Notes from underground

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Steinbeck & Coetzee as chroniclers of their times

The Wayward BusThe Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What do you think of your fellow passengers on a bus, or a plane, or a suburban train?

Usually they are anonymous.

You might sometimes idly wonder about their lives outside the conveyance that briefly brings you into the same moving space, but rarely does it go beyond that.

But in this book it does go beyond that. A group of people, with their own lives and thoughts and histories are drawn together as passengers (and a driver) on a bus, and by the end of the book they have all interacted with each other, and their lives have all been changed in some way.

Some knew each other before they got on the bus: there is a family travelling on vacation, and two of the passengers were employees of the driver, but none knew all the others before they gathered for the bus trip, and before the journey ended they knew things about the others, and about themselves, that they had not known before.

There is little action, and no real plot. The book is a study of character and human interaction between people whose paths briefly, and apparently randomly crossed.

One of the other reviewers, Kim, writes (Goodreads | The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck — Reviews, Discussion):

The narrative is in the third person, with shifting points of view and an uncomplicated linear progression. The point of the work is not so much the plot – because not a lot happens – but more the characters’ internal conflicts and Steinbeck’s critique of post WWII American society. Steinbeck sets the work in a fictionalised Salinas valley and starts it with a quote from Everyman, the 15th century English morality play. This is a clue to the fact that the characters represent more than themselves and are to an extent allegorical figures.

And that invites a comparison with another book I have just read, Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee, because Coetzee seems to be trying to do for South Africa what Steinbeck was doing for America. Disgrace could be said to be about the characters’ internal conflicts and Coetzee’s critique of post-apartheid South African society The difference is that Coetzee writes from the viewpoint of one character, and all the other characters are seen through his eyes.

I disagree about the extent to which the characters are allegorical figures, though. They are stereotypical rather than allegorical. They don’t really represent abstract qualities or concrete historical personages, as those in allegories do. But they do represent types of people — the war profiteering businessman, the manipulative wife, the celebrity-obsessed shop assistant, the lecherous mechanic, the ex-serviceman salesman. And in Disgrace the disgraced professor, the hippie-going-on-earth mother daughter, the uptight puritanical school teacher, and the peasant, who calls to mind Roy Campbell’s poem The serf

I see in the slow progress of his strides
Over the toppled clods and falling flowers,
The timeless, surly patience of the serf
That moves the nearest to the naked earth
And ploughs down palaces, and thrones and towers.

And there is a similar abstracted “feel” to Steinbeck’s Of mice and men and Coetzee’s The life and times of Michael K. This quality is hard to put a finger on, but I find it in both Steinbeck’s and Coetzee’s writing. It’s more noticeable in Coetzee, because I have been to the places he describes his characters as visiting, and they feel like the same places in an alternative universe, where there are points of resemblance, but history has taken a slightly different turn. But in both the buildings feel like stage sets, and not places where real people live and work.

I compare The Waward Bus with Kerouac’s almost contemporary On the road. It’s not my favourite Kerouac book, but that characters are alive and the places real. And I had a similar feeling when reading Coetzee’s Youth. It feels as though a lot of important in-between bits were left out.

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6 thoughts on “Steinbeck & Coetzee as chroniclers of their times

  1. Yvonne Aburrow on said:

    I haven’t read either of these books, but I did like Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck.

    • I haven’t read Grapes of wrath — waiting for data to transfer from cdnsyndication.twimg.com before I can finish typing this sentence. — but I have read Of mice and men

  2. Pingback: Neoinklings: Bonhoeffer, Coetzee and more | Khanya

  3. Rangjan on said:

    I read Disgrace as allegorical rather than chronicle. As with his other books, notably Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee seems to use the protagonists’ personal lives as representing aspects of the country and its zeitgeist. Look at the transition in Lurie’s life, from that of an orderly urban academic (with his sexual proclivities and other aspects) to the messy rural life on his daughter’s farm. The characters seem to struggle to understand what is happening to them, why others and themselves behave the way they do, and they come to an uncomfortable accommodation/coexistence with this way of life, including the random violence. He has a knack of capturing the tensions and discomfort in a country, and presenting these at a personal level. In the dis-ease that I felt in the lack of pursuits of justice, I felt I must have an inkling of how the mother of one of the township disappeared must feel if her purse was stolen: what would be the point of reporting it to the police? I had the same feeling when I watched the play Ubu and the Truth Commission: of experiencing some deeper truth about South Africa in experiencing a visceral personal discomfort in the story of someone’s personal life. That Coetzee was focusing on the trajectory of Lurie (rather than the subject of the Truth Commssion) meant that I found it more powerful: perhaps one is ambushed because if you go and see a Kentridge play with Truth Commission in the title you can expect to be mugged by the political and social mess of the apartheid legacy.

    • That’s one way of looking at it, I suppose. I compare it with The life and times of <ichael K, because there too the protagonist travels east, shedding the raison d’etre of his life, and not even sure of what he was looking for when he gets there. So there seems to be a kind of urban/rural disjuncture. In both the characters seem to think that the rural east holds the key, but it doesn’t.

      • Rangjan on said:

        I never got the sense that the East was being seen or sought as a key. To me Coetzee presents a Yeatsean (?) vision of social transition where all is changed, changed utterly and terrible beauties are born. This is no Blakean (?) vision of revolution bringing a “new Jerusalem”.

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