Saturday, February 28, 2009

There Will Be Blood...and Dated Ideologies

Oil!, the "classic tale of greed and corruption" by Upton Sinclair and inspiration for the awesome (and awesomely Brahms-filled) There Will Be Blood is 550 pages long. I would estimate that about 300 of those pages consist of the characters talking to each other about that reddest of Prohibition Era herrings, MARXISM and THE CLASS STRUGGLE. A sizeable portion of the prose is devoted to the virtues of old-skool socialism over corrupt, exploitative and all-powerful capitalism and even more words are devoted to the delineation of Left Socialism vs Right Socialism vs the Intl Workers Party vs straight-up commies vs Bolsheviks and on and on through the myriad splinter groups.

Unlike the film, the book is told through the eyes of the Oilman's son, Bunny. Bunny starts off about ten years older than his celluloid counterpart, and is never deafened. How could he be? If he couldn't hear, how could he be incessantly talked at by the various ideologues who wander into his life? Bunny is both empathetic and extremely passive, which means the kid spends the book as a blank sheet upon which all the other (equally one-dimensional) characters write paens to their rigid dogmas.

"...his trouble seemed to be, he was of the opinion of the one he talked with last. He was so prone to see the other fellow's point of view, and lose himself in that! Why couldn't he have a mind of his own?"

Why, indeed? If he had, it would no doubt have been a better piece of literature. There really are alot of timeless themes here- greed and corruption, yes, also hypocrisy (the prophet Eli is a fornicatin' womanizer, of course), social effects of inequality, the impotence and censorship of the media, the self-interested politicking of our legislative branch, the bought-and-sold nature of the presidency, freedom vs order, the fallacy of the American Dream, issues of family and loyalty, love and lust and so on. Any one of these would have made a better focus from a literary standpoint. Hell, even a more generalized exploration of the relationship between capital and labor would have been great. Lord knows that's still a big issue today. But those timeless questions and conflicts are only discussed tangentially, small islands in the river of specifics poured in to support the exploration ad nauseum of the socialist-communist rift of the 1920s.

Sorry, Uppy. You lost me the first time you waxed rhapsodic about the perfection of the new Soviet state. Enough information has come to light to make laughable any ideas about the USSR, even pre-Stalin, being some sort of workers' paradise of equality and efficient abundance. But that, of course, is information privileged to people reading at a date later than the novel's print year of 1927. And that knowledge is what makes the dated ideological nonsense bearable, even interesting at times. Because it was written in 1927, dammit. A time barely beyond the setting of the book, when the Red Scare was by no means put to rest and it was not exactly safe (let alone a wise career move) to write such a damning account of industry and politics in America. And he was certainly prescient about the nature of oil as a political world-mover. Still, there just wasn't enough here to stand the "timeless novel" test. The (completely understandable) gaps in Sinclair's knowledge glare out of every page and interrupt the flow of the narrative, they keep you from getting lost in the book or the period.

Reading the book, its amazing to me how good a job the filmmakers did in stripping away the bulk of the book and leaving a version of Sinclair's work that could speak to the issues of our time so well. It's strange that the adaptors could read the book and come up with the film that they did- they reduced Bunny to a reference point for his father and relegated the second most important character of the book (Paul Watkins) to a 30 second plot-moving role that may or may not even be a character distinct from his brother Eli. Meanwhile they siezed upon two characters, Arnold Ross and Eli Watkins, who really just flit through the novel, surfacing now and then to be counterpoints to Bunny and Paul, respectively, and made them the focus of the film. The intense, competitive, combative and eventually violent relationship between Ross and Eli that makes the film so mesmerizing is almost entirely invented!

I wouldn't say that Oil! isn't worth reading, despite its frequent patches of vintage ideology. There are enough moments that remind you that Upton Sinclair is, in fact, an excellent writer to make it enjoyable. And while those timeless themes he touches on may not enjoy center stage, their presence does save the book from total irrelevance. Especially the reminder that the cancerous crapfest of the military-industrial-political complex is not exactly new, however depressing that reminder may be.

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to read "Oil" now, thanks to your review. Precisely because it was written in 1927 based on a world-view of commie-capitalism that we now know to be wrong. Because maybe there is a lesson there - how does a smart guy get so confused that he talks about the USSR as heaven? I know that the New York Times got a Puliter Prize in the mid-1930's (a decade and about 10 million more deaths afer Sinclair) for reporting on the state of the USSR as f**king perfect - which we now know to be utter lies. The NYT never gave back that Pulitzer, BTW.

    What lies are we surrounded by today - maybe coming from the NYT - that in 80 years we'll say "what were we thinking?"