When two of your best friends recommend the same book in casual conversation within a week of each other, you gotta read it. If only to keep up with the conversation. Today I'm reviewing for my book-of-the-month of April: East of Eden by John Steinbeck, and to summarize my feelings, I think it should be re-titled: East of F!#@&ing Awesome.
East of Eden is about two families in a small California river valley called Salinas who live around-abouts the turn of the century (1900's) and it follows a couple generations of their bad choices and consequences. The Hamiltons and the Trasks. The Hamiltons are a good family of well-meaning folk characterized predominantly by Samuel Hamilton, the patriarch, who despite his intelligence and self-sacrificing friendliness seems always to suffer economic failure. This contrasts with the Trasks, who seem to have monetary success thrust upon them without explanation, but who suffer personal inter-relational shortcomings at literally every turn. To be quite honest, the story is really just about the Trasks, and really just about one of them, Adam Trask in particular, and everything else is just digressions and subplots that orbit around him anyway. The Hamiltons function more like a mirror to contrast with the Trasks and occasionally bounce off them (since Steinbeck himself is a descendant of the Hamiltons in real life, but I'll get to that later). Adam is the real star of the novel and we spend the first half following his coming of age as a boy, alongside his abusive brother Charles, his fraud of a father, and his con-artist sociopathic whore of a wife Cathy. The second half of the novel switches Adam from the role of child to that of father and we begin to follow his own two sons Cal and Aron who appear to follow in the same abusive dynamic inherited from Adam and Charles.
Steinbeck makes no subtlety about his recurring theme of Cain and Abel. Not only is the title itself a callback to the Book of Genesis (only verses after Cain kills his brother and leaves Eden to settle -- you guessed it -- just off to the East) but the characters within the story discuss quite overtly the topic of Cain and Abel as it applies directly to themselves and their children. Both Adam and his brother Charles as well as Adam's twin sons Cal and Aron fall into competitive relationships with each other vying for their fathers' seemingly inexplicable preferences. Cal and Aron are even almost named Cain and Abel specifically during one discussion, but like Adam and Charles before them, the alliterative power of the first letters of their names is more than sufficient to get the point across. And just in case you missed the obvious, the dust jacket of my particular version even spells out this very theme so I don't possibly miss it (the Steinbeck Centennial Edition if you're wondering -- which I don't recommend due to the numerous typos that should not appear in a 65 year-old reprint. For shame Penguin Publishing! For shame!).
And then the iconic murder. Everyone knows Cain killed Abel. Every reader can distinguish which characters are supposed to be which in this story. You expect it. You anticipate it at every turn. When will one of them kill the other? Could this be it?! In making the metaphor so obvious Steinbeck has played you against yourself, turning every plot point into a suspenseful development. But the murders never come. In their place Steinbeck constructs a beautiful new layer to his metaphor. The "death" is figurative. Adam for example, after a near-death beating from his brother, survives and reluctantly joins the Army and essentially "dies" there, coming out a new man. Or at least, the pieces of a man which never quite coalesce back to a whole until nearly the end of the novel (if even then.) In the case of his twin sons, their murder is likewise subverted. We have a new complication of never being sure which is which; Steinbeck throws us for a loop when the "nice" one turns kinda dark and the "evil" one becomes more mature, defying their archetypes. And instead of a violent confrontation, there is instead something more akin to a wild revelation when the one worldly brother reveals to his naive and religious twin the circumstances of their mother's whoredom and he abruptly joins the Army -- in wartime no less -- and is never seen again (WWI had that effect). You see, the stories told within this novel are only like Cain and Abel, and as an allegory, don't completely follow the rules. The reality is that while resembling the Genesis tragedy imperfectly, they manage to resemble real life -- that is: us and our stories -- more perfectly.
But the real theme is not about "Cain and Abel" as such. That's little more than a plot contrivance or a structural template at best. The real theme is "timshel", the Hebrew word for "thou mayest", which serves as the cornerstone of a riveting theo-linguistic discussion at the half-way point and which contextualizes the novel as a whole. You see, After Cain killed Abel, he had a strange little discussion with God. God warns him, "Sin is crouching at the door, but you shall overcome it." Except the word "shall", as it is rendered in the King James Version popular at the time, may be incorrect. As Steinbeck observes, this phrasing gives the false impression of inevitability, or predestination. That as sin crouches at the door, success and victory are guaranteed. It's a reassurance. Except it's incorrect. More modern translations render it as "must". Which suggests something more akin to: as sin crouches at the door, you must try to overcome over it. Fight it. It's a command. But this is also incorrect, according to Steinbeck. The correct translation of the Hebrew is more like "thou mayest" or "you may" which gives the connotation that while sin crouches at the door, you may overcome it. It's not a guarantee or a command, but a choice that you must make. If you don't chose to overcome it, then of course you won't. But if you do chose to overcome it, success is in fact possible. Sin is merely a temptation which we will inevitably face throughout our lives, and how we choose to respond to it is up to us. Will we yield to it? Will we resist it? He is reminding Cain that he still has a choice. He's not destined for inevitable good or evil because of his one-time lapse in character. He's not stuck.
