I finished reading Cannery Row by John Steinbeck a little more than a week ago. It is a splendid book. I’m glad I finally read it. The frog collecting trip, the economy of frogs at Lee Chong’s, and the ill-conceived party were all hilarious. I really loved the image of a river of escaping frogs. Talk about your remarkable migration events! I’ll bet if any biologist ever tried to do those genetics they’d have a real head-scratcher. The idea of how much any given consumer item is worth in frogs will forever color my shopping experience. Would that case of Guinness be worth ten frogs? Or maybe as much as twenty? As currency frogs are certainly cuter than any given founding father though I admit my opinion is biased.
I love Steinbeck’s prose in this book. I love the calm clinical dissection of humanity in its natural habitat. The introduction to the edition I read praised Steinbeck’s scientific approach to the work. The character of Doc was apparently based upon a real marine biologist friend of Steinbeck. Doc’s approach to life, being lonely in a crowd, accepting of his neighbors, and calm in the face of crisis were all chalked up to the scientific/ecological worldview espoused by Steinbeck and his friend. Aside from the lonely bit, I thought that kind acceptance and calm were just virtues of good people. I suspect that the introduction’s author is giving science a little too much credit.
If a scientific profession is more like a state of mind or philosophy of life than a mere career I will say that I was very struck by Doc’s behavior when he found out about the second party. Even after the absolute disaster that was the first party, he does nothing to stop this intended party from occurring. Instead Doc just sits down, ponders what he can do to mitigate his losses, and locks down the expensive equipment and rattlesnakes. In short he prepares for the storm to come with philosophy. That kind of calm detachment is supposed to be the hallmark of science. It is certainly something I want to cultivate in myself.
The author of the introduction said that Steinbeck really drew creative strength from his scientific training, that ability to clinically describe a situation or a character like he was recording an experimental observation. He didn’t write from an emotional place apparently, he wrote from a place removed as a keen observer and that argument makes sense. I find it personally heartening to think that Steinbeck’s scientific background only served as a source of strength and inspiration to him as an artist.
The final metaphor of the healthy young gopher building his gopher paradise was so poignant. At first when I read it I thought it might have something to do with how even urban wildlife couldn’t flourish in the industrial wasteland of Cannery Row. That the entire scene was another critique of the harsh environment of the Row which can bring even seemingly strong men low. Yet after finishing the book and reading the introduction I decided that I preferred the explanation offered by its author. The gopher, like any other life, can’t truly flourish in paradise. It can only grow and propagate in risky conditions that are less than ideal. That made sense. Certainly it is an interpretation more in keeping with Steinbeck’s other work that I’ve read and read about. More importantly it just feels real. I can just picture that glossy furred bright eyed gopher beaming at his domain before the fall of his hopes. Before he had to make the best of things less two toes in a garden with traps. But at least he would not be alone in that trapped garden and the inhabitants of the Row have each other, flawed though they are.
I’ve made more progress in reading Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. It is splendid easy reading without being facile. I’m enjoying it. I love its dark humor. I love Bradbury’s conception of Martian everyday life with all its foibles and pitfalls. I can visualize the roiling cauldron of lava in which they cook their food, their toy spiders, their golden eyes, and the light winking off their masks. I just recently finished reading the tale of the second rocket from Earth and found myself snorting with humor as the whole crew was committed to an asylum. That probably is how it would go if we ever made first contact with a civilization contemporary to ourselves in development, just on another world. Would anyone here believe in explorers from space? We’d probably think it was a Hollywood stunt or reality TV. Heck, a shocking proportion of Americans still think humanity never landed on the moon. If they don’t believe in our exploration to our nearest stellar neighbor why would the public here take seriously a group of fellows in a rocket ship? I’m excited to keep reading and will post more thoughts as I progress.
Finally, I’m up to page 930 in The Tale of Genji. Hurrah! Only 205 pages to go. =) Things are starting to get a little bit ridiculous for Karou and I confess to laughing my head off at his expense. I don’t care if I was meant to laugh or not, sometimes a good belly laugh is worth appreciating regardless of the source. Today I will close my post with a simple plea to the universe: please, Universe, let an animated musical harem comedy be made based on Genji!