Sunday, January 20, 2008

An American Tragedy

I have a thing for big novels. Not physically. Physically, I like slim little Muriel Spark-sized novels. Physically, big novels are too heavy to read in bed late at night. But emotionally … well, that’s another matter entirely. For me, emotionally, big novels are commitments, big novels pay off, and that’s why I keep going back to them. That’s why I read Gone with the Wind over and over and over when I was in junior high. That’s why I stuck with the unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo (more than 1,400 pages), even when I realized that every other member of my classics book club was reading the abridged version---not their faults, as the version they bought didn’t mention anything about abridgement. And that’s why I’m nearly through The Golden Notebook.

Big novels often have one thing going against them, though. Setup. They can take so long to get into. At the beginning of last year, I started Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. I can’t remember why I decided that I had to read this book, but I did have to, so I started it, and then put it down, and then read some more, and then put it down … by September I was only 300 pages into it. I had put it down and picked it up countless times, and read many other books in between, but the crazy thing was that whenever I started to read it again, I remembered every single detail of what I had already read.

The reason it took me so long to get into it is that Dreiser loves his sentences so much that he repeats them, often, sometimes in new ways, sometimes in the same way. When you’re just getting to know characters and nothing much has happened in the story, this can be a bit burdensome. But then something happens—perhaps intentional, but probably not—and the rhythm he has created with his repetition serves as a kind of hypnotism, along with a brilliant use of incomplete sentences, such as this one, which I think about often: “Bitter cold and bright stars.” The rhythm rocks you (though doesn’t lull you) into the story, to a place where you couldn’t back out even if you wanted to … and I didn’t want to.

Halfway into the book, I couldn’t put it down. Based on the true story of a murder in the early 1900s, An American Tragedy is just what its title suggests: a very American story about a man who wants more than he has, what he will try to do to have it. It is about that sad side of the American Dream, that willingness to do anything to in order to have. It was a perfect reflection of its time, when there was suddenly so much to want and have in America, and it’s a perfect reflection of these modern times---or maybe it’s just that America hasn’t really changed much over the past 100 years. As I read it I thought often about the novels of Joyce Carol Oates, with their explorations of morality and fatality. And I often found myself humming Kris Kristofferson’ssong, “In the News,” which begins:

Read about the sorry way he done somebody's daughter
Chained her to a heavy thing and threw her in the water
And she sank into the darkness with their baby son inside her
A little piece of truth and beauty died

While this opening stanza is about Laci Peterson, the song is overall about the abuse of power on all levels; it is about horrific acts committed purely for selfish reasons, from one man’s murder of his wife to one country’s invasion of another, consequences be damned. Of course, this song is also relevant because Lacy Peterson was drowned by her husband and in An American Tragedy (I don’t think I’m giving anything away here, and in any case, I found the book more compelling because I knew what was going to happen), a young man does the same to his pregnant ex-girlfriend, simply because he wants out, and wants something else. And what is more American than getting what we want? And what is more tragically American than doing so at the expense of another?

An interesting thing happened while I was reading this book. Just as I got to the part about the trial, I was called in for jury duty, so there was a weird continuum between my days and nights, as I sat on jury listening to a trial and then went home and read about a trial. Granted, my trial was for a DUI, not murder, and no one in the book was distracted by the prosecutor’s panty lines or the ‘80s rock song of a cell phone that someone occasionally forgot to turn off or the dilemma of whether or not to date the jury foreman, but still, there was a courtroom and lawyers and judge and all the legalities that are still the same … it lent a surreal aspect to my reading, which had reached the page turner stage by then. Because if you make it through the beginning of An American Tragedy, by the time you reach the trial, you will not be able to put it down.

The one thing I found interesting about my own eventual obsession with the book was how scandalous I found it: illegitimate pregnancy, attempts at abortion, murder. The latter of course is always shocking, but the first two are hardly the stuff to raise eyebrows in the 21st century. Naturally, there was a part of me that was imagining what it would have been like to read this book when it came out in the 1920s---with its mention of Freudians and psychic sex scars and the heroin that the victim’s mother was given to calm her after her daughter’s death. But what really affected me was that even though this kind of thing happens too often (just read the CNN home page), it is still shocking to think about one person harming another, deliberately, for purely self-serving reasons. For purely self-serving reasons. To plot it out. To cover it up. To look into another person’s eyes and still be able to conceive of the act, which to me is just short, morally speaking, of carrying it out.

The night after my last day of jury duty was also the night I finished reading. After closing the novel, I grabbed my Netflix and watched 12 Angry Men. Now I’m watching A Place in the Sun, which was based on the book. Leave it to Hollywood to make Montgomery Clift sympathetic and the victim (played by Shelley Winters) nearly seem deserving of her fate … an American tragedy, indeed.


Janet Brown said...

Much to mull over in this essay--and a book that I haven't yet read, but now want to--off to the library! But if you're in the mood for a big book, do try Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra, now in paperback and also on the very best remainder tables in hardcover.

Blair said...

Great little essay, Kim! xo