This is the central conflict. Every character wrestles with their nature. They feel a force inside pulling them in certain directions and for the vast majority of the novel, they give in to these tendencies. They don't feel they have a choice. They feel they can't help themselves. Mostly because they've succumbed to their darker nature in the past already. They tragically fear they are doomed to succumb forever. And for the most part they do, they repeat their behavior over and over again, hurting their siblings, their family, their children and themselves. We're told Cathy is evil and so she does evil things to people for no apparent reason, over and over. Charles is abusive to Adam and he repeats that abuse year after year. Adam is just as naive and oblivious with his father as he is with Cathy after him, and and again with his two sons. And we're given every reason when we meet Cal and Aron and their girlfriend Abra that those three will fall into all the same archetypes of their forebears. But in one of the most heartbreaking moments of the novel, Cal begins to become aware of his repeatedly malicious treatment toward his brother and begs God "Please make me be good...Don't make me be mean." By this point in the story, we're honestly not sure if such a thing is possible. We've already spent over a hundred pages watching Cal spiral toward evil and several more hundred pages watching not one single other character ever break free of their nature. But this is Steinbeck's greatest trick.
Show AND Tell. While most writers are beat over the head with the notion of "Show, Don't Tell" Steinbeck dances beautifully between them, doing both with great sophistication. When we meet Cathy, he tells us she is evil from the get-go. Then he shows us all the ways that she is evil throughout the narrative and she lives up to her label at every turn. Any lesser writer would spell out their character's defining feature and then forget to actually demonstrate it adequately (this is called the Worf-effect in... some... circles. Worf is the Klingon warrior on the Starship Enterprise, but throughout The Next Generation, he is easily defeated at every turn to instead demonstrate the danger of this week's alien threat. We're told how tough he is, but rarely see it in action... Until Deep Space Nine... Sorry! Topic for a different blog post...!). Better writers would simply omit the superficial descriptions altogether and let the reader figure out what kind of character they're reading. Steinbeck does both, but uses our foreknowledge against us, tricking us into interpreting the text and reading into every scene implications and suspense that would've otherwise gone unnoticed. Like if I told you you were watching a murder mystery with a crazy person in it, you'd examine each character's choices to try to guess who is crazy and whether they're the murderer. When Cal and Abra say they have badness bred within them, we expect it to be true. But it doesn't have to be. They have a choice and in the end, they take it. No one is locked in unless they believe themselves to be locked in.
East of Eden is Steinbeck's self-proclaimed magnum opus. It's one of his later works in which he claims to have drawn upon every category of skill he had developed as a writer across his career. Mostly he draws upon family history and the stories they told of their time settling where they did in California. Once or twice throughout the story he makes a few subtle references to the Steinbeck who married one of the Hamilton girls who became his mother. He even writes himself into a few small scenes, mostly in the background as a child. And even though the narrative voice is strong enough to be called his own natural authorial voice, and he uses a few personal pronouns like "I" and "we", he still refers to little John Steinbeck in the third person like any of the other characters in the story. It's either a way of indicating the fictionalization of the truth, as if these are things he didn't actually do or witness, or it's some kind of pretentious literary thing. It felt like a Stan Lee cameo in a Marvel movie. It's not clear how much of this book is real life and how much is fiction, but I doubt you'll find many people who have read it from front to back who still care. The book may not be about true events but it is undeniably a true story. It is a story that speaks to the truth of our human nature and, give or take a few circumstantial details, it is as much a story about me or you as it is about some distant relatives of Steinbeck's. If you are a father, or a son, or especially a father of sons, then I imagine this story will be so full of truth it will shake you to your core and leave you lying nervously in bed at night, praying for your children. Praying perhaps for yourself. Reflecting on your nature, your heritage, and the blood you pass on, good and bad.
Conclusion: Who am I to give Steinbeck 5 out of 5 stars? He can have 6! One of the greatest pieces of writing I have ever read, a truly modern, human and American literary epic. The writing is plain and down to earth. The content is accessible. The depths and complexities he wrestles with could give any philosopher something to chew on, without ever leaving the layman behind. There are great literary works which remain completely unreadable to the common man, and their secret wisdom might as well be locked in a vault for all it contributes to society. And there are children's stories anyone can read with a blindfold but which remain vapid and empty of value. East of Eden is for everyone, and its genius is the kind that all readers will grasp and recognize yet still find challenging. More than most, this is the kind of book everyone should really be reading in school.