Our reading lists tend to be bifurcated: the musty classics on one hand and the fresh new books on the other. I’d say this is a reasonable way of approaching the question of what to read—after all, the books-to-life ratio is highly unfavorable in the book’s favor. You have to cut to the chase. The problem—there’s always a problem—is what to do with the very good but somewhat old books. I just finished an example: John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.
You’d argue Steinbeck is a classic author and you’ll get no quarrel with me. To me, this confirms the earlier problem: that Cannery Row is a good, interesting book but no classic and certainly it isn’t among Steinbeck’s most read, most cited or most assigned (my guess here: Of Mice and Men, Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden). It seems to me that were Cannery Row not written by Steinbeck we probably would not have heard of it; yet were I the author of Cannery Row I’d be proud of having written it.
Cannery Row is interesting in that its virtues are its flaws; moreover, its virtues prevent it from being great. A metaphor based on the book itself: one of the central groups of characters involves Mack and his friends, a bunch of lazy guys who are charmingly content with their current state of life, who do odd jobs not to get ahead but to stay where they are, who apply their native cleverness not to find out new horizons but to cadge out everything from what they have. Put it this way: whenever someone praises the frontier spirit of Americans and their restless ambition, they are not thinking of Mack and his boys. And yet the book finds them admirable and after a fashion the reader does too. The problem is that, like the boys, the book is content to be very good. Or perhaps it is a virtue. You can never quite be sure.
The weakness—or is it the virtue?—of the book is its structure: it is told as a series of very short vignettes, perhaps three or four pages each, which advance the “story” very incrementally. I say “story” since the slim book is devoted not to advancing a narrative but rather a feeling of life among these people trying to make a life in Monterey, California. Yet each vignette is self-contained: many of them could serve as a story in of themselves and each of them ends with something like a moral, or at the very least a punchline.
One of my favorites: there’s a painter named Henri who claims to be French. However, his name isn’t Henri, he isn’t French; he instead is quite familiar with the quarrels of Dadaists thousands of miles away. He is always trying to make art but never quite succeeds: he subjects himself to the quarrels of the Dadaists as regards the meaning of art. He is a master craftsman when it comes to boats, but he can never quite finish his boat. He has no home; he brings his girlfriends to live in the boat with him. They naturally grow tired. One day he is painting and sees a hallucination of someone cutting the throat of a baby; naturally he is disturbed and goes to see Doc, the central character of the story—Doc, who becomes something of a secular saint; he has something of the character of David Foster Wallace: less obviously erudite, but some of the same empathy, patience and melancholy. Unlike Wallace, he is somewhat cynical and despairing of the world; fatalistic and romantic too: he thinks Mack and his boys have it figured out, how to be happy. He tells Doc his story—he believes he saw a ghost—and Doc patiently tells him it was just a hallucination. A woman comes into Doc’s laboratory and greets Doc; Doc tells Henri to tell the woman his story. The woman, thinking Herni’s story is just grand—she leaves with Henri to find the ghost. The woman was supposed to be Doc’s date. The writerly equivalent of an eye roll and a well-that’s-life follows.
Well-that’s-life, isn’t it? seems to stalk the entire life. Funny, strange occurrences pop up everywhere, and generally either the reader or the writer greets it with a chuckle. Trying to throw a party for a man (with a gift of frogs—it makes sense)? Well, the frogs will escape. That’s life. That kind of attitude is a good way to get used to life, I suppose, and whatever small annoyances it tends to throw your way. Don’t sweat the small stuff—and it’s all small stuff! (A Burn After Reading reference, by the way). But after a while—coincidentally, just as you’re finishing—you get tired of it and think, well this is good, but isn’t there better out there? It’s enough to give someone an ambition transplant, if that someone doesn’t already have it. By the way, I’m now reading Robert Caro’s The Path to Power, his Lyndon Johnson biography. I hear it’s a classic.