McTeague

by Frank Norris

6/10

This probably would have been successful as a short story or novella, but as a full-length novel it was tedious and uneventful. But for the stunning ending that left me wanting more, I just couldn’t make myself care about anyone or anything going on here.None of the characters seemed real. They were uniformly one-dimensional, defined by one particular quirk of character. Thematically it was interesting, with the discussion of greed, base instincts, and the idea of McTeague’s downfall being caused solely by his interest in a woman (or the world?). I also enjoyed how Norris mirrored McTeague’s romantic relationship with those of both Zerkow/Maria and Old Grannis/Miss Baker.

So there are obviously a lot of interesting things happening here, yet the book somehow didn’t interest me. The descriptions were pretty but grew too frequent, as little else happened. Dialogue, actions and settings were repeated often, to what point I’m not sure. Everything just seemed cold and inaccessible.

The contrast is striking between this book and the one I just picked up, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. I came to both novels knowing nothing beyond their being well-regarded by people who would know. Turgenev gives me a warm, conversational tone that makes me smile and leads me on eagerly. Norris seemed to be going for something else, something which impeded my enjoyment.

I’m disappointed in myself for not liking it more, or “getting” it. Apparently it’s a relatively important work of naturalism, and one of Stephen King’s favorite books — he called it a “damn fine novel.” That I disagree is probably more a defect in my own judgment than his, which is disconcerting. But oh well, I can’t make myself like something that just doesn’t do it for me. And maybe the most frustrating part is that I feel like there’s something there, something that would help this book transcend my lack of enjoyment, yet I just can’t figure out what it might be.

Update: Upon researching literary naturalism I understand more what Norris was attempting here, and that many of the reasons I didn’t enjoy the book were an intentional facet of its naturalism. That’s fine and well, but I can now state that I don’t like naturalism and have little desire to read any more of it.

I do, however, now appreciate the ending all the more. . . the message that us humans can concern ourselves with worldly concerns however much we want, but nature’s still gonna get us in the end. That’s pretty cool.

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