Wednesday, August 26, 2015

East of Eden

     Humblebrag: It’s not uncommon for people to balk at my love of literature. On the other hand, as my generation emerges from the high-school-mandated-who-gives-a-shit-about-reading phase, there are plenty of people who appreciate the pleasures associated with a good book. I often muse about the psychological underpinnings behind why I love reading so much. There is something unutterably satisfying about being sucked into a tale and experiencing a life that is not your own. That is one of the reasons why Alice in Wonderland has always been my favorite “children’s story”.  Its narrative lends readers a transfixing feeling of fantasy that reaches a step beyond pure entertainment. It is also one of the reasons why John Steinbeck is such a respected author of storytelling gold. The guy knows how to capture and retain your attention. No relation to the musician Beck, unfortunately. “Girl” is a damn good song.

     Many of you have read Of Mice and Men--which is a wonderful novella-- but to spice it up, I chose a work slightly off the beaten path: East of Eden*. This book is not for the faint of heart—my copy is a cool 691 pages. Still, his spellbinding account of two families in twentieth-century Salinas Valley, California kept me genuinely interested throughout. Of course, I was most intrigued by the cover...
What is this absurdly-mustached man sitting uncomfortably in a field brooding over? Why is this suspicious looking woman creepily staring at him from a short distance?  And if there is an umbrella involved, it’s probably way too hot for that overdone getup. How pissed off is the horse in the background that he has to lug around these irrational owners? Obviously, I have more questions than I have answers, but if a book looks like this, best believe I’m gonna buy it.

     I’m always on the hunt for good, sturdy classics with eternal themes; they are voices from the past that never lose relevancy. With a title like East of *Eden*, I assumed it would be suffused with religious contemplations. Naturally, that is the case, but religious-wary readers-- don’t be put off! It’s mostly concerned with Christian allegory and how Old Testament men and women can be used to implicate dispositions of good and evil and everything in between. Steinbeck crafts his characters so meticulously that every relation, every action, and everything they say points to something deeply ingrained within their personality. For instance, within the Trask family, there are two generations of brothers: Charles and Adam as one and Caleb and Aron as another (Adam’s sons). Additionally, two motherly figures are involved named Cathy and Abra. Notice any resemblance to Cain and Abel? The biblical story goes something like this: Cain and Abel are Adam and Eve’s sons, which means they’ve inherited the consequences of original sin. Both boys bring an offering to the Lord based on their particular beginning-of-the-world career choices. God rebuffs Cain’s and smiles favorably upon Abel’s. Understandably, Cain gets pissed at Abel and his anger takes the form of murder. The Almighty confronts Cain, probably because there’s like four people in the world at this point and he’s looking hella shady, and casts the boy out of his sight and into the “east of Eden” (Steinbeck, 308). But first, God marks Cain so that no one can kill him. Perhaps the Lord really just wanted to embarrass Cain with a scar and make it difficult for him to find a lady friend. Regardless, even though Cain is homicidal, God preserves him. His scar face lived long enough to spawn while Abel rolled over in his grave wishing he had given God a shittier gift.

     That ending isn’t easy to digest—it skews our sense of justice. Steinbeck taps into that distortion and tries to work out how rejection, wrath, crime, revenge, guilt, respect, and love intertwine with one’s moral compass. His intense focus on man’s ethical temperament gives us insight as to how Steinbeck viewed himself and how he felt about his work. He explained, “Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hunger and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have… there is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and his chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?” (Steinbeck, 475). No worries, John, you did well with this book.

     The general takeaway: man has a choice to triumph over wickedness and there is glory associated with that victory. The majority of the sinfulness in East of Eden stems from dishonesty. Mendacity is tantamount to murder because when a lie is uncovered, it shatters a beautiful Eden-esque world that was originally intact. What someone once thought to be true is killed. Money, acquired purely or impurely, can often be a driving force for lies. When that dough is passed down, children can unknowingly become heir to a set of falsehoods. Moreover, parents are like Gods to their offspring; so, if (when) they’re caught in a lie, instability ensues. The kid not only questions why his parent is capable of duplicity but also wonders if he himself is skilled at that kind of deceit. Is it in his blood? Even all the way from Cain? Steinbeck’s story is long because it needs to be. He’s showing readers an extended line of inheritance of good AND evil qualities and how those fluctuate between generations.

     As you can see, this novel is carefully constructed. Anyone who can weave a profound and relatable thread through a story the way Steinbeck does deserves praise. Similar to Dostoevsky, Steinbeck clearly strives to sift through the human psyche when it’s faced with crime and depravity. Like his nineteenth-century Russian counterpart in The Brothers Karamazov, he is enmeshed in the story as the narrator. He reveals that he is part of the generation that follows East of Eden, the great-grandson of Samuel Hamilton (akin to the biblical prophet), a major character. With this knowledge, we can deduce that some of the inheritance-implications trickle down to him. I find the whole inside-but-also-outside perspective intimate as if Steinbeck were telling this story about his ancestors to me in his living room. Furthermore, as a woman, I enjoy how we are portrayed in the book. Eve was Adam’s undoing with the apple thing after all, mwhaha. He introduces strong female characters that prove clever in both their deception and righteousness. Overall, if you’re looking for an older novel that has stood the test of time, look no further. I give it 4 out of 5 camel humps and now that I have developed a fondness for Steinbeck, I can’t wait to try The Pearl.

*Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. New York: The Viking Press, 1952. Print.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

            I’m lounging on the patio of a Venice Beach boardwalk restaurant, reading, writing, and sipping on a local Los Angeles pale ale. You’re at work right now, so I’m having a better time than you. I’ll be in L.A. for two days before losing my money/sanity/dignity in Las Vegas with three friends from college. Still, my MO all weekend is naturally to lose friends and alienate people.
            I would say thank God for the handy how-to-- How to Lose Friends and Alienate People* --if it weren’t for the fact that the memoir was so meh. The author, Toby Young, is better known for this book than for the half-hearted writing career the book was based on. In it, he unveils the waspy drama associated with working for the glossy, celeb-centered magazine Vanity Fair. Originally from Britain, he becomes disillusioned by New York’s inevitable indebtedness to the rich and famous. This wasn’t always the case—Toby had aspirations of hard-hitting journalism beholden to no one, much less the wonton vapidity of the upper echelon. Alas, the social Darwinism of the Big Apple overpowered his longing for objective profundity. He once romanticized the role of a New York Writer, a picturesque vision of exposing controversy left and right without losing stride. After a few years stateside, his intellectually confident gait whittled into a snail-paced slither. 

Is this a surprise to anyone who has ever opened a magazine nowadays? The memoir is 330 pages, half of which I found myself saying no shit. The guy worked for a powerful, wealthy, glamorous, and well-connected company and then was shocked by their contemptuous, gratuitous actions. Granted, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People was published in 2002 and is a little outdated. I might underappreciate his references because they’re before my time. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the relationship between money and influence.  That being said, I did enjoy the tidbit about celebrities’ wariness to eat in public for fear of being photographed. Toby claims that on Oscar night, a hangry line of A-list stars pack the McDonald’s drive-thru in their limousines (Young, 105). Roll the window up, sir, I need to pound a Big-Mac alone in the dark while sporting an evening gown (which let’s get real, sounds amazing).

In all, the book is 90% uninteresting fluff, 10% comic relief. The memoir is predicated on the idea that Toby is funny when unfortunately—for the most part—he’s not. You get a keen sense that he’s fumbling through life, making one irrecoverable mistake after another. That’s fine—I just ordered some fireball on tap and have suffered acute regret ever since. But watching a guy not play his cards right career-wise isn’t automatically hilarious. Just as Roger Ebert says, throwing a fat guy in a movie doesn’t make the movie funny…the fat guy needs to do something funny goddamn it! I’m gonna need more than just a few sporadic chuckles in a memoir so dependent on hilarity.

In Toby’s defense, he expressed a few thoughtful insights. For instance, he gave a brief but scathing review on “political correctness” within the American liberal education system based on his experiences at Harvard. He complained that cultural relativism was pushed to the extreme, forsaking the possibility of moral truths by making any/every point of view viable and laudable. He opined that students merely resisted offending anyone when they maintained that no one was “right”. In turn, this led to diluted discourse. Additionally, he quoted Tocqueville, a French philosopher who argued against the United States’ conception of democracy. He agreed with Tocqueville that as a whole, Americans are subject to the “tyranny of the majority”—not truly liberated because the mainstream rules (Young, 20). He went on to condemn our version of meritocracy; we think that we are successful because we earned it and we deserve it. We falsely convince ourselves that all of us start on an even playing field, ignoring the fact that we have essential resources that others lack. We revere a strong work ethic above all, snubbing those below us because “they’re just not working hard enough”. Toby notes that social mobility in Britain is more fluid and Brits who benefit from the aristocratic system are more likely to recognize their class-advantages and donate to the less-fortunate than Americans who assert that the poor remain poor by sheer lack of willpower. He states, “America is a faux meritocracy in which abhorrent levels of inequality are justified by an appeal to a principle of social justice that, however sacred, has yet to be implemented. To use a baseball analogy, America’s most successful citizens were born on third and think they’ve hit a triple” (Young, 241). As you can see, British-American comparisons run abound. In this case, I absolutely agree.

Lastly, he criticized the notion of the Holy Zeitgeist. During his time at the magazine, he was surrounded by people who blindly worshipped fashion fads—people who believed that “the next big thing” was dictated by a divine, invisible hand.  New York, as a hub of cultural renaissance, was a kind of Mecca that Toby could not willfully get behind.

While these three redeeming factors-- an argument against cultural relativism, a reconsideration of how democracy intertwines with liberty, and a denunciation of a deified fashion industry—are certainly thought provoking, they comprise only a very small portion of the memoir. I would much rather hear more about those ideas and less about how Anna Wintour wears sunglasses indoors. Overall, Toby is an honest guy, eager to throw everyone he worked with under the bus (including himself), but it doesn’t quite move past the realm of superficiality. As a result, I give it 2 out of 5 camel humps. There are some tiny pellets of potential there that don’t come to fruition, so don’t waste your time.

*Young, Toby. How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. Boston: First Da Capo Press, 2002. Print.