Wednesday, April 6, 2011

East of Eden: Adventures in Twincest

     There's this thing in literature called the allegory. Sometimes, people accidentally call it a parable, or an extended metaphor, but the idea is basically the same: the story represents, with symmetrical symbolism, a different story. It's a classic criss-cross. The allegory is really the one literary technique that could easily have been invented by Danny DeVito in Throw Mama From a Train.

     Anyhow, John Steinbeck made the allegory his bitch with East of Eden, a loving tale of brothers, whores, and crushing Irish-Catholic guilt. The thing with this book is, it's kind of predictable. It's heavy on obvious themes and motifs. It is because of this that every high school in America forces its children to read this novel instead of something a little bit more, say, interesting.
     We start out with a description of Salinas, and how li'l Johnny Steinbeck always loved the west and feared the east (ohhhh dang, there's the title.) Next, we go to the East Coast, and get introduced to Adam Trask. Or, more precisely, to his father. And his mother, who drowned herself in a shallow puddle. His father got crabs (if I remember correctly) in the army, and constantly pressured Adam and his half-brother Charles. Adam loves the woman who raises him -- Charles' mother -- but she, and everybody else, adores Charles.
FIRST OVERWHELMING THEME: Younger brothers are kind of evil.
     Charles is a bad seed. We are meant to see him as a bad seed, and Adam as the poor, victimized fuck he is. After joining the army (which kind of sucks), Adam becomes a farmer. Charles becomes a drunk. They fight, and Adam winds up in a ditch. Later, they're living together, and a dirty-looking girl comes up. Adam falls for her, Charles does her, and Adam marries her. But what neither of them realize is...
SECOND OVERWHELMING THEME: Women are bad, bad, bad.
     Cathy is just a crazy psycho-bitch. She loves Alice in Wonderland because she wants to grow so small that she'll disappear. She's odd and beautiful and very, very sexually mature for a young girl. She's also kind of a sociopath.

Granted, if you watch this video enough, you probably will start sticking needles in your uterus, too.

     And it's really easy to hate Cathy, because, even though it wasn't proved, any pre-teen who can fake her own rape is probably capable of starting the fire that destroys her house and entire family. That is, if she really did start the fire.

This guy sure did.
     Basically, the girl is a keeper. She moves out to California with Adam, her husband, and they meet up with Sam Hamilton. And when Cathy finds herself knocked up (with probably Adam's kid, but maybe Charles' -- it's kind of unclear), she stabs her stomach with a needle.
     Sam Hamilton is John Steinbeck's grandfather. (It gets weird from here. If you hated The Hours, this is going to drive you insane.) Steinbeck switches off chapters between Adam's life -- his wife leaving, him being stuck with twin sons, him hiring a servant named Lee who starts out as a stereotypical submissive Chinese man and ends up as a stereotypical wise Chinese man -- and about Sam's life. Sam is  an Irish immigrant with a shady past, a mean Catholic wife, and a lot of kids. He's kind of the heart of Salinas, and the towns around Salinas. Naming Adam's sons is up to Adam, Sam, and Lee. And to do that, they resort to...
THIRD OVERWHELMING THEME: What the Bible can't answer, the Chinese can.
     The three men have a little male bonding over the Book of Genesis. Apparently, Lee is friends with a group of Chinese-Americans who speak fluent Hebrew and have carefully studied Genesis for nearly twenty years. Lee then describes the one problem he's had in decoding scripture: the word timshel, which means "thou may" -- as in, "Thou may conquer sin," not "thou shall" (connotating that the conquering of sin is an order), nor "thou will" (making it seem as though conquering sin is fated.) Although it seems a little early to get to, this leads me to
     The twins -- Aron and Cal, with Aron being the pretty blond elder one and Cal being the dark moody one -- live out the idea that fate, and personality, and whatever, are achieved, not innate. A lot actually does happen: there's something with Adam trying to sell lettuce, Cal makes money growing beans, Aron dates this girl named Abra and then falls kind of in love for a preacher, Cal finds out that his mama is a madam (and also an opium addict! fun!). When Adam refuses to accept the money Cal earned growing beans, Cal shows his brother their mother's true colors, Aron joins the army, Cal gets with Abra,  Aron dies, then Adam has a stroke and everyone sits around and watches. And Lee keeps telling Cal that he won't be evil like his mother, and Cathy keeps telling Cal that he will be, and Cal keeps telling Cal that he is one confused boy. Aron is kind of a little shit. He's all glossy and perfect. But Cal -- oh, Cal. He's got that James Dean thing going on (probably because he was played by James Dean in the movie.) Ultimately, though, Cal is at peace with his father, and with his brother, and Steinbeck is at peace with his family.
FIFTH OVERWHELMING THEME: Redemption and absolution feel mighty nice.
     So there you have it. A 700+ page rant on Salinas, prostitutes, and lettuce. Except, it isn't. It's really an allegorical re-telling of the Book of Genesis. Now you have to read through the whole book matching up characters until the story sounds right on both accounts. Have fun.

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