East of Eden – Book #1

Started the year with an old favorite, East of Eden, by John Steinbeck. For a good 20 years, I’ve said that this is one of my favorite novels – if not my absolute favorite of all time. I’ve read it many times. It turns out that the last time I read it was way back in 2002. I know this because the leftover bookmarks are from a stint I did teaching debate in Italy for a summer in Duino in a hotel across from the decidedly unlicensed Mickey Mouse Cafe. Most of the students were from what was once called the Former Soviet Union, funded by a Soros initiative whose efforts to soften the post-Communist blow ended up making it worse in many places.

The Mickey Mouse Cafe had terracotta walls and a terribly smelly bathroom. All around someone had rendered Mickey, in a variety of situations, wearing the drag of outsider art. He was unnaturally thin and reached across the register for my receipt as I fumbled for euros (they were new then, and most places also had lira). The big ears swooped in on me when I took in a second Americano of the day, preparing to teach a group of argumentative Serbians.

I always try to leave reminders like these in a book – boarding passes, receipts, cheap and wrinkled napkins. Sometimes, although I’ve been trained my whole life not to do this, I still fold over the corner of a page. I don’t do this to bookmark, but to mark a thing that I should raptly revisit. On this reading, I will confess that I bent a few pages.

It’s a cheap Penguin edition. Not the one I read first, but the one I’ve read the most. The story flows through you so quickly that you scarcely know it’s there at all. I consumed it all in two days – the way that one might normally read Gone Girl or some Jackie Collins book, if you’re into that sort of thing.

You might object: it’s about the Cain and Abel story, and there’s a lot of allegory, and some of it’s kind of obvious besides. Anyone who disputes you for these is a sycophant. Far worse than being a hack. All of these points are true. The book is about Cain and Abel. Allegory makes it tick. Also some of the way things end up is pretty obvious, when you think about it.

If these things hang you up, you are probably already struggling with Shakespeare and will definitely cry “Uncle” before you get to Italian humanism.

If you’re an aspiring writer, you have probably consumed a whole raft of advice about your dream craft. Most of it boils down to two things: write every day, and show not tell. Don’t say that Ignacio was a patient person when instead you could write about him waiting for the tea to boil. This kind of guidance can paralyze you forever as you look endlessly inward.

Steinbeck does not care at all about this sort of twee artisanship. He tells you that this person, who has a particular look about them, is good or bad or complicated, and in what way. It is astonishingly refreshing, and it allows you to become absorbed by the story instead of skating endlessly and cautiously across the details of the narration.

The story itself is remarkable, and fast-moving while suitably elaborated with detail. It’s the kind of book that makes your inner vision sing while keeping your cognition engaged – a perfect thing, the kind of story humans have told themselves since before Homer, but robust enough to seem current and alive nearly a century later.

In any case, I marked two places in the text. Here they are.

  1. “I believe that there is only one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us…”

Later I’d question the need to pose questions as a choice between good and evil. Much havoc ensued. Now in middle age, I find myself drawn again to this master narrative. I wonder about the draw of its nostalgia and I dicker at its price.

2. Spoiler Alert. Timshel – Thou mayest. It appears before page 523 (obviously) of my edition, but this is the first I flagged it. It’s also the end of the book, as it’s Adam’s final communication to his son. It’s kind of what Derrida would later call the “dangerous supplement,” as the interpretation that’s created but not consecrated by dragnet collecting various other translations and their errors.

Basically, when Lee (who is the heart of the book) and other folks unpack the Cain and Abel story, they discover that there’s a dispute about how God talks to humans about sin. Are they free or not? If the answer is “thou mayest,” then it’s up to us, which turns out to be a lot more complicated. This isn’t like Anthem‘s weird manic tinsel tribute to selfness. If you do it right, it’s something much more unsettling.

And there’s a whole ton of ink already probably been spilled about the Hebrew here or what have you, but I’m interested in thinking about the view of agency conveyed here and how Steinbeck’s kind of pushing against intrinsic autonomy/natural rights and into a social construction of agency, but maybe that’s too much for this space right now.

That’s more than enough. I said I was going to write a few sentences, and this is obviously more. How am I going to get through 100 books if I keep doing this?