Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Man’s Woman by Frank Norris

Too much of a soap opera
Frank Norris
The first two chapters of A Man’s Woman are absolutely riveting. An arctic expedition team, after failing to reach the North Pole, marches across the jagged and shifting ice, struggling southward in hopes of meeting with a rescue ship. Their own ship having been crushed by the encroaching ice, they trudge through the wind-scoured wasteland, as sled dogs drag their lifeboats toward some elusive stretch of open water. Over the course of months of endless toil and incredible suffering, members of the party fall prey to frostbite, starvation, and disease. Author Frank Norris captures this experience in vivid naturalistic detail. This is not Jack London’s frozen North, idealized in its beauty, power, and glory. This is a gritty and gruesome reality, where brave and hardy men are reduced to less than animals. In his depiction of the tragic ordeal, Norris provides a gripping drama that keeps his audience firmly rooted to the edge of their seats.

A Man’s Woman, first published in 1900, is not a novel of arctic adventure, however. It is a story of what happens to the survivors after they return to civilization. The book’s primary focus is a love story between two strong-willed and career-driven characters. It examines the question of how much two individuals can compromise their lifestyles and personalities for the sake of their relationship, without totally losing themselves in the process.

As is characteristic of Norris—the chief American practitioner of literary Naturalism—the many sights, sounds, and smells of the story are catalogued with a detail and authenticity that rivals reality itself. The thought processes of the characters are transcribed with equal thoroughness and with great psychological insight. The story, however, is far more melodramatic than one expects from Norris. Each scene seems so calculated to be emotionally manipulative that the overall effect is off-putting. The whole book revolves around one extremely overwrought central scene in which the male and female leads exhibit behavior that is both irrational and unrealistic. Throughout the novel, the plot elements are quite predictable. At the start of each chapter the reader can easily see where he’s being led, which inspires a feeling of impatience at being forced to sit through pages of interior monologue, the end result of which is a foregone conclusion. As usual, Norris’s mastery at establishing setting and mood is evident in this novel, but the story he tells does not do justice to the world he has created.

Frank Norris never wrote a bad novel in his life (though he did write some bad short stories). Of the seven novels he completed during his all-too-brief career, however, one of them has to be his worst, and this is it. Diehard fans of Norris will nonetheless recognize moments of characteristic genius here. Casual readers investigating this great American novelist would be better served by reading his masterpieces The Octopus and McTeague. Though not a terrible novel by any means, A Man’s Woman is the Norris novel least worthy of reading.

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