Friday, April 21, 2017

The Titan by Theodore Dreiser

A head for business and a body for sin
The Titan, published in 1914, is the sequel to Theodore Dreiser’s novel The Financier and the second book in his Trilogy of Desire. Those who have read The Financier and are considering taking on this follow-up should ask themselves if they really want to devote a great deal of time to a mammoth novel centered around two unlikable characters. In The Financier, Frank Cowperwood proved himself an unethical egotist while his mistress Aileen came across as an immature, narcissistic floozy. Here they do little to discourage those first impressions. Also, while The Financier was a rags-to-riches story, The Titan is simply a riches-to-riches story, which can never be as compelling. For these reasons and others, The Titan makes an inferior sequel to the book that preceded it.

After the trouble he had in Philadelphia in The Financier, Cowperwood decides to head west and try his hand in Chicago. He manages to free himself from his wife so he can marry Aileen. Despite Cowperwood’s smooth facade and his facility for making advantageous connections in the business world, the couple’s past follows them to their new home. It’s easy for Frank to make money, but with his history of jail time and her reputation as a homewrecker, he and Aileen will never be accepted into Chicago society. Instead, they each find their social outlet in extramarital affairs. While Aileen is hurt by their ostracism from high society, Cowperwood doesn’t seem to care as long as he’s making money. He knows that one day, once he realizes his grand financial schemes, Chicago’s high and mighty will all bend to his will.

Dreiser is one of America’s great literary naturalists, which is one of the reasons why I like his work. Of the four novels I’ve read by him, however, The Titan is easily the least realistic. While The Financier educated the reader about significant events in America’s financial history, The Titan mostly concentrates on fictional dealings that evoke the general atmosphere of corruption and collusion that was rife during the late 19th century. Compared to the stock market chicanery that took place in the first book, Cowperwood’s business transactions in this volume are harder to follow and harder to find interesting. Never at any time did I find myself caring about his street railway empire. The money he makes in his ventures only serves the narrative purpose of financing his expensive love life, which makes up the other half of the book. In this area, Dreiser goes beyond melodrama and into sexual soap opera. Cowperwood juggles so many mistresses, it’s hard to believe he could conduct any business at all. Meanwhile, Aileen disappears from the story for several chapters at a time whenever it’s convenient for her to do so. New characters are introduced in every chapter, and each one gets a detailed biographical sketch, regardless of how insignificant he is to the narrative. Cowperwood himself isn’t even present for the climactic scene in the novel, which is viewed through the perspective of some of these minor characters.

The Titan is a mediocre work by a great writer. Sometimes, in order to fully appreciate the latter you’ve got to put up with the former. On the bright side, even a bad book by Dreiser is probably better than 90 percent of the other American novels published during this era. Frank Cowperwood’s life story continues in the Trilogy of Desire’s third and final installment, The Stoic. Even though I was disappointed by this volume, I’ve already invested so much time in this humdrum epic, I will likely see it through to the end.
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