Monthly Archives: July 2013

You Must, You Shall, You May: The Ending of East of Eden


John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is a book that heaps allegory upon allegory, metaphor upon metaphor, and symbol upon symbol.  In a sort-of retelling of the book of Genesis, Steinbeck offers a portrayal of California’s Salinas valley at the turn of the 19th/20th century.  Ultimately, the book centers around fundamental questions that have plagued humankind since the beginning: Are people born good or evil?  Do people make their own destiny?  By the end of East of EdenSteinbeck has offered his answers to these questions.  Warning: below thar be spoilers, so proceed with caution!

This is a book that’s easy to love and easy to hate; it’s cyclical nature, sheer length, and heavy handedness can be off-putting for sure, but these hurdles end up contributing to the point Steinbeck tries to make with the novel.  The first half of East of Eden follows the Trask family and its two brothers Adam and Charles.  In an act that mirrors the story of Cain and Abel (from The Bible‘s book of Genesis), Charles attempts to murder his brother during a jealous rage.  Within the last 100 pages of the book, the repeats itself with similar characters finding themselves in the same situations as before.  The ending, and the answers to the questions Steinbeck poses at the beginning of the novel, occurs within the last lines of the book.  With Adam on his deathbed, he pleads to his last remaining son “Timshel!”.  Well, what the hell does that mean, anyways?

Key Idea #1: The Human Experience Repeats Itself.
The last half of East of Eden feels very familiar: Steinbeck creates characters that behave and function much like characters in the first half of the book.  But why?  Aron is meant to mirror Adam; Caleb is meant to mirror Charles; the relationship between Aron/Caleb and Adam/Charles mirrors that of Abel/Cain.  Steinbeck points this out explicitly halfway through the novel when the characters discuss The Bible.  Human history has repeated itself, and it continues to repeat itself.  The same core stories that were important at the beginning of humankind are still true today.

Adam’s father Cyrus, Adam, and Aron are all naive wanderers.  These characters eventually join the military because they have no clear direction to their lives.  Caleb and Charles are both hard working farmers that are seemingly fueled by jealousy rather than greed — they both have chips on their shoulders that cause them to work harder and more diligently than their siblings.  Cathy, though somewhat different from Caleb and Charles, is also fueled by jealousy.  Caleb, Charles, and Cathy don’t live extravagantly or enjoy much of their earnings; they instead earn their money for the sake of earning it.  These similarities render the same lessons of Genesis extremely relevant: people and their interactions conform to preexisting archetypes.  What is happening now has happened before and will happen again.

Key Idea #2: People are Born Good or Evil.
Caleb acknowledges his own wickedness explicitly when he proclaims that he is full of meanness.  But why?  From the beginning, Caleb and Aron were treated differently in the eyes of their father.  Adam was partial to Aron for no particular or explicit reason.  The direction of causality here is ambiguous then: was Caleb “full of meanness” because his father never gave him the attention that he ought to have had?  Or did Adam favor Aaron because Caleb was “full of meanness”?  Cathy may be a more clear example of Steinbeck siding with the “nature” side of the Nature/Nurture debate.  From her childhood, she had a tendency to lie, scheme, and be erstwhile evil.  She drives a man to suicide seemingly just because she can, and she collects evidence for blackmailing popular people with no real intention of cashing in on them.

Adam, Aron, and Cyrus, on the other hand are so naive that they never really earn the goodwill of others.  These men are not exceptionally bright nor are they skilled workers.  From the moment we see Aron enter the story, he is favored while Cal seems to have a shadow cast over himself.

Key Idea #3: Timshel!
The struggle between free will and determinism plays out throughout the book, but it is perhaps most acutely defined by the confused interpretations of the Hebrew translations.  To recap: different versions of The Bible use a different verb when describing what God tells Cain before casting him east of Eden to the Land of Nod.  Two popular translations is that God tells Cain that he “shall” or “must” prevail over sin and evil.  The character Lee discovers the real verb ought to read as “may.”  Doesn’t seem like such a difference on the first pass, but it is an incredibly important one.

