Friday, May 15, 2009

Desert Island Novel to Read and Read and Read Again # 5: John Steinbeck's "East of Eden"

[For Desert Island books to read and read and read again #4 click Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls"]

I usually love writers with an especially strong sense of style. Previous inductees into the The Desert Island Rereading list (masters Murakami, Salinger and Roy) have it in spades. Though there is of course no lack of lyrical prose-poetic moments in all of Steinbeck's great works, this is not why John Steinbeck's East of Eden is one of the best books ever.

I'm lugging the six-hundred plus page tome to the island because, like a Bernard Hermann score (Psycho, Citizen Kane) or a Lasse Hallstram movie (Cider House Rules, Chocolat), there is next to no ego in the last book John Steinbeck ever wrote. You finish East of Eden and you remember the characters not the writer. You remember Lee, who is so selfless and good and wise; you remember the two sets of brothers, Adam and Charles, and Cal and Aron; and with a series of spinal shudders you find you cannot forget Cathy (or Catherine) who has to go down as one of the most sinister - and interesting - characters in all fiction.

No tricks, no overly clever plot-twists or wordplays, this is just a straight-ahead, old-fashioned, fascinating story about the greatest biblical theme of them all: people's struggle with good and evil. But that's not all. It's so much more than that. [Ok, nerdy confession time:] I drew up a list of all the great themes East of Eden covers but have since scrapped it because Steinbeck does precisely that in the book's appropriately humble epigraph, delivered as a simple letter to a dear friend:

Dear Pat,
You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said, "Why don't you make something for me?"
I asked you what you wanted, and you said, "A box."
"What for?"
"To put things in."
"What things?"
"Whatever you have," you said.
Well, here's your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts - the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.
And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.
And still the box is not full.
John


What more need be said?  

[Click Ernest Hemingway's "Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises" for Desert Island Books to read and read and read again #6]

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