Steinbeck held that ‘there is always one book for one man’, and he believed that East of Eden was his book. He felt that all his prior work until that point was just him warming up for this one book, this one project his life was meant to create.
And after I had finally slapped its back cover, holding the book close to my heart I wondered if I deserved it. I wondered about this man who poured his heart out between the leaves of paper.
“When a child first catches adults out -- when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not always have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just -- his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child's world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing.”
I have this habit of underlining lines from books I like. A number of times, they are ordinary jumbles of words, but they somehow, help me take a peek into the author's psyche, which I think, is a privilege camouflaging in plain sight. This book, however, made me weary to the point I stopped myself, and gave my pencil a rest. This was all too beautiful for me to handle. Everything Steinbeck had written deserved to be painted on walls and, be screamed from rooftops. It is profundity at its finest, and the best part about it is that it doesn’t try at all.
"And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good."
Something about Steinbeck’s characters is that they are real and yet, in some strange way, perfect. There is an unsaid, unsketched, unspoken notion about the utopia where the moral always balances the immoral, where equilibrium is a straight line, never faltering. So, when the good disintegrates into the bad, it doesn’t just end there. There's always a shift on some other plane, compensating for the emergent mild chaos. As Virginia Woolf put it, “A light here requires a shadow there.”
In addition, Steinbeck’s storytelling ability leaves you heaving. When he describes Salinas Valley, detailed pictures paint themselves in your head. You are right there, removed from the time and place you’re in, and instead transported into the picturesque valley. His narration is beyond compare; something else altogether. He sweeps across generations, brings characters in and out of the story, and builds a family after family. He plays this game on his table top for hours on end, and you sit watching, transfixed.
“...Samuel rode lightly on top of a book and he balanced happily among ideas the way a man rides white rapids in a canoe. But Tom got into a book, crawled and groveled between the covers, tunneled like a mole among the thoughts, and came up with the book all over his face and hands.”
The book is centred on the story of Cain and Abel from the Bible, but Steinbeck doesn't limit it to that. It’s almost as if he writes about ‘now’, but instead begins from the big bang, making the reader realise how ‘now’ was made altogether. One could say his story lies in history.
There is also a very strong theme of ‘choice’ in the book relating to ‘how we are who we choose to be’. This is a very simple view, something we all know, and strangely enough we often overlook it, but Steinbeck reminds us of how the ‘glory of choice’ is what makes us who we are, and gives us the freedom to be who we are. Evil can choose to take an about turn, and the road would open its arms for it. He believed that this freedom of choice is what makes us victors, and places us among Gods.
“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.”
And let’s forget everything: the infinite sageness that spills from his wrists, and floods floors and minds.
“Do you take pride in your hurt? Does it make you seem large and tragic?"
Since decades, I’ve always wanted a friend older than myself; thin crumpled paper for skin, hair made of clouds and eyes hiding behind thick glasses, who would listen to me, advise me in his delicate watery voice, which would sound like doors in mossy haunted houses opening and closing.
I never had that friend, but after I read East of Eden, I realised it doesn't have to be a person.