I reached the end of chapter 11 of East of Eden (Steinbeck) and stopped. I closed the book and put it back on the shelf. There are 44 more chapters to go, but I’m not sure if I can put myself through that much more suffering (both mine and the character’s!). Don’t get me wrong, the writing is brilliant, the characters are richly fleshed and real, and the plot is swift and undeniably addictive. But there’s enough human cruelty jammed into those first 11 chapters to keep Jerry Springer (and child services!) busy for decades. I’m sitting here numb, staring at the ironically cheerful pastel book jacket and wondering if I’ve got the guts to keep reading.
A book is real. You can close your eyes in a movie theatre, but when you try that same escape from a book, the colours and images take over, often with nightmarish intensity. East of Eden is a classic and, as a writer, the shame of retreating from a Steinbeck would be mortifying. But if I pick it up again, what do I do about the physical symptoms?
The more I read, the more flushed I became. My hands started to sweat, and I felt distinctly nauseas. I wanted desperatly to find out what was going to happen, but like when they finally pull the body out of a car wreck, I was horrified with myself for having stuck around so long. What was I expecting? A happy ending to their struggles? We’re only a quarter of the way through. Cathy, Adam, and Charles are just getting going. My mind is whirling with all the awful possibilities awaiting me in the next 44 chapters.
It’s the brutally human books that become classics – same with love songs, same with art. But we shouldn’t blame the writers. The good ones can only helplessly describe the truth. A reader can get a Steibeck out of the way in a matter of hours, then go out for dinner and forget all about it, while the poor writer is stuck in that same story for years! I can’t help but feel sorry for Steinbeck. The world inspires the harshness he writes about; his plot has no sadistic aim (though I’m sure he did have his fair share of issues). It’s sobering to think of all those tortured souls who, for weeks at a time, are trapped muddling over the grammar of murders!