Sunday, February 6, 2011

McTeague (Frank Norris)

So you're surfing the web one night, half-bored, half-naked, and maybe a little tipsy, when you decide to go over to "Blogging the Canon" and see if that middle-aged guy has read another one of his "Top 105" books yet or not. So you pull up the page and see a new entry: "McTeague" by Frank Norris. Immediately something strikes you as a little off, and sure enough, when you go over his top 105 reading list you see that "McTeague" is not on it. You immediately entertain one of three possibilities...that (1) the dude has finally started to develop dementia, a common thing among the soon-to-be-dead-and-buried crowd, that (2) the guy was probably totally shitfaced on grain alcohol and rainwater and didn't even know the book wasn't on his list when he picked it up, or (3) it's some sort of monstrous communist conspiracy involving space aliens and bat guano which is so complicated that one person alone could never fully understand it. Either way, you just decide to go with it and see what he has to say about this "McDonalds" book, or whatever it's called.

Well, the truth is, dear reader, that since compiling my list of 105 books that I really need to read before I die, which means quickly because I'm now at the age where I always have at least one ache or pain going on somewhere in my body which is only partially relieved by sipping on a Corpse Reviver #2, I've compiled a separate list of other books that I really should read, and want to read, that are not in the original 105. I debated whether to just add them to the list, making a top 200 or whatever, but then I realized that I just could keep adding things to the list in order to never have to get around to reading "Ulysses" or Henry James. So I decided to keep the original 105 "must read" list intact, but also to throw in an off-list book every now and then. Thus, I find myself blogging about Frank Norris's "McTeague", which was not on my original list. But of course you don't care in the slightest about any of this..."Yeah, yeah, yeah...dude, just get on to the "McTeague" review, because I heard you're old and might croak at any time, and no Corpse Reviver, #2 or otherwise, could pull a review of "McTeague" out of you at that point". Well, OK then, I will.

"McTeague" is a classic American novel, but one that most people probably have never heard of. This is most likely because the author, San Francisco writer Frank Norris, died at the age of 32 of appendicitis. "McTeague" was published in 1899, one year before the publication of Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie". The timing is not insignificant, because Norris's novel reminds me in many ways of Dreiser's. One thing is their prose, which could be characterized as "no nonsense", realistic, and naturalistic. Both books also deal with the urban poor, and feature characters that fall from the middle class into abject poverty. But while I liked "Sister Carrie", I liked this book even more. In fact, I absolutely loved this book...for a number of reasons which I will now attempt to explicate.

The book's main character is McTeague (we never learn his first name), a man who is not very smart, but very big and strong. When the story opens he's a dentist living on Polk Street in San Francisco. He was born in a small mining town in gold country, and learned the dental trade not through school, but by being apprenticed to a traveling dentist who also had never been to dental school. The reader gets the feeling that McTeague's dental skills are adequate, but not much more. He has a business called "Dental Parlors" on Polk Street in San Francisco. He's happy with his life, which is fairly simple...doing his dental work, hanging with his friend Marcus, and drinking beer and falling asleep in his dental chair. His one dream is to have a sign with a huge gold molar hanging out in front of his office. This is symbolic, because gold ends up being the undoing of almost everyone in this novel.

McTeague lives in an apartment building where he knows all about the lives of his neighbors...the Mexican cleaning lady Maria, his best and only friend and neighbor Marcus, the two elderly people Grannis and Miss Baker (who are in love with one another but have never spoken), and the crazy Polish junk dealer Zerkow. All of these characters are a bit crazy (at least) fact everyone in the book has their own craziness, but hey, don't we all?

One day Marcus brings his cousin Trina Sieppe, who he is also dating, into McTeague's "Dental Parlors". Trina was in an accident and has broken a couple of teeth, and Marcus brings her to McTeague for dental work. McTeague agrees to treat her, although her case is complex, and she'll need a bridge that will take many sessions to construct. So McTeague starts to treat Trina every few days or so. McTeague has never had any particular fancy for women, and in fact feels uneasy around them, but he soon develops a simple rapport with Trina, and soon starts to fall for the diminutive woman. One day in the chair she is feeling a lot of pain, so McTeague gives her ether to knock her out. Then...

For some time he stood watching her as she lay there, unconscious and helpless, and very pretty. He was alone with her, and she was absolutely without defense.

Suddenly the animal in the man stirred and woke; the evil instincts that in him were so close to the surface leaped to life, shouting and clamoring.

It was a crisis--a crisis that had arisen all in an instant; a crisis for which he was totally unprepared. Blindly, and without knowing why, McTeague fought against it, moved by an unreasoned instinct of resistance. Within him, a certain second self, another better McTeague rose with the brute; both were strong, with the huge crude strength of the man himself. The two were at grapples. There in that cheap and shabby "Dental Parlor" a dreaded struggle began. It was the old battle, old as the world, wide as the world--the sudden panther leap of the animal, lips drawn, fangs aflash, hideous, monstrous, not to be resisted, and the simultaneous arousing of the other man, the better self that cries, "Down, down," without knowing why; that grips the monster; that fights to strangle it, to thrust it down and back.

