The Rumpus has a regular feature called “The Last Book I Loved,” and since I feel like writing about East of Eden, I think copying The Rumpus is a perfectly legitimate excuse. East of Eden was the last book I loved. That shit was 700 pages long and I could not put it down.
When I pick up a classic, my expectation is that I’m in it not for the book itself, but for the experience around this book, for the membership that comes along with being one of the people that has read this book, for the rights to participate in conversations about this book. I usually don’t expect the same visceral pleasure I get out of reading contemporary fiction.
But man… East of Eden, that book blew me away. It’s about all of the big questions that are worth tussling with, what does it mean to be a good person? What does it mean to be evil? What are our obligations to those we profess to love? How much do we get to choose and what do we inherit? It’s about asking, how should a person be? (Ironic given that I just finished a book by this exact title that I did not like). And oh my god, the writing:
On nostalgia: “Oh, strawberries don’t taste as they used to and the thighs of women have lost their clutch!”
On empathetic conversation: “There are no ugly questions except those clothed in condescension.”
On Tom, and reading: “Tom got into a book, crawled and groveled between the covers, tunneled like a mole among the thoughts, and came up with book all over his face and hands”
On attention-seeking grief: “Do you take pride in your hurt? Does it make you seem large and tragic?”
And on women, of course, because I can’t read a book with out my feminist lens. It’s a book that barely passes the Bechdel test, but I think there’s a fundamental understanding and sympathy with women of this era and the limitations they lived with. Lines like this, about Dessie’s dress shop, “It was a sanctuary where women could be themselves–smelly, wanton, mystic, conceited, truthful, and interested” or the horror of the doctor when Cathy tries to self-abort, “I suppose you took things too, poisoned yourself, inserted camphor, kerosene, red pepper. My God! Some of the things you women do!” The doctor may not be sympathetic, but I believe Steinbeck sure was.
In book club when we talked about this, we associated it with the phenomenal Louis CK clip that’s making the rounds, about cell phones, sadness, and being human:
Read it. Love it. Tell me what you think.
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