April 26, 2009

Book 17: Cannery Row

Cannery Row
John Steinbeck

With the knowledge that it is set in roughly the same area as Tortilla Flat, I decided to read this just after the former, and the similiarities in theme and constructino are abundant, though the setting differs somewhat and the characters are again vibrant and unique. Cannery Row is, like its predecessor, a kind of expository meditation on the value of eschewing traditional monetary systems for trade in kindness and friendship, with a bit of theft thrown in for good measure. Steinbeck treads the line between presenting an idyllic vision of comraderie and noting that his protagonists must steal just to survive, but he rarely condemns their actions, presenting them instead as a result of a carefully considered moral code. Mack, the leader of a group of nearly homeless ne'er-do-wells, is by most accounts a good and intelligent man who operates quite well inthe sometimes-underhanded business of everyday survival. He and Doc, the novel's other main character and a man operating in more mainstream circles of economics, form the basic duo whose exploits are of interest to the reader, and they are contrasted interestingly without obvious favor towards either mode of living. Indeed, both men seem to have their priorities more or less straight and each values the well-being of his fellow men above economic concerns, though they are radically different and ruminate on each other.

This book, like Tortilla Flat, is partially a novel with a connective thread and partially a series of vignettes that showcase different aspects of life and characters on Cannery Row. The form works fairly well for most of the book, although some of the extra stories unduly break up the main narrative action and introduce themes that aren't expounded upon in any interesting way later. What Steinbeck does very well, however, is provide an evocative setting. The characters that populate Cannery Row are all vibrant and each one showcases some unique aspect of life on the Row. They are a living part of the setting and the entire effect is to create a vivid recollection of a time and place; even the plot that makes up the majority of the book is singularly tied to this place and cast, all very vivid and leaving strong imprints on the memory. Steinbeck takes a place and deftly designs the characters who can populate it and live out his themes- the book is evocative of its setting and people but it hammers home time and again that the true joys in life are found in human bonding and the relationships we have with one another. Richly tied to California, the book is also inseparable from its parable of collective living and its fundamental concern with idyllic poverty; Steinbeck is not subtle but the book does not suffer for this.

Cannery Row is incredibly interesting and at times a bit redundant when read in conjunction with Tortilla Flat: both novels deal deeply in the same themes and with the same kinds of characters and sometimes twisted logic of right and wrong. Each is distinct, however, in the physical boundaries it traces and Cannery Row is superior due to the complexity of its world and its foray into realms beyond the immediate borders of Monterey. Cannery Row has a firm foot in its specific setting but manages to touch more universally on themes beyond its immediate concerns. Human kindness seems overestimated, at least by today's standards, but this perhaps speaks volumes about the world Steinbeck has managed to so successfully tap into. The characters and their situations seem real at every step, and even though their situation seems impossibly perfect, it is obvious that Mack and the boys still face challenges and chaos, often as a result of their own schemes and good intentions. This novel feels at once contrived and unabashedly true, a showcase of Steinbeck's obvious valuing of family values over money but concerned at the same time with the morality of those who must steal to survive. Best encapsulating this dichotomy is Dora's whorehouse, an esteemed and charitable institution that is nonetheless technically illegal, though it is taxed as a legitimate business. Dora's, and the rest of Cannery Row, is trapped between the world where good intentions count for all and one that operates on more capitalistic, cutthroat principles.

Grade: A-

April 21, 2009

Book 16: Tortilla Flat

Tortilla Flat
John Steinbeck

This is, strangely, only my second book by Steinbeck and my first since high school. Tortilla Flat has quite a few peculiar qualities that may be hallmarks of the author or that may be related to its subject matter; nonetheless it is an incredibly sharply drawn portrait of a specific time, place, and person. This is a story about a character, Danny, and the people that revolve around them in their respective orbits, but Danny does not always feature prominently in the book and for much of it wanders around in its background as other characters come to the forefront, only to fade themselves into the carefully constructed scenery. The book is almost a collection of short stories and almost a novel; it isn't quite as loose as most collections but the plot isn't deliberately constructed throughout. There are events that link the disparate stories together, but overall the book reads like a series of distinct adventures stemming from a common event (Danny inheriting his grandfather's house) and ending with another distinct event, tied neatly into the first one and bringing the whole story to a neat, though uncomfortable, conclusion. Nonetheless, there is a consistent logic in Tortilla Flat and its stories fit together nicely to create a portrait of friendship in a hastily forged society that shuns the usual rules and regulations.

