Monday, September 17, 2012

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Never judge a book by its cover, the old dictum goes. How true, how true. When I was at school, one of the books we were supposed to read was Cannery Row but I never did. The copies we had in school had a dreary cover featuring an almost derelict-looking street, devoid of life. The blurb on the back talked of the difficult lives of the residents of Cannery Row and the poverty and deprivation. It sounded the most dismal, boring story imaginable and I resolved to have nothing to do with it. Being something of a smartarse at school I had a habit of doing this, refusing to study the texts that were taught in class and instead answering questions on things I read on my own. And so Cannery Row passed me by. What a pity! I loved this novel, and I know my teenage self would have loved it even more.

Cannery Row is about community. It is about the ways that communities combine and relate, their impulses and resonances, the underlying tensions and, above all, connections that make them cohesive units. As ever, the best way to understand a concept is to study not a perfect example of it, but a flawed one. And community in Cannery Row is certainly flawed, only it is flawed in a triumphant way: what appears, on the surface, to be a valueless and self-serving society is shown to be invested with a deeper quality of comradeship. Such comradeship seldom presents itself in solid, positive ways, however, and the lives of Mack and the boys in Cannery Row are, indeed, troubled and troublesome, but at least their intentions, if easily deflected, are nonetheless honourable. The community these men represent is a microcosm of the rest of us – chaotic, often selfish, sometimes violent, na├»ve, misguided, reckless and ruthless but, beneath it all, a community that is decent.

Now, of course, anyone celebrating the underlying decency of ordinary folks is liable to be accused of being sentimental. And, indeed, sentimentality is an accusation that has hung over Steinbeck for seventy years and more. In Cannery Row, he certainly forces the reader to consider sympathetically people who would not normally receive such positive consideration – bums and drunks and whores – but to suggest, as some critics do, that this is somehow a flaw can only be described as curmudgeonly. Sure, Steinbeck presents these people in a positive light, but he doesn’t gloss over their faults: Mack, in particular, remains a character you would rather experience in a novel than have for a friend in real life, no matter how sympathetically Steinbeck treats him. Readers can discern the true nature of characters more subtly than many critics recognise. Sentimentality need not be a flaw and an instrinsic sense of hope for mankind is not a weakness.

The two most important characters in Cannery Row are also the most interesting. Doc and Mack represent opposing impulses – the former a reflective seeker of knowledge and the latter an impulsive and reactive thirster for experience. The reason I am sure my teenage self would have loved this novel is that I identify strongly with both men. How can you simultaneously identify with characters who are at opposing psychological poles, you may ask. But it is possible, and it points to the greatness of this novel: Doc and Mack, ostensibly so dissimilar, are in essence possessed of the same spirit. It may be stretching their characterisation too far to suggest they are representative of the Apollonian and Dionysian in us – Doc, in particular, is not purely Apollonian in outlook – but there is a general sense that Mack represents what Doc could become if he were to lose his self-control, while Doc’s innate decency is resident also in Mack, albeit deeply submerged, as evidenced by his attempts to put on a party for his friend. The two are yin and yang: through the combination of their characters we can see the good and bad in all of us, high and low, altruistic and selfish, contained and violent. Thought of as a single character, Mack/Doc encapsulates the entire focus of the novel. Community works because we are of necessity co-conspirators within it: this cannot be denied.

What is most notable about Cannery Row, though, is its humour. This is a genuinely and consistently funny book. The Row’s cast of reprobates forms a glorious congregation of the feckless and their scheming and planning and concomitant failures are presented in a wonderful series of adventures. From first to last Cannery Row bristles with life and verve. Mack and the boys and Doc and Lee Chong and the Palace Flophouse and Grill will linger long in the memory. Don’t judge a book by its cover. And don’t judge a person by his outward appearance. There is much, much more to us than that, as the great John Steinbeck repeatedly shows us.

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