Friday, February 05, 2016

Frank Norris: The Octopus (1901)

Tulare County Landowner Map by Britton & Rey, 1901

There was a strenuous gaiety in the air; everybody was in the best of spirits. Notes of laughter continually interrupted the conversation on every hand. At every moment a group of men involved themselves in uproarious horseplay. They passed oblique jokes behind their hands to each other – grossly veiled double meanings meant for the women – and bellowed with laughter thereat, stamping on the ground. The relations between the sexes grew more intimate, the women and girls pushing the young fellows away from their sides with vigorous thrusts of their elbows.  (Book I, Chapter 6)

The recipe “New World Zola” describes The Octopus so well, both in strength and weakness, that I'm left scratching around for something to add. (“New World” must be taken as referring not only to the locale of the novel but also to the writing when it expands into prosy mysticism.)

What isn’t Zolaesque is the map, which is recognizably Marlboro Country; all space, and scale, and mechanized straight lines. It’s a place in which isolation is inevitable, and The Octopus describes a fragmented society in which individuals rarely occupy the kind of shared mental space that we take for granted in a Victorian novel; say by Gaskell, Trollope or Eliot. When Norris gives us a communal set piece, as for example Annixter’s party (from which the opening quotation is taken), he emphasizes the centrifugal forces that pull people away from each other, so that the cohesion of this society is seen as something of an effort. When the railroad people break it up, the dispersal is alarmingly swift and final.

This is expressed most strongly in the chapter that switches pointedly between the helpless fragmentation of the Hooven family and Presley’s sumptuous dinner at the Gerards. We had been led to suppose that Presley and the Hoovens were, in Tulare County, something like comrades and equals; now Mrs Hooven starves to death, while Presley samples ortolan patties. (Like many another poet, Presley feels an empathy with the poor but is himself amply secured by well-off friends).  

There is, it’s true, a certain crudeness in the manipulation of this chapter’s contrasts. Perhaps too in the horrible image of the massed rabbits being killed (this comes just before the shooting of the ranchers, and implies a rhetorical point about the unhealthy foundations of the ranchers’ society).

But elsewhere, that point is made without so much contrivance; for example in the fifteen-page sequence that begins with Dyke’s waking at the start of “a busy day” and ends with our glimpse of him drinking steadily at Carraher’s, by now well aware that he has been ruined by the railroad (moral: don’t put your business partners in a position where they profit from your failure). The domesticity with which the sequence begins  (Dyke’s riotous games with his little daughter) is misleading. We are told that “he was a bighearted, jovial man who spread an atmosphere of good humor wherever he went”. This man, so fully and happily integrated into the society of the home, must surely have an equally robust integration into the larger society of Tulare County. And indeed, Dyke is liked; he brings a pleasant atmosphere into a bar. Yet the assurance with which he speaks of his success as a hop-grower suggests, in hindsight, a certain blindness; an assumption that all around him partake in his happiness, and that his own life more or less is their life. In this large landscape one is often alone, and such a mistake is natural. But when his terrible rage and despair come over him, they are not really shared by his friends, and his problem, though it attracts intense interest, is in every sympathetic word more clearly placed: it’s his problem. Annixter, the best-hearted of them, articulates only fatalism; he already subsumes Dyke’s personal suffering into the vague contemplation of a group of people who appear marked for disaster.  What’s happened also touches off Carraher’s angry rhetoric, but he’s an automaton. Carraher’s repulsive “comradeship” is scarcely less illusory than the bottle, in whose company we leave Dyke;  an image of final isolation.

This isolation means that the book breaks up into accounts of individual struggles that are important only to those individuals: Magnus and his corruption; Annixter’s involvement with Hilma; Presley worrying about his great poem; Vanamee and his obsession. The death of S. Behrman, trapped beneath a grain-chute, is highly unsatisfactory by the standard of nineteenth-century plotting; it is a meaningless accident; but possibly defensible in this saga where people’s lives are impermeably separate. In a Victorian novel we would learn who raped and destroyed Angéle; here we don’t: “the tragedy had suddenly leaped from out the shadow with the abruptness of an explosion... To Angéle’s mind – what there was left of it – the matter always remained a hideous blur, a blot, a vague, terrible confusion”.

There is no society. The nearest thing to it is the railroad people themselves, but they are something different, not a human community but a synergic operation; an institution.  [When the ruined Magnus says “I’ll turn railroad”, he makes a capitulation somewhat like Winston’s in 1984. ]

The book follows Vanamee and Presley in attempting to make a coherent sense of the world that depends not on human society but on more gigantic forces: WHEAT, FORCE, LIFE. This is highly inadequate, but a century later we are still struggling with the question. 


But as all I've said so far tends to emphasize (what is perfectly true) that The Octopus is over-written, I reallly want to make some redress.

I grew up reading Westerns and watching black-and-white Westerns on TV. I therefore considered the Western a natural sort of literary form, and I suppose always felt a vague, subconscious surprise that no work by “great” novelists ever seemed to contain mesquite, Lazy Y brands or Colt .45s.  

The Octopus comes closer than most, and among the longueurs of Hilma’s thick hair and the WHEAT and Vanamee’s sixth sense there are some really exciting scenes in which Norris puts all that aside. The train hold-up is one, all the better for being presented indirectly and, for the most part, in mercilessly anti-heroic contemplation of the passengers in Annixter’s wagon. Then there’s the pursuit and capture of Dyke, the shooting of the ranchers, and (no less brutal and upsetting) the last days of Mrs Hooven. It’s, at times, a very involving book.  


The conflict between ranching and railroad interests also forms a background to the social experiment (beginning in 1908) of homesteaders in Eastern Montana; a tragedy recounted in Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land: An American Romance (1996); an absorbing book, the best of his that I’ve read. It also plays a part in Serge Leone’s film Once upon a Time in the West (1968), where one can perhaps see some of the European elements in Norris’s conception making a homeward journey.

Much the clearest explanation of farming that I have read is John Seymour’s The Countryside Explained (1977). “When I was young the child’s role in the harvest field was to chase the rabbits which bolted out of the shrinking square of standing corn left in the middle of the field and to kill them with sticks, for rabbits were a pest then and were also very good eating; but the arrival of myxomatosis, which killed nearly all the rabbits, also killed this.” 

It all presents a very different view from the dysfunctional gigantism of Norris’s description, in which the squeamish Northern Europeans go off to picnic while the slaughter is performed by aroused, degraded Mexicans (The Octopus has all the racism of its era and genre).

Studio Portrait of Tom Santschi

[Image source: Santschi directed and played the lead in the 1915 silent movie The Octopus, based (loosely, I imagine) on Norris's novel. Can't find any stills from the actual movie, unfortunately.]



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