This much, at least, can be said for Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth, the 1943 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction and the current monkey on my back—it does all it can to summon up the picture of how chaotic Europe felt in the period following World War I, particularly the first dangerous signs of the worldwide depression that creeps up around our main characters here in the spring of 1930. What is frustrating is how little else Sinclair is interested in doing with the novel. The cast of characters is pretty broad, at this point—we have Lanny Budd, the scion of a munitions magnate, and his wealthy wife Irma, and their little infant; Lanny’s friend, the wealthy German Jewish importer/exporter, Johannes Robin, along with his wife and assorted leftist kids, one of whom has married Lanny’s communist half-sister; snooty parents galore, supercilious nurses and servants, a crusty yacht captain, an aging Greek industrialist, a middle-aged Polish woman who claims to be able to contact a Native American named Tecumseh in the spirit world, and the list goes on. This mix of people ought to yield almost unending delight and fascination, but instead, Sinclair is running the whole book aground on what the late Roger Ebert called “Brotman’s Law“—“If nothing has happened by the end of the first reel, nothing is going to happen.” I am, translating movie reels into novel pages, about two reels into Dragon’s Teeth at this point, and I fear Brotman is right about my fate.
It’s not that nothing at all happens: it’s only that no meaningful tension or conflict is being built up to. Every incident seems to pass quickly and unimportantly: Lanny and Irma have some little tensions but I’m not waiting with bated breath for their marriage’s house of cards to rise or fall. Robin’s concerns for his childrens’ leftist sympathies keep recurring, but with no apparent end in mind. For crying out loud, our Polish psychic with the Indian spirit guide, who ought to be good for at least a laugh (if not some spooky mystery), is of no significance in the novel’s terms either—she does seem to have freakish abilities to talk about facts she should have no way of knowing, but the characters themselves are not terribly interested, and so far all it’s done is provide Lanny with an opportunity to intrigue a businessman into coming down to the yacht for a seance. None of this is gripping writing. I have no idea why I’m following all these people, why I care if someone’s making money or losing money, whether it matters that someone is coming on the yacht, or buying a painting, or worried about their mother, etc. There isn’t a single character in the novel who, if Sinclair killed them off on the next page, would make even a small ripple in the pool of the story: I wouldn’t wonder about an unfinished thought or a storyline that might never resolve. As I think about it, isn’t that a pretty damning statement to be able to make about any novel?
So, what is Sinclair doing, if not creating some sort of meaningful plot? Well, on the one hand, I think he expects his setting to do the heavy lifting here: we know, from the vantage point of 1943, what these characters do not. We know to shake our heads sadly as Lanny and his father hope that the family fortunes rebound once the stock market dusts itself off from that one-time little hiccup in October of 1929. We know to cringe with fear as Robin, the wealthy German Jew, makes a little cash selling guns to the Nazi Party while simultaneously betting on the fact that they’ll never seize power. We suck in our breath quietly as the rich folks tour the Mediterranean by yacht and see all the terrible battlefields of what they don’t know yet should be called the First World War. But that’s not enough, Upton, and you really ought to be able to know it. All it does is give a sense of forboding, the knowledge that there’s a horizon and crossing it will have consequences. What differentiates this from a truly tragic and ironic piece (say, Oedipus Rex) is the impulse that drives the action forward, the captain wrecking the ship on the rocks only we know are there, the plague in Thebes that will force its ruler to unearth the true cause even as it unmakes his whole life. It wouldn’t take much for Sinclair to crack the whip a little and get us there—some specific dealing for Robin vis-a-vis the Nazis that will force a meaningful confrontation, or maybe some leftist shenanigans that a few young Budds and Robins get mixed up in (maybe in the Soviet Union?) that forces the rest of the family to get off their butts. But he’s not interested in writing that kind of book.
What is he writing? Propaganda—the folks who bash Grapes of Wrath and Steinbeck for being “too political” really should read this to understand their error. Sinclair’s not interested in writing a story; he’s trying to inculcate us, to fix in our minds certain images about the world and the people in it, and the result is clunkily phrased and not really very compelling. Take this paragraph as an example: the Budds wait at the train station for the arrival of their friends, the Robins:
“Two happy members of the prosperous classes welcoming five of their intimate friends on the platform of a railroad station. Everybody there knew who the Budds were, and knew that when they hugged and kissed people, and laughed and chatted with them gaily, the people must be wealthy and famous like themselves. A pleasant thing to have friends whom you can love and appreciate, and who will love and appreciate you. Pleasant also to have villas and motorcars and yachts; but many people do not have them, and do not have many dear friends. They know themselves to be dull and undistinguished, and feel themselves to be lonely; they stand and watch with a sad envy the behavior of the fortunate classes on those few occasions when they condescend to manifest their feelings in public.”
