Monday, 16 May 2011

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

"It has always seemed strange to me...The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second." 

Authors tend to be chroniclers of their time but only the great literary works are able to reach out to a wide audience for each subsequent generation without losing any of its core authenticity despite the so-called "dated" subject matter. John Steinbeck's Cannery Row is one such novel and despite the setting being 1930's Americana, the themes of universal human experience still remain emotionally powerful. There is something about stories that revolve around flawed ordinary people who are just trying to find happiness and survive in this cruel world, that deeply resonates with me. Consisting of vignettes surrounding a bunch of different characters of the lower and middle-class with various racial backgrounds all living in a small coastal town, there is no complex overarching plot but rather a simple and authentic portrayal of American life where the mundane ultimately transcends into the magical. It is rare to come across a novel that is not bogged down by plot contrivances but rather focuses on intimate observations and establishing verisimilitude to creating a tangible sense of place that feels like home. 

The way Steinback is able to create a vivid setting and memorable characters with such poignancy and poetic beauty is a joy to behold. This novel reminds me of films by Mike Leigh who often utilizes a similar aesthetic of constructing stories where the plot comes second to the characters of lower/middle class Londoners as they experience everyday life and their relationships with others. Whether these people are burdened by the past or their current lives are full of despair or loneliness, they attempt to achieve atonement or some semblance of happiness but there is not always a happy ending where all the problems are resolved. The vicissitudes of life rarely ever unfold like a carefully constructed arch-plot story. Instead, Cannery Row establishes an ardent sense of immediacy. Life goes on. 

Read from May 06 to 07, 2011

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