52 Weeks of Literature, Book Ten: “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair–Agitprop Trash


Talk about badly dated.

Earlier this year, I called Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn “poverty porn”. I had no idea what I was talking about. No character in esteemed literary fiction, to my knowledge, has been through more trauma than Jurgis Rudkus, the protagonist of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle—a novel which, in the hindsight of a century plus, seems more muck than muckraking. For Sinclair, it isn’t enough that Rudkus and his family emigrate from Lithuania to 1900s Chicago and sink into the inferno of the meatpacking factories. They also have to get robbed, starved, ostracized, sacked, blacklisted, jailed, prostituted, raped, drowned, diseased, backstabbed, subjected to deadly childbirth, conned out of every last penny, drenched in booze, stuck in blizzards, and killed (not in that order). I have nothing against narratives about despair; case in point, I’ll be reading The Painted Bird shortly. I do have plenty against narratives without nuance, in which one is either completely good or completely evil, either a total perpetrator or a total victim, with no ethical complications and no insight into the ways that iotas of humor, ritual and hope can assist people in surviving the direst holocausts. The characters of Sinclair’s Packingtown are zero-dimensional. Rudkus is Baltic muscle, and nothing else. These people have no agency; they are less people who do than people to whom shit is done. And Sinclair the novelist’s exclusive interest is assuring that as much shit is done to these poor suckers as possible. The Book of Job had a point to make about faith in God. Sinclair’s point is…what, exactly?

I was honored to see Slavoj Zizek speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia almost two years ago. He told an anecdote about a lecture he was giving to a group of ethnic Somalis in Minnesota (I believe), during which he stated that if someone came up to him and starting imploring him to help “the starving children in Somalia,” he’d reply—in his über-thick Slovenian accent—“Fuck off! I’m trying to write my book on Hegel!” How do you think the Somali audience reacted? Let me tell you: they applauded him, because they understood that talking about Somalia like that is manipulative and exploitative, and more often than not loaded with toxic careerist intentions. The belief that Somalia is only what the news shows us about it—depraved, backwards and miserable—is racist, and any charity that reverts to the old colonialist rhetoric about how these guys “need our help” deserves to see their condescension mocked with relish. This generation of Somalis have seen a share of trauma and uprooting and have been without stuff we in the West take for granted, true. But those who have survived and not fallen prey to ideological crap—and most of us do survive—have formed unseen social structures by which they care for themselves and each other, and it is their incremental changes to the Somali political infrastructure, not greater access to Western resources, that will change their circumstances in the long run. Of course, I could be discussing any Third World nation, failed or otherwise.

Sinclair was a Socialist. Zizek is a qualified Marxist. I proudly voted for Bernie Sanders. I cannot imagine Zizek or Sanders liking this book any more than I did. Its naked manipulation puts it right at home with today’s caged puppy infomercials and guilt-inducing doomsday clickbait. (Maybe this hasn’t dated so badly after all.) I can at least respect Sinclair’s effort to expose every back alley on the map of corruption in the Chicago of his time. As nonfiction, that might work; as literature, in execution, it’s preposterous. This author spends three hundred plus pages unloading every single catastrophe he can think of onto the Rudkus family, in ways increasingly contrived and implausible. Every time Jurgis’ prospects are raised, Sinclair crushes them by the beginning of the next chapter at the latest. The effect is repetitive and numbing. Not that said prospects matter. It isn’t so much that Jurgis’ happier moments weren’t a relief because I, the reader, figured out they’d be fleeting. It’s that when the novel is happy, it’s a fairy tale, and when it’s mired in its characteristic gloom, it’s maudlin, self-indulgent, self-serving, and totally ignorant of the complex personalities that created and sustained Gilded Age capitalism, so many of whom were shamed into philanthropy towards life’s end. (Assuming that exploitation of labor for profit is done for sadism is historically irresponsible.) Throughout, the initially promising view into Lithuanian culture turns glib quickly and remains so, and the only aesthetic concern evident in the prose is the infinity of ways in which agony can be detailed.