First off, if you like that, go get this book because it was written just for you. For the rest of us, you hear, I think, how snippy Sinclair gets when he talks about these families. Even granting him that they are too rich for their own good, and oblivious to how that affects others (though I’m not sure this isn’t just a caricature), is it too much to ask that he grant them the respect of being people who also have genuine feelings and, you know, more than one dimension? Here he seems to bundle up their genuine joy at seeing their friends—not because they’re rich but because they’re human beings who care about each other—with crass consumerism and oppressive class warfare. Upton, buddy, if you hate these people, at least make them interesting to watch, or hey, original idea here, maybe write a novel that isn’t fixated entirely on a class of people you think are parasites? Because the sneering narration just makes it that much harder to care about a group of people whose uneventful and totally carefree lives are not the makings of a really gripping thriller. The sad thing here is, I really want to care about these characters, a lot more than Sinclair does. I see, in ways that he doesn’t, how complicated and fascinating a man like Johannes Robin would really have to be—the German Jew profiteering off World War I and turning a buck off of supplying Hitler with machine guns, whose leftist children are sending cash to the Communists and would move to Stalin’s USSR if Dad would let them, the devoted husband and conscientious friend who sticks loyally by his commitments and who grew up in such poverty in the ghetto that he means never to be unsafe again. This is a guy you ought to be able to construct a towering novel around, with intrigue and connections to the German underworld, whispers of Nazi outrages but it’s 1930 and who knows, maybe Hitler’s just burning off steam, etc. And all Sinclair can do with him is make some weird remarks about his Jewishness (sometimes it feels like a defense against anti-Semitism, and other times it feels a little deferential to it), a couple of quick quips about the Nazis, and then mostly a long streak of semi-judgmental incidents that show us that rich dudes are out of touch. It’s not even edgy, pointed satire: most of the time it’s paint-by-numbers, lots of “X didn’t think much about the servants” or “Y wished that Z would realize how much money she’d brought to the marriage, and relax a little about making a success of his business”.
Oh, and as if all this isn’t enough, Sinclair has the fatal combination of A) casting two nursing mothers as central characters in his novel while B) clearly being a guy who cannot talk like a decent human being about nursing mothers. And I’m not just talking about him creepily dwelling on it all the time, although he does: almost no scene is complete without either the nursing mothers being somehow inconvenient or noteworthy, or else the narrator alluding to what they’re doing. I’ve read the phrase “the lactant mothers” more times than anyone should have to. But he also weirdly analogizes them constantly to cows—I know, it sounds like a bad joke, but I’m serious, he refers to any social outing including both nursing mothers as a “dairy farm”, and the adjective “bovine” is used more than once in reference to them. I mean, that’s so comically offensive, it’s hard to know how to respond. I’ve certainly read and heard a wide array of profoundly stupidly sexist things in my day, but I don’t know if I can remember encountering anything as unexpectedly outrageous and vulgar as that in a long while. I grant that there are exceedingly childish dudes out there who act this way around women when their bodies are being used for anything other than sexual objectification for the benefit of men, and that there were probably more of them in 1943 than there are today. But do we have to award Pulitzer Prizes to these cretins?
In case it’s not clear, it’s not like I hate cows: cows are awesome. But there are lines you just don’t cross. (Photo credit: SocialRobot)
So, yeah, that’s where we are so far with Upton Sinclair—a dull piece of political propaganda that’s faintly anti-Semitic and distinctly sexist (although I think most sexists would object that calling a woman lovingly nursing her infant “cow-like” is beyond the pale even for them). I am making the experience of reading it sound way more exciting than it actually is. I’m hanging in there, though, in part because I chained myself to the mast of this ship, and in part because I know just enough about Europe in the 1930s that I can basically have a fan-fic track running in my head as I go in which all of these scenes are a lot more interesting and all of these characters are a lot more three-dimensional. We’ll see if Sinclair can salvage this voyage (despite the dictates of Brotman’s Law), but hope is fading.