Monday, October 22, 2012

La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast) by Emile Zola

A thriller with depth
In this book, Emile Zola dives headlong into his fascination with “the human beast” by examining the psychology of murder. The novel is also a detailed portrait of the lives of railroad workers. The main character is Jacques Lantier, son of Gervaise Macquart (of L’Assomoir), a railroad engineer who works the line between Paris and Le Havre. Jacques feels a nagging compulsion to kill every woman he’s attracted to. Fortunately, up to this point he has been able to control himself, but who knows how long he will be able to restrain the killer inside? Jacques is not the only character with murder on his mind; in fact, everyone in the book seems to be plotting to kill someone. Murder for love, murder for greed, murder for revenge are all represented. Zola has crammed so much violence and suspense into the plot, that on the surface he’s written a fabulous piece of pulp fiction. Though the book pushes the boundaries of believability, it’s also a fascinating study of human nature. The reader gains a window into the minds of the characters that reminds one of Edgar Allen Poe’s best tales. Underlying the criminal plot threads is a deeper level of social commentary, scientific inquiry, and philosophical debate. Zola shows how the rise of industrial technology contributes to the moral degeneration and dehumanization of the populace. He portrays Jacques’ relationship with his engine as a symbiotic, almost romantic relationship. Meanwhile Jacques’ Aunt Phasie and her family operate a crossing/switching station in the middle of nowhere, where their only interaction with the outside world comes in split-second views of nameless passengers being carted off to unknown destinations. While the railroad provides speed and convenience, it also generates social isolation and anonymity. Fans of Zola or readers of classical literature in general will certainly enjoy this book. Even fans of contemporary suspense fiction should find it entertaining and thought-provoking.
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