Sunday, July 27, 2008

Down in the valley, the valley so low

now finished: McTeague by Frank Norris
now reading: Thomas Jefferson by R.B. Bernstein

Well, I really liked the ending of McTeague. Which means this blog post will probably be pretty spoileriffic. You have been warned.

First of all, we know I'm a fan of the desert, the stark heat, the intensity of the land, the vast spaces, and so on. So for the book to culminate in a Death Valley death scene totally works for me. But there you are with McTeague and Marcus, the former friends, killing themselves in the process of trying to beat each other, and with Marcus' last breath he clicks the handcuffs onto McTeague's wrist so that McTeague is now chained to his fate and doomed to die there as well. All the while the canary in its cage twitters feebly. What a scene! What a great ending in the annals of literature! We are chained to our fate and the doom we create. Our violence and greed for the money end up making us prisoners. Nature will kick our ass when we get so caught up in material society. But only after our fear and guilt and past misdeeds that haunt us drive us away from the real treasures -- both gold and wife -- that we've found. And so on.

A lot of book endings suck. I don't mean to criticize; as a writer I, too, find endings difficult. But it's so wonderful when you get to a glorious ending, a fully realized vision, such as that of McTeague. And just like the scenes in San Francisco, the ending chapters' trek down through California, prospecting for gold in them thar hills, and finally death in the alkali sands are all so vividly written.

Frank Norris is so interesting to me now. He had his whole literary career in a life of thirty-two years. !!! He traveled, dabbled in art, sucked at math (perhaps to spite his businessman father), played hard, made himself a legacy in his Berkeley fraternity...he's really interesting. I've been reading the intro to the book (which I can never read until after in novels, for fear of plot spoilers) and seeing all the real life influences that led him to create McTeague. So there is that "thinly veiled memoir" element, but in more of a "write what you know" way, and his writing is honest and literary. He's clever. I may seek out The Octopus, too, which is the book I'd always heard of by him.

Speaking of my desert love, I was intrigued as he tries to make his escape to Mexico when some people he meets think he's trying to escape a crime he committed and thus "trying to get down to Arizona." It's so interesting to think of what people thought of Arizona in 1899, when it was still a territory and not very populated. I like finding references to it and finding its place in people's minds back in the day. (The movie In Old Arizona was great for that, too.)

And who wouldn't love this quote, from page 280 of my edition? (ISBN: 014-0187694)

"'No, no,' Trina had exclaimed, when the dentist had repeated this advice to her. 'No, no, don't go near the law courts. I know them. The lawyers take all your money, and you lose your case. We're bad off as it is, without lawing about it.'"


Oh, Trina. Seriously -- the book is pretty horrifying. I read that Norris had read about a real life instance of an estranged, drunk husband murdering his wife. It's so frightening to imagine. But the horrifying reality happens in this world -- often. I mean, we never think about it, keeping it out of sight and out of mind, because it's impossible to really deal with thinking about it. Imagining being killed is hard enough. Imagine being killed by someone you know. Then by someone who supposedly loved you. I mean, what must it be like in those final moments? How must it be to be killed and to see and feel this person killing you? My brain hurts. My whole body hurts and shudders, actually, to think about it. It's SO creepy to try to really conceive of being killed and the life slipping out of you as you are violently pummeled. And it's SO creepy to think about how horribly some humans behave to their intimate partners.

I'm going to stop writing about it now for the same reasons we all want to stop thinking about it.

For those who are curious, no, obviously, the Thomas Jefferson is not part of my A to Z literary blog project, but part of a non-fiction project I started a couple years ago, abandoned, and to which I have now returned, in which I read a biography of each U.S. president in order to see where we went wrong. I read Joseph Ellis' His Excellency and David McCullough's John Adams. Now on to number three. I'll probably try to do a presidential bio a month among my other readings, until law school gets too intense again. I hemmed and hawed forever about which Jefferson because there's the Pulitzer-winning Dumas Malone multi-volume work about him that I will probably read someday, but maybe not as part of this all-the-presidents project which is meant to go quickly.

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