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TheBrainintheJar

TheBrainintheJar

Theodore Dreiser - An American Tragedy

An American Tragedy - Theodore Dreiser, Richard R. Lingeman
“intermingled and furnished it in some nondescript manner which need hardly be described.”

I dare you to find a funnier joke in all of history of the world. Only Robert Jordan’s death can compete with this. Theodore Dreiser overwrites like no other, and he is telling us twice that something is nondescript and there shouldn’t be described. I don’t know whether it’s a moment of self-awareness, or whether it’s definitive proof there was no editor.

You better laugh, because An American Tragedy is a heavy novel. It’s heavy in every sense of the word. The book is long. The writing is dense, overwritten, everything is repeated and reptition is everywhere. The subject matter is the same, the nature of crime and ambition and other big topics about life. The psychology is just as deep, with Dreiser refusing to cast anyone as pure evil.

Dreiser does the impossible here. Authors write great books by sticking to principles of good writing. They each have their own unique spin, but you can draw general rules that these books have in common.

Dreiser breaks every conventional rule. The end of the novel is obvious from the title. The writing is the worst you can find. I can never say enough how Dreiser overwrites. Plenty of things get described and every thought in the characters’ heads is spelled out for us. Dreiser never shows but always tells. The novel is just one psychoanalysis of his characters, but he doesn’t even give us the privilege of letting us do the hard work. He shows both the evidence and the conclusions.

Good thing that Dreiser can back it up. The reason all the overwriting is forgiven is because Dreiser has too much to say. By trying to show the story rather than tell it, he would have lost of the information he wanted to convey.

Is it the easy way out? I don’t know. Showing this story means writing a lot less. By telling everything, Dreiser has to grapple with his ideas head-on. An American Tragedy may be a busy novel, but it has clear themes you can follow. It also has an abundance of them.

It feels so epic, yet the story itself is simple. You could probably tell it in 5 pages. The thing is, what makes literature remarkable is less what happens. The meaning behind it counts far more. That’s why we can tell stories of rise and fall until the heat death of the universe and we don’t get sick of them because they each have different themes.

I doubt many of them can hold a candle to Dreisser’s work. He was blessed with the unique ability of reading minds. That’s the only way to explain the characters. They feel real because they’re each understandable. There’s a murderer, but there’s no villain. By the end, the reverend who constantly begs for mercy isn’t just the character but Dreisser itself.

Weren’t oracles always portrayed as being greatly affected by their visions? This novel shows how understanding the human mind can affect a person. Dreisser doesn’t just overwrite. He wrestles with the tragedy of the human condition. I know this is a huge word and it makes me sound pretentious (and a white straight male). How else to describe this novel, though?

We puny humans are always in conflict. All of us think we’re right. The man who can cure cancer, the soldier who kills a terrorist, Ian Watkins abusing kids, the person who prevents suicides and the suicidal person all sure that their worldview is current. They also all come in conflict. Now, when you only thing your side is right it’s easy. Just keep attacking the other side no matter what. What do you do when you can understand everyone? What do you do when you see both the selfishness of heroics and altruism of it? What do you do when you understand a cruel murderer but can’t ignore the pleas of the victims?

These questions always pop in the novel. American Tragedy is confusing not because of silly things, like ‘it could mean anything’ or because you can’t understand what’s going on. It’s confusing like real life is confusing. There are no shades of grey. It’s one whole kaleidoscope. Dreiser has some answers. Clyde is definitely guilty, but beyond that Dreiser leaves us with questions and keeps us wondering.

While it’s a tragic novel, it’s not a depressing one. A novel that tries hard to understand everyone isn’t a product of a nihilist. It’s a product of someone who loves humanity. Love is a problem like it is a blessing. Like Clyde, Dreiser is trapped between people because of his love for them. Unlike Clyde, Dreiser is trapped between more than just two women and he’s unsure who to choose. Seeing how much compassion he writes this novel with, it only inspires me to be as compassionate to others like Dreiser is to his characters.

Be careful when starting this. The novel takes time to read. The langauge is complex. The paragraphs are long and the plot is very slow. It also took me about 90 pages before I got used to the writing style. It might be inaccessible, but it’s well worth the effort. The novel wouldn’t work if it wasn’t so clogged with Dreiser’s own thoughts on his characters. That’s how he reveals to us all the grey areas in the novel.

As inaccessible and hard to read as it is, I’d recommend to everyone. If literature is about enriching our understanding of ourselves, then this is definitive literature. It loses a few points for dragging, but as difficult as it is I know I will return to it someday.

5 murders out of 5

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