The story works primarily because its characters, who band together under the promise of shared shelter and friendship, are so vivid. They are at once likable and annoying, much like actual people. Though their main motive is often to acquire more wine, more often than not by illegal and occasionally unethical means, there is a certain charm to their logic and the creativity of their plots. The group is bound by a loose and often shifting moral code, but they are always strictly bound to one another. Throughout their adventures, their bond only grows and they form a special kind of community that Steinbeck is able to show with remarkable clarity, though the prose gets awfully sentimental at times. The story is compared in the preface to the stories of Arthur and his knights, but even this does not explain the bizarre lapses into usage of "thee", "thou", and equally archaic "-st" verb endings. Steinbeck may be attempting to use this language to draw a comparison, but it is jarring and seems only out of place when used by poor, nearly homeless men on the outskirts of Monterey California just after World War I. The sentences, which are short and direct, help evoke this time and place but again, the dialogue and narration occasionally get too unbelievably weighty, particularly evident in the hyperbole that corrodes the emotion of the book's climax. The plot, though it forms a neat circle by book's end, is also disjointed in parts and many stories seem unnecessary or extraneous; the sum of the parts is whole but some of the parts may be unnecessary. Overall, Steinbeck is able to inject a feeling of listlessness despite his earnest narration and Tortilla Flat emerges as a moving and complete, though not entirely coherent, depiction of a unique way of life and living.

Grade: B+

April 14, 2009

Book 15: The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye
J.D. Salinger

Salinger's classic novel of adolescent restlessness and angst is a powerful testament to the teenage mind, and while it isn't particularly heavy on plot its detailed character study and astounding use of a consitstent and evocative voice make it utterly distinctive. Holden Caulfield is immediately accessible from the book's first sentence, and his voice is entirely consistent throughout the short book. He is so real and so well realized that his repetition of certain words and phrases ("phony" being the most predominant and important) is entirely indicative of his state of mind and not in the least distracting. The repetition pops out and demands interest, but Salinger carefully chooses what is important and the repeated words and phrases become key indicator's of Holden's personality and his outlook on the world. The writing moves with ease through digressions and appeals to the reader that seem to properly echo the inner mind of a disaffected teenager. Holden is distinctly literate and articulate but he is also at heart a portrait of the teenage angst he both embodies and defines. Holden feels hopeless but is compelling and not whiny: adults can see themselves, both past and present, in Holden's muted rage against phonies and goddam idiots. The book becomes at times boring and Holden is (obviously) a little immature, but he is interesting throughout and Salinger doesn't push his luck too much, limiting Holden's tale to just over 200 pages and keeping it tightly wound around his experiences in New York City following his expulsion from school. Other characters are interesting and, at times, charming (how I wish I was as precocious as his sister Phoebe), but they fade into the background as Holden takes center stage, both for better and for worse; it's hard to tell exactly what to make of them but, then again, Holden freely admits that he is one hell of a liar. The Catcher in the Rye fully deserves its status as the fundamentally defining work of the adolescent zeitgeist: well written and thought-provoking, Holden perfectly embodies teenage aimlessness while exposing, however accidentally, truths about all of us phonies.

Grade: A

April 6, 2009

Book 14: The Pickup Artist

The Pickup Artist
Terry Bisson

This novel, like so many others, begins with a wonderful premise, one that can open up immense questions about the nature of expression and censorship- but a different kind than we are used to. Unfortunately, however, while his narrator's voice rings true and is eay and enjoyable to immerse oneself in, the philosophical potential of the novel's set-up is wasted on absurd plot developments that provide nothing but distraction and, in the end, disappointment. Bisson begins impressively, with his narrator addressing the reader directly and throwing readers headfirst into his world, where his job is to confiscate lingering works of art from artists who have been deleted. The conceit looks promising as Shapiro begins to doubt the utility of his job, but it quickly descends into a chaotic tangle of increasingly absurd and unexplained events. There is suspense and the reader comes to care about the characters (or at the very least Shapiro and his sick dog), but Bisson begins on such a serious note and with such a serious and important (not to mention meta) topic at hand that the novel's descent into endless jokes seems almost offensive, as if Bisson himself has missed the point in order to garner a few cheap laughs. There is too much that is unexplained and nebulous in this book, too much extraneous matter that simply doesn't belong- quite a feat for a slender volume such as this.

Though the novel fails on the largest levels, The Pickup Artist does have its merits. Shapiro is a likable and able narrator; the reader understands immediately the major predicament of the unfamiliar narrative world. Bisson also wisely intersperses historical notes between plot-based chapters, explaining the backstory behind the continuous cleansing of the artistic lexicon and giving the novel its most ponderous and fitting moments, even if they too dissolve into meaninglessness when they collide with the plot. Certain aspects of the novel, such as this backstory, are extremely well thought-out and thought-provoking, even after the book's events fail to hold the reader's interest. The talent and fundamental ideas are present here, along with some hilarious jokes, but they are lacking in execution as Bisson seems too concerned with making a "fun" book rather than an important one (and the two need not be mutually exclusive). The overall theme of the book, which takes the original premise and stands it on its head somewhat, is definitely interesting and provides a nice circular tie to the confiscation of A Canticle for Leibowitz that sets off the novel. Ultimately, the ideas and the writing are here, but the novel's execution and plot fail to give it the weight its subject matter deserves, weight that can be provided by the correct subtle hands but which is here used excessively to the detriment of the novel's overall quality. Bisson provides an interesting overall narrative and his ideas regarding artistic saturation are particularly relevant in the Internet era, but as soon as Shapiro steps afoul of the law the story follows him into unpleasantly loose and pointless territory.

Grade: C