Tuesday, July 3, 2012

McTeague by Frank Norris

At some point in the 1990s I started watching silent movies.  At this point in time where I’m constantly multi-tasking, I really miss watching them & know I need to start again.  They’re calming & soothing & because of needing to read & not being able to look away, I find them more engaging & submersive than most modern films.  Anyway, one of my favorite silent films is one called Greed (1924) in part because of its experimental use of color with gold painted yellow & such, but also because of it showing how quick the decline can be in friendships & relationships & morality when money becomes important.  I liked the movie so much that I named a character McTeague in my cowboy comic Just A Man.  So I’ve known about the book McTeague that Greed is based on for a long time, but I’ve never seen it anywhere & it’s fallen into the public domain so reprinting it I guess isn’t that lucrative & I’d kinda given up on it when I found an audiobook of it on Archive.org.

So this book is from 1899, which means it has a slightly different writing style than people might be used to.  The way the chapters are divided up it feels almost like a collection of short stories rather than a novel & I can’t find any information on the mighty internet about if portions of it were published prior to being in the novel or not.  The first half of the book is more or less a soap opera about living in a lower class part of San Francisco & has two best friends (McTeague & Marcus) in a rivalry for the love of a young girl named Trina.  McTeague is a dentist & he falls in love with Trina while working on her teeth after she falls down & busts some teeth out.  The bit where McTeague is trying to scare himself off the girl is handled really well with him listing off reasons to himself not to love her as he eventually finds those things appealing & attractive.  Marcus gives up his pursuit of Trina & helps McTeague to get in a position to marry her, but on the wedding day Trina wins $5000 & Marcus feels the money should be his & does what he can to screw up McTeague & Trina’s life which includes making McTeague lose his dental practice.  After McTeague loses his job, things get really creepy with typical characters being consumed with a desire for money & the slide from being someone relatable to despicable is pretty smooth as people become misers, thieves, liars, & killers.  I mean when a woman has $5000 in gold pieces she lays on the bed & sleeps naked on while keeping her husband locked out hungry on the streets isn’t particularly sympathetic & neither is the man that has given up looking for work & steals from his wife to buy beer.  Painting an honest portrait of unlikable characters in a way that is compelling enough to still be readable is tough.  So while I do dig this & think it’s pretty solid, there is something weird to me where it feels more like a collection of short stories than a novel; but then again I like short stories.

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