Thursday, 10 June 2010

Grapes of Wrath

I don't mean to alarm you with some surprise literary analysis of a text that's already been so heavily critiqued that most people know of the book, without having read it. And really, that's how they should have left it. Steinbeck's greatest work, apparently. Having read both Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, I beg to differ. Caution, spoilers, but since you've had 71 years to get round to reading the book, you probably don't care about it.

In order to spare you the tragedy and weeping agony of reading the book, I have done so in uncountably many short bursts, before frustration took over and I hurled the book away in a blind rage. This book may unquestionably have been "Of its time" in 1939, but, kindly it has aged badly. Less kindly, it is more outdated than the Amish.

First of all, a note to authors. Don't actually type dialogue as it would be spoken. It makes English a confusing mess of apostrophes, surrounding lone letters deemed too important to the main word to be dropped. It is like reading a book in 1940's text-speak. There is a character called Rose of Sharon (Of course, you already knew this, you well-read audience. you were probably just waiting eagerly for me to get to specifics, weren't you? Of course you were.) who is referred to as "Rosasharn" in every speech. First off, Rose of Sharon is a stupid name, but I would forgive 1930's America for this if I didn't have to spend at least 5 minutes wondering who "Rose of Sharon" was when she was referred to in non-dialogue prose, and if she was related to Rosasharn. Just tell me they have an accent. I will imagine the accent, and you can write it properly, to avoid confusion. You're right Steinbeck, I knew they were from Oklahoma but I gave them all West Country accents in my head. Thank God you wrote it out properly, or who knows how different the book might have been! Might have been briefly interesting, and you clearly don't want that.

Secondly, John Steinbeck, accomplished author, deemed it a valiant effort to randomly insert generalised chapters into an otherwise tragic story. The few moments where the story became engrossing, a random chapter appeared telling you about a turtle's struggles (Yeah really. Tom Joad picks up the turtle, so I thought the turtle would become a complex running metaphor for the struggle of the working man, but apparently Steinbeck forgot Tom picked him up, so that was that) or perhaps, the viewpoint of a car salesman, selling cars to poor people for as much as he could get, that heartless git earning money for his family. What an utter monster.

Obviously, these chapters are great for literary analysis (Turtle - working man, etc) but they make the reading tedious at best, and downright frustrating at times. Fundamentally, the story should come first, and the surrounding overtones should come second. This book is decidedly the other way round. "Look at these poor people!" it bellows at you. "Look at their plight! Isn't it tragic?!" it hollers across the empty expanse of your brain, while you go "Well, a bit, yeah, but shouldn't there be a story here? I mean, I know they're going to California to get a job, but...but..." and then you peter out because it's a classic and, CLEARLY it must get better somewhere. It doesn't. No really. I couldn't believe it too.

It tantalises you with the idea of an uprising from the moment they get into California. The oppressed workforce in appalling living conditions who all have rifles. It couldn't yell "Uprising coming soon!" if it tried. There is a moment where they tell a tale of a town where the workers had a turkey shoot, marched through the town with their rifles, and got no bother from the cops since then. "Perhaps we should have a turkey shoot" is the speech (Written in English so you could understand it. If you want to read the real thing, look at Woodstock's speech bubbles (From Peanuts, it's not all high-brow literature in my life). Then you go "Ooooooh, uprising and story development soon!" and the Joads MOVE AWAY. Rebellion quashed, the book continues in a depressing manner.

It was at this point where I finally snapped, and began reading it to the end purely as an exercise in willpower (Akin to giving up smoking and heroin at the same time in terms of difficulty), and to show off how brutally masculine I am. "I read Grapes of Wrath by choice" should be a special sticker they give to people who have. Perhaps a certificate to stick on the wall, next to their other manly achievements, like "Has chopped down a tree with a chainsaw" and "Once repaired his own car".

I eventually made it to the end. Or at least, where the pages ran out. There was no end, the book just STOPS. Briefly, I thought I had gotten a faulty copy of the book, but apparently that really is it. It is singularly the most unrewarding book I have ever read. I think I would rather bludgeon myself to death with it than read it again. And it's so depressing, I might just do that to make a point.

Apparently this book is comprehensively studied across America by most High School students, and, oddly, I can't think of many popular American authors from the last, say, 20 years. Stephanie Meyer excepted. I could be harsh and scathing about Twilight, but I have never read it, so based on popular opinion; "ZOMG Twylyght 4 lyf".

Anyways, if you have a choice, go read Of Mice and Men instead. It is equally depressing, but at least the book is interesting enough to finish without requiring the willpower of a Grecian Adonis.

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