Saturday 5 March 2011

The Grapes of Wrath - an underperforming hero

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (Viking Press: 1939). An epic novel from one of America’s greatest. Steinbeck lets us into the lives of the Joad family as they are forced out of their old world and into a journey West, in search of a promised land of bountiful farming and fields laden with grapes. Their hopes of salvation are gradually revealed as false as their ordeal does its best to break the family.
Right, so now we’re playing full contact.
A rather strange opening for something as sedate as a book review, perhaps. But I really do feel like I’m playing with bigger stakes with this one.
Because this one is a Steinbeck. The first of his that I read.
John Steinbeck is perhaps my favourite all time author. I ordinarily don’t like making such statements. “What’s your favourite film?” “What’s your favourite song?” Perfectly plausible conversation starters, but they get up my nose. How on earth, out of all the infinite hours of footage that have been filmed, of the immense variety of music that has been recorded, can you sit down and settle on one single piece of art and say “this one, this is the one I value above all others. This is the one that is better in every way when put against anything else.” It just can’t be done. You can’t have a definitive favourite in a world so vast.
I heard someone say once (I honestly can’t remember who, I think it was Will Self) that if someone held a gun to my head and said “pick your favourite author, or I’ll shoot you”, then I’d let them shoot. I’d agree with him.
Unless, of course, it’s Steinbeck.
I’m not saying he’s my favourite by a mile. Not even by a hundred yards. I’ve enjoyed the work of more writers than I can think to count (but then I can’t count very high to be honest).
But he is my favourite. And that’s why my first Steinbeck review is fairly massive for me. Especially when it’s the one Steinbeck I’ve read that I didn’t actually enjoy.
The Grapes of Wrath, to me, spent an incredibly long time painting a fairly simple picture. And then retracing over the lines again and again. That’s not to say the story isn’t important. It’s a book that makes a worthy social point. It’s one that sheds light on a part of history that deserves to be flooded with attention. It’s a story whose characters you can truly sympathise with, and Steinbeck represents them in a way that makes them incredibly real.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t enjoy it. It was all a bit too real. There were few shocks. The story dripped through as these ordinary people lived through a generation changing experience.
I didn’t find myself thrilled to turn the page. I didn’t feel myself enriched by the passing chapters. I didn’t feel as if my knowledge was growing as I worked my way through. It wasn’t an instant explosion of enjoyment. And it wasn’t a slow burner either. Once I’d grasped the basic premise of the book, the point he was trying to make, I still had 400 odd pages to plough through. And I didn’t feel as if I gained anything by many of them.
So why (I hear you ask) is Steinbeck my favourite author. If he wrote this book that I just plain got bored with, why do I like him so much?
Well, by the time I finished the book (and it took me a lot of finishing) I kind of got the taste. I’d lived with it, and I felt a little dusty with it after I’d put it down. It was a little like red wine. Hated it when I first tasted it, but after a while, I decided to give it another try.
And the second time I tried Steinbeck, I became hooked. That was with East of Eden.
Now, I don’t know if East of Eden is just simply a better book. Maybe I was just more ready to appreciate Steinbeck by the time I picked that one up. Or maybe reading The Grapes of Wrath taught me how to read Steinbeck – how to understand the way he paced a story and appreciate the world he wrote about.
Either way, it leaves me in a dilemma. Do I tell you not to read The Grapes of Wrath because I didn’t enjoy it? Or do I tell you to read it because it could open a world to you that I love?
Well, it’s not that much of a dilemma to be honest. I already know the answer.
If you’ve never read Steinbeck, then don’t read The Grapes of Wrath. At least, not straight away. Read Cannery Row. Read To a God Unknown. Read The Pearl. Read Of Mice and Men. Read East of Eden. You’ll enjoy them. One day I'll review them and I'll tell you why I enjoyed them. And if you don’t enjoy them, I’d like to know why (honestly, I’d actually like to know why, I’m on the hunt for different perspectives here).
So the real dilemma is – can I bring myself to give my personal hero a low GBR score.
Yes. Yes I can.
Sorry John.
You’ll have high scores in the future. I promise.

p.s. Also, sorry no picture this week of my copy. Am filing this one from home (Newcastle that is) and so I don’t have the right cord to link my camera up to my netbook. Not a problem I imagine Steinbeck every imagined anyone having when he wrote The Grapes of Wrath. Or anything else for that matter.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I have only read one Steinbeck - Of Mice and Men - and that was many years ago. I still remember it to this day though. Maybe it is time to try another but perhaps not this one!