“You Shall”.  This verb hints that free will is not available to Cain.  If God proclaimed “You Shall,” then Cain’s path is already determined — God knows that Cain will triumph over sin and evil.  Because Cain’s path is already determined, the “choices” Cain makes are all part of a plan.  Even Cain killing Abel has been part of a plan — he has no free will.

“You Must”.  This use of the verb indicates that Cain again has no choice.  Whether or not he will prevail over sin and evil is not clear, but God has given a direct order: he must try to prevail.  Cain’s future is determined by a direct order.  Again, free will is left out of the equation because he has been told what path to follow.

“You May”.  Adam speaks this word to Caleb after Aron is killed while in the military.  This utterance is Adam’s act of forgiving Caleb for the sin of indirectly killing Aron.  It’s also an instruction: you may prevail over sin and evil now.  The choice is left up to Caleb — it’s not a premonition, and it’s not a direct order.  “Timshel” is used here as advice.  Can Caleb triumph over his own wickedness?  Adam doesn’t have an answer for that, but he tells him he alone can make that choice.  And he’s not just speaking it to his son either: he’s speaking it directly to every person reading.

Key Idea #4: Choice in the Absence of Free Will
The house servant Lee attempts to forge his own path by leaving the Trask home to set up shop in San Francisco.  Lee has always wanted to own a bookstore, and he’s planned on opening one for many, many years.  However, when he finally realizes his dream, he immediately comes back to work with the Trasks, claiming that he had never felt “so damn lonely in my life.”  Lee tries to make his own choice, but he’s bounded by fate to the Trask home.  While he can make these intermediate choices (like temporarily leaves the family), his ultimate destiny lies in serving Adam Trask.

The ending ought to leave readers with a vague sense of incompleteness.  Adam pleads with Caleb to make his own choice and to be his own man, but East of Eden is full of examples of characters without free will.  Because history has repeated itself (and will continue to do so), wouldn’t the notion of choice be an illusion?  It is.  Choice is an illusion in East of Eden, but that doesn’t mean we should ever accept it.  In the finals pages, as Adam instructs Caleb that he “may,” he has no faith that Caleb might actually overcome his nature.  Adam knows that Caleb is doomed to live a mean life, full of guilt over his brother, but that doesn’t mean that he should succumb to that fact.   The human condition, as Steinbeck hints at, is that we are all born with our paths set though we should never accept it.  Living is a continuous fight to break free of these deterministic chains, and whether we choose to deny this fact or succumb to it, well, that is completely up to us.

For more discussion of timshel and the definition of the verb, see:

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I Hate This Too: THE HUNGER GAMES Edition

Spoilers abound!  The Hunger Games and its sequels are beloved by readers of all ages, and for seemingly good reasons: it’s a fast paced series characterized by its brutality, struggles, and cliffhangers. I really hate The Hunger Games series, and here’s a few reasons why:hunger games

Katniss Everdeen is not a heroine.
Throughout The Hunger Games series, the protagonist is our reluctant hero.  Actually, let me take that back.  She’s not a reluctant hero — Harry Potter is a reluctant hero — Katniss is simply pushed around and put into situations where she simply has no other choice that to do something seemingly heroic.  This point is even explicitly mentioned in Mockingjay when in a meeting with the District 13 to create more propaganda.  In fact, most of her actions that one may consider heroic are more informative of the lack of courage Katniss has.  Take the last few moments of The Hunger Games for example: Katniss decided to eat poisonous berries rather than kill her district-mate Peeta.  This action does seem like a genuine moment of pacifistic courage, but in the context, these actions are suggested to be because Katniss can’t imagine killing another human being.  Her pacifism in the first hunger games are not the actions of a brave woman, standing up against a omnipotent and corrupt system — these thoughts don’t even really occur to her while she is in the game.  No, her strategies for self-preservation are more due to her being crippled by fear.

In Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins sets up Katniss to lead the rebellion against the Capital.  If Katniss Everdeen wasn’t particularly brave in the first book, we can assume it’s simply because Katniss Everdeen was not a brutal savage.  However, in this final book, Katniss is in a perfect position to exercise any bravery or heroism that she may have.  Instead, we find that governing body of District 13 calling all of the shots in the newly formed rebellion.  Not only does Katniss not call the shots, she doesn’t even really protest when other tell her what to do.  Halfway through Mockingjay, Katniss decides to join the siege of the Capital, but her reasons do not involve freeing all of Panem from the grips of corruption.  Her focus is on realizing her revenge against President Snow.  She wants to risk her life attacking the Capital not for any heroic reason but simply because she wants to kill the man she perceives to be responsible for her own plight.  Rarely if ever do her thoughts on vengance form for those that have died at the hands of the Capital, and trust me, we would know if they did (see below).

The only brave, heroic act that Katniss displays in the entire series happens very early in the first book.  Katniss does take her little sister’s place by volunteering for the hunger games — no doubt this is an act of heroism.  Perhaps this happens so early in the book that the author gives the character a pass at all future events — the reader sees that Katniss is a heroine in the first few chapters, so why waste precious plot or pages reinforcing that?  Instead, the rest of the series follows a character that is simply stuck in a situation from which she cannot extract herself.  Again, to compare to Harry Potter: Potter was stuck in a situation, but he was an active agent of his own direction.  Potter made decisions.  Katniss never makes a single decision after volunteering herself from her sister Prim.  Making herself the face of the rebellion?  Others put herself in that situation.  Posing as one of two star-struck lovers?  Chosen for her.  Destroying the 75th hunger games?  Tricked into it.

At the end of the series, Katniss finally gets her chance to achieve her revenge.  She is given President Snow on a platter.  Instead of chopping him into little pieces or boiling him in a vat of acid, she shoots the District 13 president.  Was this an act of valor?  Her psychologist thinks that was more a mark of insanity (I think this point is somewhat ambiguous though).  Killing the new boss wasn’t an act of courage as much as it was another form of seeking reckless vengeance.  Katniss just learned that District 13 killed her sister instead of the Capital, and she took it out on the people who called the shots.  If you squint your eyes, I suppose this can be a heroic act instead of blatant revenge.

Being Katniss Everdeen: First Person Narratives and Use Present Tense
One of the most common complaints about The Hunger Games is the manner in which the story is told.  Collins opts for a first-person narration rather than a more common omniscient third-person view, and this allows us direct access to Katniss’s thoughts.  Katniss doesn’t really speak much at all throughout the series, so it is understandable to some degree that Collins would put the reader right in the middle of the protagonist’s head.  Unfortunately, Katniss is such an uninteresting character (what thoughts does she have that are new?  Interesting?  Funny?  Philosophical?  Cathartic?) that it’s hard not to get bored or irritated with the inner monolog.  For the most part, she wonders to herself why people are interested in her (good question!) or why Peeta would say he loved a normal gal like herself.

Perhaps it’s because The Hunger Games is a Young Adult series, but Collins seems intent on making Katniss just a normal everyday teenager.  She’s a relatable character (I suppose) to teenage women in modern times: her thoughts are preoccupied with annoyance of authority figures and a love triangle.  However, in The Hunger Games, a seemingly inordinate amount of pages are dedicated to Katniss wonder why Peeta would say in public that he loved her.  In Mockingjay, too much time is spent inside Katniss’s head while the rest of the country falls to complete turmoil.  If the books spent more time on the external world rather than the internal one, not only would the stories be more interesting, but they would be more substantive.

