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Archive for the tag “John Steinbeck”

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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Invertebrates in the Gulf of California

The Log from the Sea of CortezThe Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I began reading this book I was reminded of Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. It’s the same genre — travel with a lot of philosophical musing thrown in.

Most of the book is a description of a voyage to the Gulf of California. John Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts was a marine biologist, and they chartered a fishing boat to collect specimens of marine invertebrates. There is an appendix, Steinbeck’s memoir of his friend Ed Rickett’s.

I found it interesting because it’s a part of the world I knew nothing about, and after reading the book I know a little more, at least about what it was like 70-odd years ago. And in the process I learnt something about marine biology; most of what I knew about that was from bed-time stories my father read me when I was 3 or 4 years old from his biology text books. Who needs extra-terrestrial monsters when you can have a sea urchin? That caused me problems in my later reading when I came across descriptions of children as urchins — were they all spiny?

As for the philosophy, I’m not sure if I understood it all. I think Steinbeck was coming from a completely different place, with different assumptions. He seemed to be anti-teleology, and to think that there is too much teleology in the world, but he seemed to see it in a quite different context. Here’s a sample, for anyone interested:

It is amazing how the strictures of the old teleologies affect our observation, causal thinking warped by hope. It was said earlier that hope is a diagnostic human trait, and this simple cortex symptom seems to be a prime factor in our inspection of our universe. For hope implies a change from a present bad condition to a future better one. The slave hopes for freedom, the weary man for rest, the hungry for food. And the feeders of hope, economic and religious, have from these simple strivings of dissatisfaction managed to create a world picture which is very hard to escape. Man grown toward perfection, animals grow toward man, bad grows toward good, and down toward up, until our little mechanism, hope, achieved in ourselves probably to cushion the shock of thought, manages to warp our whole world. Probably when our species developed the trick of memory, and with it the counterbalancing projection called “the future,” this shock-absorber, hope, had to be included in the series, else the species would have destroyed itself in despair. For if ever any man were deeply and unconsciously sure that his future would be no better than his past, he might deeply wish to cease to life. And out of this therapeutic poultice we build out iron teleologies and twist the tide pools and the stars into the pattern. To most men the most hateful statement possible is, “A thing is because it is:” Even those who have managed to drop the leading strings of a Sunday school deity are still led by the unconscious teleology of their developed trick. And in saying that hope cushions the shock of experience, that one trait balances the directionalism of another, a teleology is implied, unless one know or fell or think that we are here, and that without this balance, hope, our species in its blind mutation might have joined many, many others in extinction.
Source: Steinbeck 2000:72f

What puzzles me is that I don’t find “It is because it is” hateful at all, but I find Steinbeck’s aversion to teleology in this context (biological evolution) puzzling, because elsewhere he appears to cite with approval his friend Ed Ricketts’s theory that rattlesnakes and kangaroo rats are symbiotic. Though rattlesnakes eat kangaroo rats, they are actually doing them a favour by removing the weaker elements of the population, thus increasing the chances of the species as a whole to survive. But if it is because it is, why should it matter, and why should we see such ecological connections.

So some of his comments were interesting, but others seemed to make little sense, to to be contradicted by something else he wrote a few pages later.

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