This passage reveals one of the book's as a complex creature with civilized aspects and brutish, animal aspects. These two aspects are often at war. In this case, McTeague gives in to sin and kisses Trina while she is unconscious. When she awakes he asks her to marry him. She freaks out and leaves hurriedly.

However, soon McTeague begins to court Trina properly, by visiting her family and going on outings with them. Marcus quickly finds out McTeague is in love with the woman he himself is courting, but when he realizes McTeague loves Trina more than he does, he nobly tells McTeague that he should have her. He will come to regret this decision.

So McTeague courts Trina, and they are to be married. Then Trina wins $5,000 in the lottery. WOOHOO! So the couple gets married and Trina puts the money away, saving it for the future and collecting the interest income monthly to supplement their own income. Little does anyone know that the money will destroy them all.

But wait, $5,000...that's not much money, or is it? Well, I tried to look this up, but for some reason all inflation calculators I could find begin in 1913, which is 14 years after this novel was published. But even so, $5,000 in 1913 money would be worth $110,000 in 2010 currency. That's a lot of money for blue collar people.

The book has a curious structure. The first half or so of the novel deals with McTeague, Marcus, Trina and her family, and the other characters that live in the building. At about halfway through the novel I thought "Gee, this novel is really fun because these characters are all so wonderful, and their lives and struggles are comical and quaint". Sure, McTeague is not totally sympathetic (he's not very smart, and he can be brutish and mean when aroused), but his story is fun to watch and his faults are more comical than anything. But there are hints of trouble when Marcus and McTeague have a falling out. Marcus is jealous of McTeague's happiness with Trina, and he's also jealous of the $5000 she won in the lottery, claiming that that money should really be his if only he hadn't given up the girl. Anyway, this book reminds me of one of those Friday the 13th movies, or any other teen horror movie, in that a long time is spent developing the characters and making us love them and their crazy lives. And then...The Shit Storm. In Friday the 13th it's a guy with a hockey mask, but here McTeague has a terrible fight with Marcus, who is still pissed off that he didn't get the girl or the $5000, and in the fight McTeague ends up breaking Marcus's arm. Marcus then decides to leave town, but before he does he goes to city hall and informs them that McTeague is practicing dentistry without having been to dental college. The city forces him to shut down his dental business, and he has to take down his gold tooth. From here, McTeague and Trina descend into poverty. One might think that the $5,000 might help, but Trina has become an incredible miser, and will not part with a dime of the fact she makes enough money for them to live on fairly comfortably, but because she feels compelled to compulsively hoard away a huge chunk of it, they slip further down. She has become overwhelmed with avarice. Her gold is weighing her down.

From here I am not going to discuss the rest of the plot of this book in detail because it is so good that I don't want to spoil it. Suffice to say that it doesn't end fact, every character of importance in this book dies, except for two...the two elderly people Old Grannis and Miss Baker. They have the one happy ending in this book, as they finally get up the courage to speak to one another and profess their love. Everyone else dies, and dies horribly, some not before they're threatened, beaten and abused. I mean, this book goes from funny and almost quaint to brutal scenes of horrific murder. And it's all in one way or another caused by greed over gold and money, specifically the $5,000 lottery winnings. Frank Norris wants you to know that money is bad, and the root of all evil, etc. etc. Greed is bad. He would not like Gordon Gekko.

I also have to say that the final scene of this book, and especially the final sentence, are totally awesome (that's the literary term). Very dramatic, very captivating, very cinematic. Well done, Frank. I will say no more than that.

One side note: in 1924 Erich von Strohein directed a silent movie version of "McTeague". The movie was originally 9 1/2 hours long, but the studio made Stroheim cut the hell out of it, so that in the end it is not cohesive and a lot of characters are missing. But from the cut version and what is known of the long version, it's clear the film was a masterpiece. Unfortunately the cut footage was destroyed, and the movie is considered one of the great lost masterpieces of film. So the movie was lost, and Norris died tragically young. But the book "McTeague" is still out there, and is still a great read, and if you're looking for a book recommendation, consider this to be one. And just pray you don't win the lottery.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Book #44 - Tess of the d'Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy)

Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: Thomas Hardy gets the award for most awesome mustache of any writer read during the course of this blog so far. I mean this dude looks like he played for the 1973 Oakland A's. He could have been down there in the bullpen with Rollie Fingers and no one would have batted an eye. Seriously. But no, Hardy was no ballplayer. Instead he was a bad-ass writer, cranking out some killer prose. That's one of the things that really struck me about this book...that Hardy could write like crazy. He was also a poet, and it shows in many passages, where he'll wax on poetically about the English countryside where the novel takes place. Some might find his style boring, digressing into languid description at certain points, but I loved it. It set the mood for me. I mean, between his writing and his mustache this guy would be a total chick magnet...if he weren't dead.

