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East of Eden

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Suicide. Prostitution. Murder. Love. False accents. True wisdom. This is East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

"She's in Heaven," said Aron. "Why would Father tell a lie?"

How I got the book: the Steinbeck Centennial Edition has been on my bookshelf for an embarassingly long time and had not been read until now. Flog away, all ye better readers/human beings.

The writer: John Steinbeck. He probably doesn't really need to be introduced, at least not to anyone who took an English lit course in an American high school in the last several decades, but: a major American writer of the 20th century; wrote numerous bestsellers and won both the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prizes. For more, click through the link above to his Wikipedia page.

The book: it seems like something of a pointless exercise to review East of Eden, a book pretty much universally hailed as a timeless work of art, and so I'll keep this brief.

In short: this is a novel that should not work.

It has too many characters, many of whom are tangential to the main plot (such as it is) or are introduced very late in the story. It has a first-person narrator who is usually invisible to the point that you forget about him and think you're reading something written in the omniscient third, and in fact the narrator seems to be the author himself. It has a few long sections that are completely focused on landscape, and many of the incidents that occur are as lurid as anything you'll find watching a daytime soap--in some cases, a lot, lot worse.

And yet, it does work. Steinbeck pulls all of these loose threads and more into a whole that seems to capture the pointless, doomed, beautiful, necessary nature of life itself. There's a reason this book has been read, re-read, and re-issued, and that reason is pretty darn hard to explain.

In short, again: read it.

Don't be like me and purchase a copy only to let it languish on your bookshelf for years until you are forced to read it by means of an asinine project you've dreamt up for yourself. Don't be put off by the heft of over 600 pages. Just read the dang book.

Next up: WELCOME TO 1962! Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter is the next stop on this ride, and I've already got a copy out from the public library.