Thursday, 1 September 2016

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

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Oh sure, let's review East of Eden, and give my two cents on a classic. Well, actually, that's never stopped me before, and won't necessarily now. Also, this was a reread of East of Eden, and because I read it when I did, in concert with a couple of other books, there are a few comparisons I want to make.

It goes without saying that there is a damn reason this book is a classic. It's magnificent. It takes my breath away. The first time I read it, I felt stunned, and coming back to it after several years have passed, my reaction is almost as acute. One thing I was stunned by was that I'd forgotten one of my favourite characters in the intervening time - Lee, who he was and why I loved him, had completely gone out of my head.

When you first encounter him, it's cringeworthy - stereotypical Chinese broken English and I sighed, and though "Oh, Steinbeck." And then you find out more and more and it's hard not to love him.

There are two things that struck me this time for, I think, the first time. One is because I'm in the middle of reading a lot of books about children whose mothers have left - not just died, but left, either by deserting their husbands and children or by suicide. Put East of Eden right smack in the middle of Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, and A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews (as my reading list fell out), and you've got a row of intense punches to the gut about what being left behind does.

I'm not sure yet what exactly I have to say on the topic, but the haunting and long-term effects are strong, even as the Trask children in East of Eden do not initially know their mother left, thinking she died of natural causes, a much less complicated story for why she is not in their life. Adam Trask's wife shot him and left to become a madam in the next town, a much more cold-blooded act than in either of the other two books that have leaving mothers as a theme.

The way Steinbeck weaves this into his retelling of a Cain and Abel story is nuanced - it doesn't happen the way you sort of expect when you first get to know Trask's children. They are both given more agency than you might expect, not propelled along by fate. They are both responsible for their acts, and neither, in the long run, is the one who is good or evil.

The other thing that strikes me, particularly after reading Housekeeping, is about growing up in a single-gender household. Ruth and Lucille are surrounded by other women, Cal and Aron by men. In both cases, the loss of parents and grandparents has left them in homes that are no less homes because they are unusual, and I am struck at the portrayal of the family as it develops - particularly the once that Lee tries to leave and come back, realizing that he's spent a long time denying that his home was his home.

There are both fracture and wholeness in these homes, along with silences of things not being said or expressed that widen into cracks and lead to the inevitable playing out of ancient myths in California. I'm not sure what to do with any of these thoughts, but rereading East of Eden was a pleasure precisely because it did evoke thought and meaning.

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