Nothing between human beings isn’t uncomplicated and there’s no way to speak of human beings without simplifying and misrepresenting them.
– Joyce Carol Oates, We Were the Mulvaneys
Updates on my progress re Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys – I’ve finally finished it, and believe it or not, the last 50 pages flew by pretty quickly, which goes to show that there are rewards to be reaped from bibliographic perseverance, or just that Oates didn’t do that great a job with her overall narrative architecture in this book.
Either way, I think it’ll probably be quite some time before I pick up another family saga. Still, I give mega creds to Oates for her stylistic elegance – there’s no denying that this prolific lady has a way with words.
She’s worth reading, maybe just not at urban speed.
Over this period of sluggish struggle with Oates’ book, I happened to have re-read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which is a considerably shorter classic about the life of two American labourers during the Great Depression era.
I was surprised by how much it touched me, especially when I don’t recall feeling much the first time I read it. Then again, I didn’t even register that Pride and Prejudice was a love story when I first read it at 10, so perhaps first impressions gained at a time of literary immaturity usually aren’t reliable.
Having read and loved his short stories, I maintain that John Steinbeck is the American realist par excellence, perhaps second only to John Updike (my all-time favourite DWM*), and that his works are sine qua non for the personal library of any self-professed 20th century literary lover.
Exploring Lennie Small – a giant who is anything but small
In Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck’s portrayal of the mentally retarded Lennie Small is masterfully heartbreaking, because he paints Lennie as a walking paradox who has very little agency over what he does, says or feels: he is a child trapped in a man’s body, a purist in a practical world, an animal lover who kills animals and doesn’t realise it until he does, and a male labourer who is even more sentimental than the only woman in the book.
Lennie is so pure in mind and so untainted in soul that he emerges a saintly anomaly when compared to all the ruthless, wily, worldly characters around him.
Notice how people who are radically ‘different’ often meet two fates: if eventually accepted by the masses, they will be haloicized (e.g. Jesus); if ultimately rejected, they will be persecuted (e.g. Othello). As the adage goes, fortune favors the bold, so those who are not endowed with the confidence of asserting their ‘different-ness’ (because the word ‘difference’ doesn’t suffice to underscore just how different these characters are) would naturally fall to the sidelines of the marginalized, deemed freaks of nature or specimens of failure.
In Of Mice, Lennie almost always steps on toes, and it is precisely because his mishaps are such bumbling examples of comic awkwardness that they are so heartrending, and that he is able to incite such sympathy on the reader’s part.
A. C. Bradley, one of the seminal Shakespearean scholars, was often criticized for commenting on dramatic characters as if they were real people, but I sometimes wonder how it’s possible for anyone not to conceive of fictional constructs as real people, because isn’t that ultimately the point of literature – to use novels as interpersonal sandboxes, to imagine the fictional as stand-ins for the real, and as such, to strengthen our capacity for empathy?
Granted, it’s difficult to imagine myself as a mentally retarded person (for which I’m incredibly thankful), but there are definitely times when I have felt like the inadequate moron in the corner, or the sore thumb that’s grossly unaware of her unwelcome presence.
The thing with Lennie is that he doesn’t mean for his presence to be so glaringly unwelcome; most of the time, this Steinbeck character is genuinely sorry and helpless about his physical ineptitude, which all the more compounds his sympathy quotient in the reader’s eyes.
A good example of this is when George, Lennie’s understanding but also understandingly irate sidekick, tells him off for picking up stray mice and secretly hoarding them as pets:
“You gonna give me that mouse or do I have to sock you?”
“Give you what, George?”
“You know damn well what. I want that mouse.”
Lennie reluctantly reached into his pocket. His voice broke a little. “I don’t know why I can’t keep it. It ain’t nobody’s mouse. I didn’t steal it. I found it lyin’ right beside the road… I wasn’t doin’ nothing bad with it, George. Jus’ strokin’ it.”
George stood up and threw the mouse as far as he could into the darkening brush, and then he stepped to the pool and washed his hands. “You crazy fool. Don’t you think I could see your feet was wet where you went across the river to get it?” He heard Lennie’s whimpering cry and wheeled about. “Blubberin’ like a baby! Jesus Christ! A big guy like you.” Lennie’s lip quivered and tears started in his eyes. “Aw, Lennie!” George put his hand on Lennie’s shoulder. “I ain’t takin’ it away jus’ for meanness. The mouse ain’t fresh, Lennie; and besides, you’ve broke it pettin’ it. You get another mouse that’s fresh and I’ll let you keep it a little while.”
Lennie sat down on the ground and hung his head dejectedly. “I don’t know where there is no other mouse. I remember a lady used to give ‘em to me – ever’ one she got. But that lady ain’t here.”
George scoffed. “Lady, huh? Don’t even remember who that lady was. That was your own Aunt Clara. An’ she stopped givin’ em to ya. You always killed ‘em.”
Lennie looked sadly up at him. “They was so little,” he said, apologetically. “I’d pet ‘em, and pretty soon they bit my fingers and I pinched their heads a little and then they was dead – because they was so little.”
Killing something without meaning to: this has got to be one of the greatest moral dilemmas known to man. Without intention, can even the greatest of crimes be forgiven, despite the irreversibility of the act?
Lennie’s ‘crime’ is that he is too big, and as such, his force is often too great for most delicate creatures to bear, as they die beneath the burden of his lethal Midas touch. Lennie, this big-hearted bumbling bloke and poor child of deterministic tragedy, is a serial killer, albeit an unwilling one.
Can you, then, sympathise with this accomplice of Death, notwithstanding the complete lack of control he has over his deadliness?
* * *
On a merrier note, Christmas is in the offing, and if tradition stands in the Chan abode, soon the turkey will also be in the oven. In a capitalist haven like Hong Kong, this festival is really just another excuse to go shopping, not that I take too much issue with that, being a native product of a product-crazed culture.
I wonder when I’ll be able to experience a white Christmas again – I miss winter in England, although when I was there, I would often curse my toes off so much from the cold I didn’t need frostbites to remind me which part of the Northern Hemisphere I was in.
Have a happy, happy Christmas, everyone. Read a book or something, or failing that, spend more time with your loved ones. Actually, reverse the order, because as much as virtual living procures its own enjoyments, it is never worth letting imagined figurines get in the way of real flesh and blood, chock full of love and hugs.
*Dead White Male: a controversial term for Caucasian male authors who have gained eminence and been posthumously canonised in Western literary history (used tongue-in-cheek here)