: ‘we have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.’

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