I hardly know how to begin...and neither did Theodore Dreiser, apparently, who didn't consult an editor while writing the omnibus An American Tragedy, a book so long that it took me from January until now to finish it. I've got 30 pages left, and when I left it on my desk yesterday I stepped onto Madison Avenue and nearly went back for it. Then again, I said to myself, I could just go home and watch Netflix. So I picked the Netflix.
No, I didn't hate this book; it's too hard for me to hate a classic, and one my mother loved at that. There's too much guilt there. In fact, I think it's extra amazing that Dreiser could keep me going for that long. In recording every painstaking detail--thought, outfit, gust of wind--of Clyde Griffiths' journey from poor street-preacher's kid to bellhop to collar factory worker to social flavor of the month to murderer, Dreiser has written, bar none, the most comprehensive tale of a fall from grace in the history of American literature. It's a book worth reading in a way that many books aren't--you know you're holding a milestone in your hand. It's like reading the Venus de Milo in terms of heaviness and importance, although I think that editor was a little too enthusiastic compared to Dreiser's nonexistent one.
What I'm trying to say, all words scrambled in my head because I've been reading this book for so long, is that An American Tragedy should be read, but it doesn't fit the usual criteria. The plot moves forward with low speed and intensity; the characters are types that would, as one of my insane lecherous creative writing teachers once said, "disappear in a puff of smoke" once they stepped off the page; and the settings either stand for something--wealth, power, isolation, poverty--or appear just to serve Clyde's downward spiral. Above all else, this gigantic novel is a parable, and let's give Dreiser six months out of our lives (stop snickering--I took a break!) and listen to what he has to say. After all, it may prevent you from murdering someone someday. And how many books can do that?