The strangeness of The Octopus is what makes it a great book, however great that might be. Any hack can write a novel defending noble farmers against the greedy railroad. But Norris, more than a bit of a hack himself, was artist enough to write a Frank Norris novel.
Here are more of the strange things he put in it:
1. The jackrabbit massacre. Everyone forms a long line in the field after the wheat harvest, compressing until the jackrabbits are corralled. Don’t Google this unless you want to see the results:
Inside it was a living, moving, leaping, breathing, twisting mass. The rabbits were packed two, three, and four feet deep. They were in constant movement; those beneath struggling to the top, those on top sinking and disappearing below their fellows. (II.6)
Norris squeezes plenty of irony out of this long, brutal scene. As with McTeague, I recommend The Octopus to Cormac McCarthy fans. No, actually, why haven’t McCarthy fans been recommending The Octopus to everyone else? The scene is more like the slaughter of the passenger pigeons in Cooper’s The Pioneers (1823) than the industrial butchery of the whales in Moby-Dick (1851), but those two examples are sufficient to place Norris in a long, ongoing American fictional tradition.
2. “Jack-rabbits were a pest that year” – so begins the previous chapter, which is mostly full of the long, complex pursuit of a fugitive train robber, driven to his crimes by the perfidy of the railroad, sure, but gone too far. The train robbery scene is good, too, but the chase – at one point, there is a bit where two train engines are passing each other on parallel tracks, one going backwards, and there is a shootout between the engines as they pass each other. Awesome.
… confusion whirling in the scene like the whirl of a witch’s dance, the white clouds of steam, the black eddies from the smokestack, the blue wreaths from the hot mouths of the revolvers, swirling together in a blinding maze of vapor, spinning around them, dazing them, dizzying them, while the head rang with hideous clamor and the body twitched and trembled with the leap and jar of the tumult of machinery.
Roaring, clamoring, reeking with the smell of powder and hot oil, spitting death, resistless, huge, furious, an abrupt vision of chaos, faces, rage-distorted, peering through smoke, hands gripping outward from sudden darkness, prehensile, malevolent; terrible as thunder, swift as lightning, the two engines met and passed.
That passage is perfect, eminently Norris – his lists, his repetitions, his movement, his clichés. “An abrupt vision of chaos” – yes, that’s The Octopus at its best.
3. There is a character who has telepathy. He can summon people to him – and the people he summons believe he has done it. He wonders if he can summon his girlfriend from sixteen years ago, who was assaulted, and died. She is associated with flowers:
Her hands disengaged the odor of the heliotropes. The folds of her dress gave off the enervating scent of poppies. Her feet were redolent of hyacinths. (I.4)
Weird! And it turns out he can summon her from the dead! “Realism,” people call this.
Whole subplot should have been cut, honestly.
4. The wheat farmers fight the railroad; the railroad wins; but the Wheat gets its murderous revenge. It must be seen to be disbelieved – “… no sound but the rushing of the Wheat that continued to plunge incessantly from the iron chute in a prolonged roar, persistent, steady, inevitable” (II.9).