"McTeague" by Frank Norris (1899)
"After the two had drunk together Maria produced the gold tape. Zerkow's eyes glittered on the instant. The sight of gold invariably sent a qualm all through him; try as he would, he could not repress it. His fingers trembled and clawed at his mouth, his breath grew short."
Frank Norris was a journalist and author during the late 1880s and early 1900s. He lived in San Francisco for most of his life, wrote for The San Francisco Chronicle, and died very young at 32.
McTeague is perhaps his most well-regarded novel, though Norris and his works have fallen out of fashion in recent years. The novel details an oafish dentist's love affair with a friend's cousin, and bears many similarities to Shakespeare's Othello.
Norris the author was very influenced by French writer Emilie Zola, whose works he encountered while studying art in Paris. Zola was a big proponent of the naturalist approach to literature, which explains Norris' championing of Theodore Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie. I was often reminded of Dreiser's work while reading McTeague, given the flawed nature of the characters and the mistaken choices they often make. A character in Sister Carrie engages in impulsive theft the same way that a character in McTeague decides that she's in love. No one in either book really knows what they are doing, or what their choices will lead to, even though they make frequent attempts to rationalize their actions.
But where Sister Carrie succeeds in taking a step back from its characters - by not judging them for their actions - McTeague often tries too hard to make a point. Instead of letting the drama play out, and instead of leaving conclusions to the reader, McTeague often interjects philosophical conclusions into the narrative. I think the result of this "tampering" is a much weaker, much less modern book. Something about the way in which McTeague was written speaks to a lack of trust in the reader's judgement, and even a kind of condescension. This condescension isn't pervasive enough to be annoying, but it did pull me out of the narrative at several points.
This, and there are parts of this book where even Norris' naturalism seems to break down, and in which his characters' actions verge on the irrational. A young bride becomes a miser for no perceptible reason. A young man develops an equally unfounded grudge. It's not so much that such transformations couldn't develop out of earlier whims, but that they would proceed in stages. Inserting them into the narrative out of the blue makes them seem less natural, rather than the opposite.
More worrying still are the racial stereotypes present in this book. In McTeague one finds a clear divide between the Caucasian characters and non-Caucasian ones, with the latter often described in animalistic and/or negative terms. The grasping Jew lusts after gold and exhibits "claws" (see quote above), while the resident "Mexican" is a thief and a fraud in equal measure. The white upper-class inhabiting this book - for all their idiocy - are still superior to the Jew and the Mexican. Othello again, but even more specifically racial than Shakespeare intended.
This said, McTeague is a well-written book that made me wonder what Norris would have come up with if he had lived longer, and if he had somehow overcome his racist mode of thinking. He was definitely a good writer, and the portrait of old San Francisco one finds in McTeague is fascinating. The characters that aren't stereotypes are also equally compelling, though the characters that are mitigate the quality of the overall story.
If you like Steinbeck you might find in Frank Norris an interesting precursor. There are many parallels to be drawn between the two authors, not least among which are their naturalism, their relation to California, their journalistic backgrounds, and their concern for the working man. Steinbeck is (of course) a far better writer, but one could argue that he wrote upon a template that Frank Norris helped set out.
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