Much of this novel’s abject failure stems from Sinclair’s inability and unwillingness to decide just what he ought to write. Jurgis has no definition and no identity. Depending on the author’s whims, Jurgis is alternately a sweeper of cow entrails, an assembly line worker, an unemployed drunkard, a vigilante, an imprisoned victim of injustice, an orphan, a widower, a father to a dead child, a hobo, a witness to American ostentation, a petty burglar, a bellhop, a political activist…and so forth. The sense of genre thus becomes deeply muddled. The best counterexample I know is John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, a socialistic account of America and Europe in the years before the Depression that achieves its panoramic scope by conglomerating a cross section of characters from different literary genres and regions. The hobo, the capitalist huckster, the war vet, the socialite, the Hollywood star, the aspiring artist—these and more are all well defined by the literary conventions they embody, and they play off each other as Dos Passos scathingly attacks those conventions as part and parcel of consumerist capitalism’s stultifying mode of production. Desperate to capture the zeitgeist of Chicago with similar ambition but less space, Sinclair crams all of his favorite archetypes into an everyman vessel, meant to represent a whole society while really being a cipher. Halfway through, I stopped keeping track of Jurgis’ shifts and gave up on trying to delineate the other characters. I didn’t care.

No ending could have saved this unfocused, pandering, steaming guano heap of a book, but I was at least hopeful that Sinclair would see his pessimistic vision through to its logical end and have Jurgis martyred, hackneyed as it would be. Not the case—the final chapters are a cop-out. Socialism saves and redeems Jurgis, nabbing him a stable job and income, and the last few paragraphs portend a Eugene Debs presidency. (Never mind that to get there, Jurgis has to abandon his family in an act of cowardice—a convenient means for Sinclair to dump characters that he was making up along the way and that thus weren’t working, where the mounting death toll simply won’t do. Man, this book.) It took me a while to finish reading this, and as a result, my yearlong project was nearly derailed. In that hiatus, I thought a lot about how some youths go into the arts to strike it rich, while others aim to create actual fucking Art and/or to make a difference in the world through their Art. And because the young are frequently demeaned as stupid and naïve, their urges for creativity and invention are cruelly labeled pretentious, their idealism interpreted as evidence of a political agenda, and their output dismissed—hence the market domination of genre fiction and vapid Alice Munro wannabes. This begs the question: how can literature change the world if experiment and agenda are frowned upon? Here’s what I’ve learned: you start with the story and characters, and let everything stem organically from there. Remember the immortal last lines of Middlemarch: excessive ambition breeds disappointment, best laid plans backfire, and the ones who leave a mark on history are the ones you least expect. The Jungle got us the FDA; its importance in letters stops there. As we trundle around in a new Gilded Age, gearing up for yet another lesser-evil-versus-greater-evil election year, we need authors who can wrestle with the dilemmas of capitalism and socialism more honestly than Upton Sinclair ever did.

Grade: F

52 Weeks of Literature, Book Ten: “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair–Agitprop Trash

31 Days of Cinema, Days Seventeen and Eighteen: “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” | “Bicycle Thieves”

Where does power emerge from? From other people, of course. A leader of a nation is not so without the support and submission of his/her military, fellow politicians, and electorates—who are thus endowed with their own power. Which begs the question: if power is cyclical, does it have an origin? Well, perhaps it does, in a top-down environment where the strong holds total power over the weak—a situation that I find innately corrupt—but most political climates are more complex than that, I like to think. Power comes off as arbitrary and nebulous the more one contemplates it, the power of bureaucracy in particular. Who infuses all of these paper trails, historical traces, personal recollections and jurisprudential decisions with trust and influence? We do. But can we rely on them? What grants them significance? Better yet, can we be confident they have any significance at all? Werner Herzog’s film Aguirre, the Wrath of God takes these inquiries as its central theme. Based on the real-life accounts of the missionary Gaspar de Carvajal (here played by Del Negro), Aguirre tells of an offshoot of Pizarro’s army, in 1560s modern-day Peru, trekking through the Andean tropics in search of El Dorado, a city of gold that exists only in these guys’ imaginations. These Spaniards establish a dominion over the land—never mind the Incans prowling around them—and declare King Philip II overthrown. Yet, what power do they have over the king if he’s an ocean across from them? What power does the king have over them hence? What is the point of all these officious embellishments? Ego, I guess.

