I just can’t figure Sinclair Lewis out. Skill with dialogue? Yes, I think so. Ability to write a convincing and engaging character? We have one example: Martin Arrowsmith. Edgy ability to see the culture and society in interesting ways? Absolutely…look at my early posts on this novel for more on this. An interesting setting? A great one, really—the changing world for scientists and medical professionals over a fairly critical decade in which huge amounts of progress are realized. So why is this novel becoming an absolute chore?
I think it’s that he has no idea where to go with it. The most recent section sees Martin break the cycle (finally!) he’s been going through since he was a teenager. Just when he gets a bit irritated and is about to rebel against his job as a research scientist (as he has many times before), the stars align. Gottlieb and Wickett take him under their wing, and teach him the mathematical tools he needs to do some “real” science. The war arrives, giving him a fancy uniform and a certain amount of responsibility (though also a drudge of a task mass-producing certain things in the lab for the war effort). And he has a delightful accidental discovery—something that invigorates his interest in science. He experiments and believes it may not be a fluke. Gradually he takes more and more people into his confidence—his boss is thrilled at the possibility that a real leap forward will occur. He’s promised a position of importance, a huge salary increase, fame and fortune. But Martin gets a bit too worried that he’ll publish something incomplete and look foolish. So he delays, doing more and more experimentation to make sure he’s covered all his bases. And because of this, a Frenchman publishes the same discovery first. Martin’s work is instantly unimportant. His bosses simply abandon all their plans for him, relegating him to the shadows again, a simple “lab grunt” doing repetitive and unchallenging work.
Why go through all this? Are some scientists over-cautious? Yes, I suppose so, but Martin hasn’t shown much sign of it before. In many ways, all of these actions are Martin bucking his personal trends—choosing to respect the expertise of his “elders” rather than turn proudly away from it, choosing to be patient and see what can come of his dedication, choosing not to run away from hardships but to work through them. And the net result is nothing different than what he’s achieved the other way. So what is this? A nihilist fable? Lewis isn’t writing that—he’s not Kafka, he’s not Sartre or Camus. He doesn’t have their eye for situation, or their interest in laying the human condition bare. And he’s not writing a delicate little novel that isn’t interested in plot: as I’ve mentioned before, most of the characters are left a bit thin (in part by Martin’s itinerant lifestyle), most of the settings aren’t carefully evoked (again, Martin’s wanderings mean most of these towns never come to life as places, even cities like Chicago that ought to leap off the page). None of that would matter in a novel where the critically important thing was Martin and his personal struggle against…against something. But that’s the very thing he makes ridiculous by his toying with Martin and his dreams.
I think one of my real struggles is that I do tend to be a reader who likes novels with a character I identify with and like. I do tend to like novels that send a positive message, whether overt or subliminal. These are not the only kind of novels to read, or write, for that matter. But I know I’ve branched out also—that I’ve enjoyed novels that aren’t “traditional” in this way. And I think even the novels I don’t enjoy, I can at least understand how they work. I don’t think this is one of those. But it’s not a novel that’s fun to bash (like those wretched Mclaughlins), or one that’s easy to pick apart (like those unenjoyable Ambersons). I can’t imagine where it’s ending—we’ll see if these last 100 pages (a long, difficult road to walk lies in front of me) help rehabilitate the book.