The use of the first-person narrative coupled with Collins’ use of present tense (e.g., “Peeta rolls around in the mud, bleeding to death, and now I’m wondering why he threw bread at me ten years ago”) makes the prose very immediate and engaging.  It intentionally places the reader not only in the mind of the protagonist, but in the mind of the protagonist in real time.  This style has defined The Hunger Games’ fast pacing, but it also eliminates opportunities for hindsight, self reflection, and appropriate foreshadowing.  Wouldn’t it have been interesting to hear The Hunger Games and Catching Fire told from the perspective of someone who saw it through to the end?  Maybe, but maybe not.  Part of the fun of the series is only knowing as much as Katniss, but there are several times in the series where readers will figure out the situation long before the narrator does.  This leads to an infinitely frustrating experience: if the narrator worries or wonders about something that is obvious to the reader, that narrator quickly comes across as stupid or naïve.

Creating Plot Out of Thin Air: Deus Ex Machinas Ahoy!
Most viewers of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village were outraged by its twist ending.  Why was this twist ending hated in particular when compared to those in Unbreakable or The Sixth Sense?  The issue lies with how stable the rules of the fictional universe are: in The Sixth Sense, the twist makes sense in the context of the movie because you can figure it out – it doesn’t come out of thin air as it does in The Village.  I bring this up because The Hunger Games is plagued with these twists.  Collins very conveniently creates plot mechanisms to keep Katniss (and the readers) on their toes.  At some level, it may be hard to fault the series too hard for this because it is “built into the arena”.

Throughout The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, rules are changed on the fly, and traps are created out of thin air.  During the first book of the series, this worked well.  Those in control of the hunger games truly felt all powerful because in a sense, they really were.  They could do anything at any moment to any one at any time.  By the time of the second book, readers should be familiar with these convenient plot mechanisms.  Are the stakes not high enough?  Let’s set the trees on fire.  Let’s unleash a swarm of rabid monkeys.  Let’s send out a massive hurricane of mutant bees.  The reader’s expectations are consistently violated, and the result is that you cannot predict or foresee any of the upcoming obstacles Katniss and the gang will be facing.  It’s a sword that cuts both ways: when Katniss is winning, the reader knows that some deadly trap will be created almost literally out of thing air to thwart her; when Katniss is losing, she receives a care package of some kind or something else completely unforeseeable happens along to help her.

Because the rules of the novels are always changing, it is hard to invest in any of the characters.  Characters and their deaths (with the exception of Rue) are hardly mourned, but this is not because there are so many characters that die through any given Hunger Games book: it’s the manner in which they die.  Take Prim for example.  She literally just blows up apropos of nothing.  The emotional anchor of the book is suddenly, irreversibly removed from the series without any build up, preparation, or hint.  If Prim were faced with a threat beforehand (e.g., captured by Snow, held hostage by rebels), her death would have had some impact.  Along the same lines, the choices that others make throughout the series would also be given more impact.  Instead, the novel’s universe is one that seemingly has no steady rules: events happen independently of pre-existing contexts.

It Just Works, Okay?: Half-Baked Sciences and Settings
While the first novel of the series builds its world well enough in the first half of the book, readers discover almost nothing new for the rest of the series: what you learn about Panem in the first 50 pages of The Hunger Games is 80% of what you’ll know about it by the end of Mockingjay.  Panem is an interesting dystopian setting, but readers are never really allowed to discover its history or its inner workings.

The same objections that I’ve raised towards the setting of Panem can be applied to the technology and science of the novels.  The Hunger Games are classified as science fiction, but the science fiction of the series only exists to allow for immediately accessible plot mechanisms.  The idea of the hunger games is terrifying, surely, but it isn’t inherently science fiction.  Take the “muttations” for example.  These genetically spliced (we assume) creatures appear in the first novel bearing the same eyes as previously fallen hunger games contestants.  Are they made from the same DNA as the old contestants?  Were they premade, ready to go?  Are they clones?  If, as it is hinted, these creatures do retain some part of the deceased humans, why?  What purpose does that serve?  If the Capital is using high speed monorails, hover crafts, etc…, why are they so reliant on old ways of manufacturing (i.e., what the districts have to do)?  At best, the science used here is just a convenience to have hunger games present incredible obstacles for its contestants.

