“I think this is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody’s story. I think it is the symbol story of the human soul. …The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt – and that is the story of mankind.”
Before this, my only exposure to John Steinbeck were his two short novels Of Mice and Men and The Pearl, neither of which impressed me in any significant way. In fact, when people suggested I read this book and tried to explain why it was so amazing, I didn’t really think that, based on his work that I’d read so far, Steinbeck was capable of writing an epic like this. And holy hell, was I wrong.
To say that this book is a retelling of the Biblical Cain and Abel story seems too simplistic. That’s what’s going on at the core of the story, but there’s so much more here that Steinbeck wants us to see besides “the story of Cain and Abel isn’t as simple as it seems.” The book starts out with Adam and Charles Trask – one brother is good, one brother is bad. The father loves the good brother and rejects the bad brother. Then the good brother grows up, starts a family, and has two sons – one good, one bad. But this time it’s not that simple, and the paths that the two brothers take, and how they overcome and subvert their roles of “good brother” and “bad brother” is fascinating.
That’s the cliff notes. As I said, there’s a lot of other stuff going on – like some of the best characters ever created, generally. First there’s Lee, the Trask family’s Chinese servant who’s so goddamn cool and well-done that I don’t even want to describe him further than that because it might ruin things. And then there’s Adam Trask’s wife Cathy, affectionately known as the Psycho Bitch by me and, to a lesser and more eloquent extent, Steinbeck:
“I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. …It is my belief that Cathy Ames was born without the tendencies, or lack of them, which drove and forced her all of her life. She was misweighted, some gear out of ratio. She was not like other people, never was from birth. And just as a cripple may learn to utilize his lack so that he becomes more effective in a limited field than the uncrippled, so did Cathy, using her difference, make a painful and bewildering stir in the world.”
Translation: bitch is crazy, and she will fuck your shit up. And oh, she does.
All these characters, flawed and wise and foolish and stubborn and angry and sad, interact and intersect with each other, moving in and out of their lives throughout the course of the story. More stuff than just Cain and Abel retelling happens, as I said, but some of the best parts of the book come when Steinbeck has his characters openly discuss the similarities between their lives and the Biblical story. There’s the part I quoted at the beginning of this review, and then later the same characters talk about the story again, and focus on a specific phrase: when God tells Cain, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at thy door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” That’s what it says in the King James version of the Bible. In the American Standard version, the verb is “Do thou rule over him.” Lee, because he is awesome, decides to find out what the original Hebrew version says, and this is what he finds (pay attention, because this is kind of the entire point of the book):
“And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ …The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel-‘Thou mayest’ – that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the whole world. That says the way is open. …Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and the murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight through it and win.”
That’s what the story comes down to: are we born good or evil, or do we choose to be that way? Is anything predestined, or are we capable of changing ourselves and our lives? It’s gruesome, it’s tragic, it’s beautiful, and it’s more than The Pearl would have made me think Steinbeck was capable of.
“I want to think…Damn you, I want to think. I’ll want to take this off alone where I can pick it apart and see. Maybe you’ve tumbled a world for me. And I don’t know what I can build in my world’s place.”
PS: why the FUCK is this not on The List? Fucking Of Mice and Men made the cut, but noooo, not East of Eden. Seriously, what the hell.
Verdict: five out of five stars