Monday, April 26, 2010

Readings — Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men
by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck wrote this book, apparently, in a deliberate attempt to cross the novel form with the play form, creating a prose story which could be acted on stage. In practice, it feels like a fix-up afterthought; like a poorly-adapted play. The language is improbable and stagey, and a number of ostensibly major characters come off as mere devices (including the only female character). You can imagine good actors making something of this material. But it’s too much to expect a reader to cobble the hints here together into credible characters. Sure, novels can work by indirection and implication, but the gaps in this book are in the wrong places, and the work is unsubtle in language, theme, and character. The melodrama, and the overly-signposted symbolism of the speeches, drown out everything else.

Now, I’m not a tremendous fan of American literature in general (more precisely: not a fan of what I’ve read of the American-written literature that Americans chose to canonise in the twentieth century), still less of early-twentieth-century American naturalism. And the fact that the book’s been so widely parodied and has such a broad influence doesn’t help; it’s impossible not to hear some of the lines of dialogue spoken by Mel Blanc, and difficult not to think of Old Yeller at the overwrought tearjerker finale, as well. Still, the book seems to me to be dated in ways that Dickens and George Eliot never are, particularly in its slang.

I’d go so far as to say that the book was so bad that it called into question the idea of the pared-down narrative voice. That is, most of the book consists of dialogue between the characters, with only an occasional brief interjection by an omniscient narrator. Instead of feeling like a successful attempt at economy of diction, though, it felt like a half-assed attempt to turn a play into a novel. Which makes you wonder about other novels that try for a similar spareness. Is that stylistic direction really fruitful? Or is it something inherently un-novelistic? Is it a coincidence that this stylistic ideal became prominent at about the same times that films did?

No art form exists in a vaccuum, and different media forms will influence each other. But not every influence is necessarily positive.


Stu Crump said...

I had to study the damned thing at A-level (17-18 years of age). Pox on it!

Matthew David Surridge said...

Yeah, it's really common in high schools over here, as well. Having read it now, I can't really see why, unless the sheer lack of subtlety means that it can be taught more easily. Actually, it's really surprising to me that it got on a British curriculum. It's not like you guys are hurting for a literature of your own.