The novel's plot is sad and tragic, and it takes a bit of understanding for the modern reader like myself not to just think that the people in the story are complete idiots. The story opens when John Durbeyfield, a drunken farmer, finds out he is descended from an old family named d'Urberville who used to be strong and powerful in the English countryside...although the money and power are long gone and the line is almost extinct. Durbeyfield decides this discovery of his ancestry is just the break his family needs, so he sends his oldest daughter, Tess, to meet and possibly get money from a family named d'Urberville, presumably related, who live on an estate in a nearby town. Durbeyfield needs the money because he's too busy drinking to make his own. Tess doesn't really want to go, but does so out of love and duty for the family. Once there, she learns that they aren't really cousins, as they have adopted the d'Urberville name to give them prestige. And she meets Alec d'Urberville, a young man and a scoundrel, who convinces her to come live on the family's estate so he can try to woo her, and when that is unsuccessful he rapes her. Tess goes home, and is of course pregnant. She has the baby, but the baby gets sick and dies soon after. Tess does not get any breaks.

So Tess, now a scandalized woman for having had a baby out of wedlock, even though she was freaking raped, leaves town and goes to work on a dairy farm where she meets the love of her life, Angel Clare, the son of a preacher man. They fall for each other and get married, even though Tess is horrified of her secret past, and has been tortured about whether she should tell him or not. On their wedding night Angel tells her he has a secret and he feels bad for not telling her. Seems like at some point in his past he got horny and fucked someone. He hopes Tess can forgive him. Of course she can, and then Tess feels safe and tells him her secret...that she was raped and had a baby that died. Angel Clare is mortified and shocked and says how can he love her now that he knows she's not a virgin. So he leaves her and goes abroad to seek his fortune in Brazil.

At this point, the modern reader, like myself, is going "WTF is WRONG with this dude? He's got a beautiful wife he loves, and he's going all ape shit over her having been raped?" But that's the way it was back in those days, and we are all products of our environment. It's pretty clear Hardy doesn't agree with Angel's viewpoint, since it brings tragedy to everyone (oops, sorry for the spoiler). And the book's subtitle is "A Pure Woman" in case we don't get it. Victorian morality was harsh and Hardy clearly condemns it. And meanwhile Tess is all forgiving of Angel, and says she understands how he feels and that he just needs to take some time off and think about how much she loves him and then he'll come around and yes, it's all her fault. It's not her fault, of course, and she's a little self-sacrificing...well, OK, not just a little. It's all greatly annoying to the modern reader (I've used that phrase three times now and I hate it, but I can't think of another one...and that's not the booze talking because I've only had one beer tonight, a delicious Christian Moerlein "Over the Rhine" Ale, from Cincinnati, Ohio) but the people in this novel were Victorians, and they had a whole 'nother way of looking at things than we do. It's easy for us to condemn their behavior, although, actually, as I said that's what Hardy wanted the reader to do. So I guess his job just got unintentionally easier over the years.

Anyway, Tess goes to work on another farm, and on her way there she runs into...wait for it...yes, Alec d'Urberville. He's now recanted his former evil ways and is a traveling preacher. But when Tess talks to him, he seems really creepy still, especially after he makes Tess promise never to "tempt him" again. What a dick. Anyway, soon he decides he wasn't really born again, and gives up preaching so he can stalk Tess. He comes and visits her while she's working her ass off in the fields, telling her if she comes with him she can live in luxury and he'll take care of her beloved family as well. He tells her Angel isn't coming back, so why not just come with him since he loves her. It's creepy. He's creepy. He's a fucking Victorian stalker. But then Tess's father dies, and her mother and brothers and sisters are now all in deep financial trouble. So after lots more angst Tess goes with d'Urberville, who gives money to her family and puts her in fancy clothes and has her live in a fancy hotel with him. Presumably he gets what he wants out of the deal too, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

Then Angel Clare, who FINALLY gets over it, has a change of heart and comes back from Brazil for Tess. He finds her at the hotel. "Too late", she says, and turns away. And then...but hey, I don't want to spoil it for you. Let's just say there's suddenly a murder, and fugitives on the run, and a posse, and an execution. Oh, and Stonehenge. All in the last 20 pages or so. Yes, the ending seems oddly rushed. There are some other odd things in the plot of this book...some weird coincidences, like Tess happening to run into Alec d'Urberville when he's become a preacher...that also seem forced. The language in the book may be beautiful at times, but the plotting can be awkward. Hardy wasn't perfect. Just sayin'.

As a biologist, I couldn't help but see not-so-subtle Darwinian references in this book, which is not surprising, because Hardy was a contemporary of Darwin. Hardy talks about the d'Urberville line as going extinct, and seems to indicate that they had some kind of tragic flaw that lead to their eradication from the land. And Tess's downfall simply reinforces this notion that the family is doomed by forces beyond their control (like natural selection). All that remains of the d'Ubervilles, aside from Tess, are fossils...old mansions in the countryside once owned by the family, and dead d'Urbervilles buried in church crypts. Very eerie, and Victorian gothic, and Darwinian.

So did I like this book? Yes. Despite getting frustrated with the characters and their damn Victorian morality, I found myself not wanting to put the book down. And Alec d'Urberville, that rouge and scoundrel and rapist and stalker, is creepy and evil and vile...and it's always unnerving when he turns up. Which kept me entertained. As does the author's mustache.