Wednesday, February 8, 2017

“I’m no critic, I only know what I like.” - emptying my bag of McTeague notes

“Of course,” she told the dentist, “I’m no critic, I only know what I like.”  She knew that she liked the “Ideal Heads,” lovely girls with flowing straw-colored hair and immense, upturned eyes.  These always had for title, “Reverie,” or “An Idyll,” or “Dreams of Love.”  (Ch. 10)

Frank Norris absorbed French fiction pretty thoroughly.  He mocks the bad taste of his characters.  He’s as bad as Flaubert.  Trina – that’s Trina, who marries McTeague, speaking – decorates their apartment with magazine illustrations that “inevitably” included “very alert fox terriers and very pretty moon-faced little girls” (Ch. 9).  Norris is so mean.

He also turns Trina into a cruel miser, borrowing now from Balzac, from Lost Illusions and Eugénie Grandet:

“Ah, the dear money, the dear money,” she would whisper, “I love you so!  All mine, every penny of it.” (Ch. 16)

“She even put the smaller gold pieces in her mouth, and jingled them there” – fantastic.  Norris understood Zola the way I do, that his fiction is a kind of baroque Romanticism disguised in drab.  Norris does not share Zola’s baroque descriptive tendencies, but his imagery is pretty good when he wants.  This is across the bay in Oakland:

At the station these [poles] were headed by an iron electric-light pole that, with its supports and outriggers, looked for all the world like a grasshopper on its hind legs…  Clouds of sea-gulls were forever rising and settling upon this mud bank; a wrecked and abandoned wharf crawled over it on tottering legs…  (Ch. 5)

As far as I know, these animated ruins do not have a strong thematic connection to anything else, but I may have missed something.  They do dimly link to a long theater scene that features the Kinetoscope, the earliest reference to motion pictures that I have seen in an American novel:

McTeague was awe-struck.

“Look at that horse move his head,” he cried excitedly, quite carried away.  “Look at that cable-car coming – and the man going across the street.  See, here comes a truck.”  (Ch. 6)

His future mother-in-law is on to the seductive deception of movies, though: “’I ain’t no fool; dot’s nuthun but a drick.’”  This terrific chapter, which is packed with theatrical entertainment, also includes a little boy who desperately needs to pee, something else I had not seen in earlier fiction.

“Owgooste, what is ut?” cried his mother, eyeing him with dawning suspicion; then suddenly, “What haf you done?  You haf ruin your new Vauntleroy gostume!”

Poor little August, constantly humiliated by Norris, stuffed into that Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, “very much too small for him.”

What else?  Ah, Frank Norris gives himself a cameo in his own novel, near the end (Ch. 20).  I needed the help of a footnote to know that.  Pretty funny.

I would not call McTeague a great novel, but it is full of amusing things.


  1. Ha, that "Vauntleroy" bit is humiliation compounded. I started to read McTeague late last year but got almost immediately caught up on one of those "amusing things" - a reference to some public baths in San Francisco that I'd never seen referenced anywhere else, and set off to track down that history - astounding the stuff that's buried around here. Norris is great for California history buffs.

  2. The ships, the buried ships! San Francisco is pretty strange. McTeague is even better as an SF novel then The Maltese Falcon.