Friday, May 25, 2012

Vandover and the Brute by Frank Norris

Should have been written two decades later
Vandover and the Brute is Frank Norris’s first novel, written in the mid-1890’s, but it was not published until 1914, more than a decade after his death. During the intervening twenty years, Norris became a celebrated man of letters, and perhaps the most admired champion of Naturalism in American literature, before suffering an untimely death at the age of 32.

The hero of the novel, Vandover (whether that’s his first or last name is never made clear), is born in Boston. At the age of eight his mother dies, and he moves to San Francisco with his father, who raises him alone. Vandover is not an exceptional student, and he’s a bit self-indulgent and lazy, but he does possess a talent for art. He goes off to Harvard to study, where he meets two fellow San Franciscans, Charlie Geary and Dolliver Haight. After graduation the three return to California and maintain their friendship. Like many young men, they develop a taste for liquor and women during their college years. While his two friends learn to control their sinful ways, buckle down, and start to pursue their life’s ambitions, Vandover slides deeper into a life of vice. The “Brute” mentioned in the title refers to the animal within him that longs for the pleasures of the flesh. Gradually he succumbs to the negative influences of alcohol, sex, and gambling, and begins to see all that he holds dear taken away from him.

This novel is unfortunately ahead of its time. Norris attempts to paint a picture of moral degradation, but the conventions of his time would not allow him the tools to complete the portrait. The vices in question are never explicitly stated, only hinted at. This inhibited expression dulls the effect of the moral lesson. Sexual experiences are replaced by phrases like “She abandoned herself.” Any unmarried woman who’s not a virgin is labeled as “lost” or “ruined.” One of the characters contracts a communicable illness which I assume is syphilis, but I’ll never know for sure because Norris dare not speak its name. The scenes of drunkenness are somewhat more blatantly depicted, but at times the results of these debauches inspire laughter rather than horror. Norris was an enthusiastic disciple of the literature of Emile Zola. What he’s aiming for here is the sort of gradual moral and financial decline experienced by Gervaise Macquart in Zola’s novel L’Assomoir. Zola, however, being French, was not subject to the American prudishness of the late 19th century. He had the freedom to discuss sexual matters more openly, thus his portrayal of a life of sin is more genuine and timeless. To the contemporary reader, Vandover and the Brute seems tepid by comparison, and the various means Norris employs to avoid the outright discussion of vice act as obstacles to the reader’s engagement in the story.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some great writing here. This novel contains some expertly crafted examples of the gritty, blunt realism for which Norris would become famous. Halfway through the book there is a disaster scene that’s so convincingly drawn it will have you on the edge of your seat. He describes with equal authenticity a night at the opera, a marathon game of cards, or the machinations a shady business deal. Though there are some exceptional scenes here, they never quite coalesce into a cohesive novel. Vandover and the Brute is an early work by a great master that offers a glimpse of the shape of things to come. It captures some of the embryonic brilliance that would mature and blossom in later, greater works like The Octopus and McTeague.

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