I’m just tearing through this book. Still struck by how different it is from Grapes of Wrath. That book was his War and Peace, and this one is his Anna Karenina: equally long and equally observant, but written on a much smaller scale and concerned more with individuals than with summarizing an entire time and place.
The character portraits are so complex. And they’re all so much larger than life. They do the things that people ought to do (as opposed to what we actually do). Even the characters that perplex me, like Lee, the Chinese servant who’s a major character in the book, still have a shine to them.
Lee really harms this book. His role here is so disquieting. He has no life of his own. He only exists to comment upon and fix other peoples’ problems. And even the character himself seems to be aware that this is not enough! He’s constantly trying to run off to San Francisco to start his own life, but he keeps being pulled back by other peoples’ needs. And whenever other characters are like, “Hey, give us some of your inscrutable Oriental wisdom,” he’s like, “Err, I was born in America.”
And yet…then he does give them a dollop of inscrutable Oriental wisdom. The most interesting thing about Lee is the way he plays with other peoples’ perceptions of him. He knows they will never see him as an America, so he’s always trying to claim some sort of Chinese heritage. And when he needs to, he’ll hold that out, and be like, “Ugh, you westerners do it this way. Not like us in the East!”
But then he’ll step back. Because he wants to be American too. And he’ll say something about how he doesn’t really understand all that Chinese stuff.
It’s tragic. All Lee needs, in order to be the best (rather than the worst) part of this book, is to have his own plotlines and his own needs. The book constantly reaches in that direction, but it never quite gets there. And it’s racism, partly, but it’s also because the book simply needs Lee, on a practical level, to constantly be around as a sounding board and troubleshooter for other people. If it allowed Lee to have his own desires, then the book might need to face up to the fact that, well, perhaps one day he might not be there when people need him to be. Which is a bigger kind of racism. It’s like John Steinbeck said, “This is the book I have to write, and I’m not going to let the needs of a Chinaman throw it out of joint.”
This is a lesson to all of us, because I’m sure when the book came out, he was praised for his delicate and subtle portrayal of a non-white person (just the same as how, when Gone With The Wind came out, Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for her, admittedly skillful, portrayal of the racist Mammy stereotype).