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Is CLOUD ATLAS a good book, or great literature?

cloud atlas

Is Cloud Atlas a good book or a great one?

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a behemoth, and it asks a lot out of its readers. To qualify, Cloud Atlas isn’t an extraordinarily long novel – it’s only a little over 500 pages – but its story spans across centuries, styles, genres, and characters. It’s a book that is either revolutionary or gimmicky, based on whether you think its structure works. Cloud Atlas is divided into 6 novellas, each interrupting the preceding story so that the structure is that of a Russian nesting doll (stories inside one another). In the middle of the novel is nested the last (chronologically) story of the 6. After this story, the novel winds back down, finishing each interrupted story in reverse chronological order until the final pages dealing with the earliest story.

Mitchell admits in much (through his character, Robert Frobisher, who composed a musical composition mirroring the structure of this novel) that his work could either be a work of genius or a tremendous folly: a revolution or a gimmick. After mulling the novel around in my head, I’m convinced that Cloud Atlas lies somewhere in the middle. I’ve thought more about this novel than any other in a long while. Its structure is both playful and daunting, and it asks a lot of the read to abruptly stop a story and move on without any sort of conclusion.

If the 6 novellas of Cloud Atlas were published separately, or even in a normal anthologized fashion, I don’t think that they would have received the amount of attention that they have. Each of these stories are good – they range from fair to very good, but never fantastic. It’s hard to say that Cloud Atlas is better than the sum of its parts because there are just so many parts lying around, but because of its structure, it somehow becomes more than just six loosely connected stories.

I’ve struggled with the question of whether or not Cloud Atlas is great literature, and more specifically, if it’s something that will leave a lasting impression on the literary landscape. All great literature has something important to say, and Cloud Atlas does include themes and ideas that speak to the human condition, and what’s important is that it does so by using its structure to make this point. Early in novel (in the second story), Robert Frobisher writes that “a half-finished book is a half-finished love affair.” It’s an easy statement to make but one more difficult to prove within the context of a book. Mitchell is able to prove Frobisher’s point by interrupting 5 of the stories in Cloud Atlas. When these stories’ threads pick back up (i.e., in the latter half of the book when readers are able to read the conclusion to one of the 5 novellas), there’s a great sense of relief and comfort.

### Some slight spoilers ahead ###
The structure of Cloud Atlas also allows for the readers to see pre-established settings in a new context. When readers witness the slavery and cannibalism in the earliest story, it is a gross taboo. These indecencies to humanity feel like bizarre, disgusting acts that are in no way normal to human nature. By the final pages of the novel, however, these same acts feel less bizarre, and in many ways part of the human experience. Cannibalism takes place in Sonmi’s story, in Zachry’s story, and in Ewing’s. Slavery, captivity, and the fight for freedom of some sort also takes place in every story. Human behavior guided by war (or the threats of war) takes place in every story. These motifs aren’t always readily apparent, but because readers go through each time period before finishing a story, perspectives change upon returning to the last half of each story. If the structure of Cloud Atlas were that of a traditional collection of novellas, the reader would miss out on some of these motifs. No doubt after reading some of these stories, readers would pick up on the recurring themes of freedom and warfare, but the nested structure of Cloud Atlas allows the reader to notice and rediscover these ideas in real time.

