Reading Steinbeck makes me yearn to write excellent fiction, and at the same time despair of ever doing so.
To a God Unknown is one of Steinbeck’s earliest novels. I don’t pretend to fully grasp all that the author intended to convey. But it did provide me with a lot of food for thought, primarily regarding mysticism; humanity’s desire to worship or commune with something larger than the here and now; and the struggle between changing worldviews, in this case between “pagan” ritual and Christianity. Always fascinating to think about.
We don’t write the way we used to, or at least the authors of the books I’m reading don’t. Maybe I’m not reading the right books. Steinbeck’s story is loaded with content, and concepts. Let’s face it, it’s not a fast car chase along Highway 1, a natural disaster, or a gripping tale of betrayal with guns blazing. A modern reader might think To a God Unknown is, frankly, slow.
We can’t read a novel by John Steinbeck with the same mindset as we read Dan Brown. Steinbeck writes, “Her crying was as satisfying and as luxurious as a morning’s yawn,” (37). Chew on that for a moment. The author achieves a lot of description and understanding with this simple 12-word sentence. There is nothing earth-shattering here, but there is a very clear portrayal or understanding of not only how it feels to unburden one’s heart with tears, but also to yawn—satisfying and luxurious.
Former school teacher, young wife and new mother, Elizabeth says to her husband, the protagonist Joseph Wayne, “I used to think in terms of things I had read. I never do now. I don’t think at all. I just do things that occur to me,” (114). And when Joseph’s brother tells him, “You love the earth too much. You give no thought to the hereafter.” (117) These statements convey something rather profound about differences in the ways we live.
After Joseph’s wife tragically dies, he returns to his house:
“The clock wound by Elizabeth still ticked, storing in its spring the pressure of her hand, and the wool socks she had hung to dry over the stove screen were still damp. These were vital parts of Elizabeth that were not dead yet. Joseph pondered slowly over it—Life cannot be cut off quickly. One cannot be dead until the things he changed are dead. His effect is the only evidence of his life. While there remains even a plaintive memory, a person cannot be cut off, dead. And he thought, ‘It’s a long slow process for a human to die. We kill a cow, and it is dead as soon as the meat is eaten, but a man’s life dies as a commotion in a still pool dies, in little waves, spreading and growing towards stillness.'”(136)
To be a great writer requires more than a talent with words; it requires a great depth of thought.
Our attention-spans have grown shorter in the fast-paced computer age we live in. We don’t read the way we used to. We shouldn’t write the way we used to. But we should be pushing the boundaries of thought forward. Taking time to observe. Contemplation. We can’t write and complete a John Steinbeck novel, a great novel, in the month of November.
Steinbeck, John. To a God Unknown. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.