The main strength of Aguirre is its absurdist bent; a theme of performativity has been running throughout most if not all of the films I’ve watched this month, and here, it is especially prominent (and set perfectly to the music of Popol Vuh, the electronic band named for the Mexican epic). These wannabe conquistadores declare hegemony over the land as if they were walking into a bathroom. Laws are signed in; a trial results in a death sentence followed by a pardon; a civilization, albeit a short-lived and poorly run one, takes shape from this chaos. Inéz (Helena Rojo), the girlfriend of expedition head Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra), has her servants schlep her around in a litter—a clichéd symbol, but a valid one for demonstrating the isolated, oblivious, ideal Spanish sphere of influence that these nutcases wish to impose on the Andes. Power changes hands as cards in blackjack; the title character (Herzog’s muse, the tacitly wild Klaus Kinski) has a great speech in which he emphasizes that those who rebel against power—those who recognize power’s abstraction—are ultimately history’s biggest winners, and that’s the end of Ursúa. The barely seen Incans, meanwhile, seem to hold the most power, with their awareness of the landscape, its borderless quality, and its myriad opportunities for hiding. Characters are alive and kicking in one shot and dead with arrows sticking out of them the next. The futile hunt for El Dorado continues throughout—which Aguirre may not mind, as the pursuit is more vital than the destination. Yet, how does he allow himself to fall so hard for such a myth? How does he have such faith in his mortal civilization? How can we believe that power and its apparatuses are concrete when they really aren’t?

Grade: A-


A little part of me worries that I am not yet qualified to review Bicycle Thieves, because the version I watched (on Hulu) was dubbed into English. So allow me to take the chance to say: I despise dubbing. When I watch a film, I want the authentic aural experience as well as the visual one, and that means being able to hear the actors’ actual voices and judge their performances based on that. It does not mean having to listen to a bunch of fourth-rate radio actors try and fail to contort the actors’ mouths into English with stereotypical, insultingly bad accents. Subtitles or bust. (Curious, how Aguirre was filmed in English and dubbed in German—with actors pretending to be Spanish, no less.) That said, Bicycle Thieves was strong enough that I enjoyed it and got sucked into watching Hulu’s copy of it, even with the dubbing. If you know cinema, you know this film: it’s about a poor man named Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani), who needs a bicycle for a job—and hence for social mobility, so to speak—and gets it, only to have it stolen from him, an event that leads him on an impossible citywide hunt to reclaim the bike. The film was directed by Vittorio de Sica and was the vanguard of Italian neorealism. I was worried it might be too simple, but it isn’t.

I admired the photography (by Carlo Montuori) and how it constantly frames its characters within the trappings of urbanity. Bicycles, windows, ladders, grilles, benches, buses, wheels, spokes, beds, posters—all of these seem to constrict on Antonio and his family (Lianella Carell as the wife, and young Enzo Staiola as the son) as their economic situation grows more dire by the second. Capitalism is presented as artificial, a two-dimensional construct, whereas nature is one-dimensional, linear, simple: the trees, the grass, the rain, the buildings and pathways, the people and the lines and crowds they form—they’re so straight, the city of Rome can’t seem to accommodate them all, and it can’t. There are only so many bicycles to give and so much money to get. The film also has a keen eye for the silent, unspoken social behaviors and codes of crowds, overseeing the rituals of everyday metropolitan life: queueing for bus rides and tarot readings, gathering for sport and meals and mass, protecting and defending those in their own economic class. There is a human fabric visible, a way of connecting while staying disconnected, of fulfilling the social contract amidst acidic class competition, and much of the conflict arises from Antonio disrupting this fabric with his insistence that his bike be returned and the thief brought to justice. The ending, what with its blunt cyclicality (pun intended), is predictable but moving, and it doesn’t cop out from the cruelty of Antonio’s predicament. You can feel his longing for his bike, his humble job, his family, for just a few hundred more lira, long after the credits have rolled.

Grade: A-

Tomorrow: God willing, I’ll get through Lore, Memories of Underdevelopment and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums.

31 Days of Cinema, Days Seventeen and Eighteen: “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” | “Bicycle Thieves”