The idea that human struggles never change is emphasized not only by the structure of Cloud Atlas but also by its style. The six protagonists of the novel all have very different backgrounds, settings, philosophies, and motivations, and each of them appear in a story that is told in a different way. These differences are enhanced by the varieties of styles, languages, and genres that are used throughout the novel. Each story is incredibly different from the next. What links these stories is the above mentioned themes and ideas. These themes are presented implicitly as constants in human nature, and the fact that they are apparent for not only a lawyer on a galleon in 1849, but for an elderly book editor trapped in a retirement home in 2012, or a human clone in North Korea over 100 years from now, only emphasizes how constant these things actually are.

The problem with Mitchell’s structure of Cloud Atlas is that the first half of the novel is just a fairly good one. The last half is a great one. Not only are readers able to requite with their unrequired love affairs, but they are also able to draw the connections between the stories. Up until the middle of Cloud Atlas, the stories are featured as being distinctly from one another. As each story closes, it becomes apparent that these stories really weren’t so different from one another at all.

While I have no doubt that some readers will believe Cloud Atlasto be a gimmicky pretentious mess, I think Mitchell does more than prove that to tell the story that he wanted to tell, he needed to tell it in this nested structure. By the end of the book, what was a gimmick becomes a necessity. Telling Cloud Atlas in chronological order would break it or render it ineffective; it would turn a great book into a moderately good one. At its best,Cloud Atlas tears down the convention of storytelling and shows that any and everything is possible in literature.

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Traveling Towards, Running Away: ARCADIA

Arcadia Ryan Simpkins John Hawkes


The promotion materials for Arcadia centers around the presence of John Hawkes.  Hawkes, who has been working in film since the late 80’s, seems to be finally getting his due lately: his turns in Winter’s Bone, The Sessions, and Martha Marcy May Marlene have all made really good movies great ones.  Here, he’s turning in good work again as an imperfect, defensive father doing his best to keep his children sane as they move to California.

Arcadia centers around a father and his three children (two daughters, and a son) as they travel to the eponymous town on the west coast.  By and large, the film is a coming of age story wrapped in a family road-trip plot.  It’s a small budget indie film, but it never feels like aspects of the movie were hindered for the sake of the budget.  What matters here is the characters – how they develop across this 3,000 mile road trip and how they interact with one another.  There are few diversions along the way, but they serve more as ways to examine how the father-children dynamic working throughout the road trip.

Aside from Hawkes, the performances of the children are really quite good.  The youngest child, Nat (played by the excellent Ty Simpkins), has some particularly precocious things to say, but the writing and the performance never lets his interactions come across as trite, contrived, or too on-the-nose.  The daughters are good too: Ryan Simpkins’ moody teenager never comes across as too angry or unsympathetic, and Kendall Toole plays well as eldest child although she never gets the screen time/lines she deserves.

As a debut (Olivia Silver as writer and director), Arcadia is very tastefully crafted and confident.  The story here is simple, and it is well paced and shot.  The gritty, handheld camera work is reminiscent of Martha Marcy May Marlene, and it serves to make the film’s setting look bleak and timeless.  Information is divulged slowly throughout the movie, and doing so slowly changes the way characters are seen.  At one point, it is unclear if the family is traveling towards a new future, or if they are running away from their own past.  By the end, the answer is clear, and it inspires a sense of hope not only for these characters, but for families all around just like them.  The movie gets better as it goes on, and it earns real pathos in its final moments.

The best parts of Arcadia come from the small details: the middle daughter, in one letter to her mother writes “no big arguments”, although you have to look to see it; the father goes behind his daughters and locks their car doors when exiting; Caroline quickly ordering meatloaf at a restaurant (the same meal her father orders).  There are some genuinely funny moments here and just as many heartbreaking ones.  The story easily works as a whole, but what makes this movie worth seeing is its performances and its attention to detail.

DVD extras:
Arcadia comes with a few nice bonuses: biographies of the main cast, a trailer of the movie, and the short film on which the feature is based.  The short film, Little Canyon, is more or less a condensed version of Arcadia.  Although the cast (with the exception of Toole) is different, many of the shots and dialog are recreated in the feature-length version.

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