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East of Eden by John Steinbeck

One of my favorite books in the whole world is Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. It's a collection of essays about reading that perfectly expresses the numerous facets of literature that make my heart go kathunk-kathunk the way it does when the person you love walks into a room. In one of the essays, Fadiman explains her theory of "You-Are-There" reading, which is when you read a book in the actual place it's set, which she says really amplifies the experience. I don't do a lot of "you-are-there" reading. I just don't prepare well enough for it. But this Christmas, I made a conscious decision to read East of Eden in California; even though I never made it down to the Salinas Valley, where the events of the novel take place, I have been there before, and the valley just east of where my parents live, which I ended up traveling to and from about four times, is sort of similar to Salinas.

Rural California is an interesting place; it has a timeless quality that people hardly ever associate with California, because most people who have never been there, or have only been to places like LA and San Francisco, have a very Hollywoodified idea of the state that is almost completely incongruous with reality. To me, though, California is all rolling hills--green in the winter, brown in the summer--turning windmills, winding freeways and acres and acres of orchards and vineyards and garlic. My best friend drove up to the Bay Area from San Louis Obispo a few weeks ago and drove through King City, one of two towns featured extensively in East of Eden, "And it hasn't changed a bit since he wrote that book."

John Steinbeck considered East of Eden his masterpiece, and people have been arguing for decades which is better: it, or the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath. I've never read The Grapes of Wrath. I actually haven't read that much Steinbeck, to be honest, just the lit major standard "Chrysanthemums" and Travels With Charley, a memoir he wrote about driving around the US in an RV with his black standard poodle (the titular Charley), which was great, by the way. As a result I can't weigh in on this heavily debated topic, and so much the better. What I can say is that East of Eden was one of the best books I've read in a really long time. It's beautiful and thoughtful and heartbreaking and truthful and fearsome and hopeful, all at the same time.

On its surface, East of Eden is a book about family. Two families, in fact: the Hamiltons--numerous, Irish-Catholic, and poorer than the worthless dirt they call a farm, but rich in spirit and love largely due to their patriarch, the wise and soulful Samuel Hamliton--and the Trasks, who are the basic opposite of the Hamiltons in that their numbers are small and their members are mostly disconnected from each other for a wide variety of reasons. More simply, the story could be seen as a biography of Adam Trask, because it follows him throughout his entire life, but Steinbeck so deeply explores the lives that shoot off like tentacles from Adam's that it's more an ensemble show. With so many characters and routes to take, it's possible that a lesser author would lose him or herself in tangents, but Steinbeck's steady hands keep the story carefully in check, and while every character gets his or her proper due, there is never any danger of the narrative getting out of control. East of Eden is 600 pages long, but there is not a single extraneous sentence in it.

Adam Trask grows up lonely and badly nurtured in a family of four--his father, a Civil War veteran whose limited field experience has led to unlimited bragging, his stepmother, an unattractive and wordless basic provider, and his half-brother, Charles, who is only a year younger. Adam's relationship with Charles--bigger, stronger, angrier than himself--is fraught with love and terror, as Charles simultaneously protects and abuses Adam, mostly out of jealousy. Adam's father forces him into the army, where he spends ten years fighting wars he can't bring himself to care about. When he returns he is an orphan, both his stepmother and his father having died in his absence, and inherits half his father's estate, which is substantial. Charles inherits the other half and the two brothers live together for a while, until a young woman, battered by an unknown assailant within an inch of her life, arrives on their doorstep. Adam falls in love with her, marries her, and brings her out to California where he buys them a farm and tries to create for them a new life.

But Cathy, the new Mrs. Trask, is not all she seems. From the very moment she is introduced, far before Adam meets her, Steinbeck makes perfectly clear that Cathy is a monster, a manipulative sociopath whose only emotions are fear and apathy, and whose only drive is self-interest. Cathy was almost beaten to death by her pimp and from the moment she was rescued by the Trask brothers she devotes all her energy to securing her freedom once more. After giving birth to twin boys, she shoots Adam, devoted husband and new father, in the shoulder, runs off to Salinas and takes refuge in a brothel. Cathy is, in essence, the instigator of every major event and turning point in the novel, and we never get away from her for long. Not that you would want to--Cathy is by far the most fascinating character in East of Eden, and she is the magic mirror in which the truth about every other person who comes in contact with her is revealed.

East of Eden is, quite obviously, an interpretation of the Book of Genesis, specifically the Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel stories. The naming of the Trask twins brings a long discussion of these stories into the novel, when Adam, Samuel and Lee, Adam's brilliant Chinese manservant, consider naming the boys after the first sons of Man and Woman, but instead name them Caleb and Aaron, who later go by Cal and Aron. Cal and Aron quickly appear to take on the attributes of their would-be namesakes; Cal is bitter and jealous, but also possessed of a fierce love for his family, while Aron is beautiful and good, but also incredibly short-sighted and naive. The last third of the novel belongs to the boys as they grow up and fall in love and seek out their mysterious mother, who they long believed was dead.

There is no end to the layers East of Eden contains. The book is about love, hate, sin and forgiveness and redemption, free will and choice and consequence, beauty, wisdom, God's grace, good and evil and the spectrum that lies therein, nature versus nurture, need and want and desire, devastation and consolation, and so so so so SO much more. It's impossible to articulate everything that East of Eden can mean; it's the sort of book that offers you something new every time you read it. It takes on even more meaning when you realize that the person telling the story, providing the philosophical ruminations that guide it, is John Steinbeck himself, fictionalized and unnamed as narrator but featured as one of the many descendants of Samuel Hamilton. And people thought Jonathan Safran Foer was the first person to put himself front and center in a novel; at least Steinbeck did it with dignity and understatement.

The last word of the novel is timshel. I won't explain the context, because that would ruin the emotional effect of the scene, but the word is Hebrew for "thou mayest." At the end of the day, that is what East of Eden is about: freedom. Freedom to choose rightly or wrongly, freedom to love and freedom to hate, freedom to consecrate and freedom to desecrate. This is not to say that choice is easy, merely that it is there, for any man or woman strong enough to seize it and wise enough to know he or she will never master it.

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?

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  1. Blogger chris | 1:37 PM |  

    Always meant to read this. I love The Pearl and of course Of Mice And Men. Never had the chance for Grapes Of Wrath either. Add it to the pile for summer.

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