Thursday, November 17, 2011

Frank Norris and the Brute (Part one)

In a previous post, I wrote briefly about the importance of Frank Norris' writings on my work. Today I'm going to expound on that a bit.

I have to admit to coming to Norris late in my reading life. Prior to coming fully on board and becoming immersed in his work, I had resisted every futile attempt to encounter his work. Part of the problem was that I picked up a copy of "The Octopus" early on and had a devil of a time getting past the first few long-descriptive, small, dense-printed pages. I gave a few grudging attempts at forging through and actually borrowed it from the library twice and returned it having only read the first part of the first chapter.

I wanted to like it. But couldn't make it.

The subject - the effect of the railroad on wheat farmers in California definitely appealed to me in sort of a John Steinbeck/Upton Sinclair way. I was hoping for a "Oil!" type manuscript or maybe "In Dubious Battle". What I got instead was a description of a place. Or so I thought. Oh, had I but soldiered on...

What turned the tide for me was reading "McTeague" first. I picked up one of those lovely Norton Critical Editions that has lots of peripheral reading material in the back related to the subject (sort of like a pre-blog blog...) Unlike my previous Norris foray, "McTeague" engaged me from the start. "McTeague" is one of those disturbing novels from the early 20th Century that features non-idealized characters and characterizations. McTeague was not a warm and lovely protagonist - far from it. He did not live in a world we aspire to join. Instead, he was deeply flawed and presented warts and all as a sort of observation. It was not quite realism as it had a lot of overtly symbolic scenes within it, but it inhabited a natural world that was indeed real - if unwelcome.

And the characters evolved or devolved. None stayed the same. Each changed - usually for the worse - in front of our very eyes. Hauntingly so.

Through the novel, we watch as Mac (McTeague) slowly degenerates into a paranoid, quarrelsome brute of a man wholly unable to control his own violent impulses. The transformation is believable and heart wrenching in equal measure. He slowly loses his grip on all that he once adored - eventually allowing his whiskey-fueled anger to step in the way of his friendships, his business, his stature, his marriage and ultimately his life. As Mac plummets down an abyss of his own making toward a baser, more animalistic, survivalist self, we watch a similar transformative path taken by his wife Trina in a different way. Slowly she loses touch with reality as she knew it and falls prey to an absurd obsession with the gold coins she has secretly hidden from her husband. At one point, she spreads them over her bed and rolls amongst them in a scene of abhorrent sensual greed. Symbolic? - yep. Disturbing? - of course. Visually dramatic and mesmerizingly memorable? - absolutely!

For me, the sheer concept of McTeague succumbing to his innate animal instinct (an idea that Norris embellished with thoughts based on early criminologist Cesare Lombroso's work) was so intense that it immediately drew me to Norris' other works.

Quickly I collected all of his novels and discovered that had I but read a few pages further in "The Octopus" I would have discovered what I now consider to be one of my favorite novels of all time. While "The Octopus", and "The Pit" were two parts of a planned trilogy about the growing, sales and distribution of wheat - and have informed a future novel I am writing called "The Straw Man" - it is "McTeague" and another of Norris' novels that have most directly influenced the subject and subtext of "The Missionary and the Brute".

In part two of this posting, we shall look at "Vandover and the Brute"...

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