Wednesday, January 9, 2013

What I'm Reading: The Jungle

 One of the items on my 101 in 1001 list, as I've mentioned before, is to finish at least three books I've owned for over a year but haven't yet read. Another one is to read all of the books on the TIME Top 100 Novels list. Knocking out The Jungle would be a notch in both of those belts, so I picked it up a few weeks ago.

And I can't bring myself to finish it.

I had heard before I started that it was really depressing, but I didn't want to let that be something to keep me from a book. Granted, I don't like "downer" stories, but there are plenty of books I enjoy that have sad, or at least ambiguous, endings.

But The Jungle is beyond sad. It reminds me of a Korean TV drama: just packing on more bad news at every turn. After Chapter VII, I decided to cheat and peak at the plot summary on Wikipedia to see if I felt up to continuing, to see if there was any kind of redemption or hope to be had.

Which is too bad, because Upton Sinclair is a gifted writer. Even if the story is difficult to stomach, the writing is not. The first chapter, with Jurgis' and Ona's wedding, stands in stark contrast to the rest of the book in that it isn't entirely hopeless or soul-crushing.

I also admire what Sinclair wanted to accomplish, politically and socially, with The Jungle. It's heartbreaking that the public outcry seemed to be more over food quality and safety than over working conditions and the exploitation of the poor and immigrant class. Talk about missing the point:
"I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach."
I don't like to leave books unfinished. It makes me feel like a quitter. Especially in this case, where it's an argument for a cause I think is important. Yet I also realize that I have only so much time in the world to invest in books—shouldn't I spend it on books I enjoy? And if I quit, should I count it as "read"?

To my purposes, I'll count it as read. I made a good faith effort, but I don't have the emotional capacity to withstand the grief/tragedy porn that is The Jungle. However, I will keep an eye out for Sinclair's other novels, to see if they're any better.

An interesting contrast piece to The Jungle is the Dutch classic Max Havelaar, written by Eduard Douwes Dekker under the pseudonym of Multatuli, a Latin word that means, "I have endured much."

In a way, the books are bilingual twins. Both are works by would-be social reformers: what the meatpacking industry was to Sinclair, colonial treatment of the native Javanese by the Dutch was to Dekker. Both wrote novels based on direct, real-life experiences: Sinclair worked undercover in a meatpacking plant to gather material for The Jungle; the events described in Max Havelaar are what Dekker had experienced as Assistant Resident of Lebak. Both works were major successes in their native languages and are now considered classics. Both can rightly be considered tragedies, in a general sense if not the technical sense.

Why can I stomach one but not the other? I'm not entirely sure. It's been over three years since I read Max Havelaar, so all I can summon in this review is the feeling I can recall upon finishing the book (as opposed to the particular details). I guess the one good thing about attempting The Jungle is that it reminded me of Max Havelaar and how much I enjoyed it, and how it really warrants a re-read.

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