26 January 2008

Booklog, Oil!

Upton Sinclair
560 pages (trade paperback)

This book opens in the early years of the 20th century, sometime around 1910, with a young boy and his father on the open road in California. The man is an oilman, an independent prospector named J. Albert Ross, and the son is J. Albert Ross Jr., known as "Bunny" to all. They are heading toward a small town in which oil has recently been discovered, towards townspeople who do nothing but bicker and fight over the agreement that had or had not been reached regarding how the profits for the oil wells to be dug on their property were to be split up.

And it is here in the opening pages that we encounter many of the themes of the book. The townspeople bicker and dicker, all consumed with the need to both ensure that they receive as much money as possible for "their share" of the oil, and yet also all concerned with making sure that their share be as large as possible. Legal wranglings over the exact meaning of the agreement only make their bickering worse. And into this steps J. Arnold Ross (and his son, whose viewpoint we will basically follow through the whole novel), who listens for a bit and tells them, basically, that he is a busy man who is trying to drill for oil, and that their petty differences will keep them from making anything out of the discovery, i.e. that they will lose more by not making some sort of agreement now than they would lose by taking a deal that might not give them the absolute most they could possibly get.

Well, J. Arnold Ross eventually leaves the meeting in a huff, saying that he will instead drill on "the North Slope", with prospects at least as bright, but not before Bunny befriends another young boy, Paul Watkins, the cousin of one of the ladies bickering about how to best satiate her greed. Paul is poor but proud, intelligent, resourceful, and not overly concerned with the letter of the law. Bunny finds much to admire in young Paul, eventually cajoling his father into visiting Paradise, CA, where Paul lives, to shoot quail and possibly unearth an oil field that he himself will own, instead of leasing land from more fighting landowners.

And now I have gone on for three paragraphs glossing over the details of what is really only the first few dozen pages of this long book, a book that will over time reveal themes of greed, technology, sociology, education, politics, corruption, love, sex, racism, classism, spiritualism, the motion picture industry, religion, and so on and so forth. The novel takes place over the course of some fifteen years, over which Bunny will cease being an innocent child and become an innocent adult, insulated by the luxury afforded by his father from the pains of the world outside. And yet Bunny is essentially good at heart, moved by the plights of the workers in the oil fields and in factories and the men who die and suffer on the fields of battle in World War I, and often imploring his father to give money to those who register most severely on his moral compass.

It is a mark of greatness that the father goes along with most of these gifts, partly because they are for him small enough to pass without much discomfort, but mostly because he loves Bunny so and tries to give him everything he could want. J. Albert Ross is greedy, yes, conniving to trick people out of their money, corrupting public officials, but he belives in what he does as the best for himself and for his country and for the oil itself, and he is never portrayed heartlessly or as without conscience. When the workers strike on his oil wells, he is portrayed as sympathetic to their cause and at first agrees not to use scabs, until the larger oil companies and their association of interests forces his hand. He bribes public officials, but through his efforts improvements are made to the bleak rural areas in which his oil wells are built, and needed oil is able to be supplied to the US Army during the War.

I've been reading Oil! for the last couple of weeks, and it was this book that inspired my thoughts about political art in this post about Good Night, and Good Luck:
Art represents life. Most artists who try to use their art to promote their politics do it badly, simplistically, magnanimously. If you portray those opposed to you as simplistic villains, you make a simplistic political point, and erode the complexity of the real world until it is an unrealistic black and white. Reflecting the real world by portraying your political opposition is not just good art, but good politics -- in great political art your opposition should see themselves represented accurately, even if the point of the piece is that they should be wrong.A

(And yes, I am aware that quoting myself is essentially masturbation.)

Sinclair had a clear political agenda in this book, although I'm not sure it's quite as clear as some might simplistically believe. He was a Socialist (at a time when the capital S meant something), and believed in the rights of workers, the power of the proletariat, all that. But he is clear-eyed enough (and honest enough) to paint his opponents in Big Oil as human, to understand their own quirks and points of view, and to even give them moments of quiet dignity and heroism when the events of the novel warrant it. This is not a work of demogaugery, but of informed political discourse, and I believe it is possible to come out of this work totally disagreeing with the points Sinclair made, yet respecting the way he made them. Sinclair represents the complexity of real life in such a way as to make different viewpoints on the events in the novel not just possible, but almost required -- certainly I myself finished the book unsure as to how I felt precisely about the protagonists' actions.

It's astonishing how much of this book could be written about our own time period. The sections of the book dealing with Hollywood, for instance, are as incisive and insightful as modern commentary on Tinseltown, despite the nature and technology of the films being made there changing as much as they have over the past eight decades or so. The arguments of the wealthy characters against the workers, also, have much in common with commentary you might see today, arguing that paying workers more or improving conditions will impact overall profits, and it's again one of the strengths of the book that this argument is shown as having some level of validity.

It's also interesting how much political discourse has changed over the decades. In Sinclair's time, socialism was considered a sort of "middle ground" between capitalism and communism, and the root of capitalism as a political ideology founded on the needs of economic capital instead of human interests gradually became clear to me. The novel was published in 1927, and of course whenever the book begins to wax poetic over the workers in Russia it's easy to look forward to Stalin and see where the workers' revolution ended. But Sinclair is wise enough to see the difference between the people and their leaders and has a fair bit to say about (among many other things) corrupt union representatives selling out and exploiting their workers. A corrupt national leadership that subverts the very meaning of the ideology of socialism taking control of the world's largest country and ruling with an iron fist was likely not very surprising to Sinclair, his knowledge of human nature being what it was, and I doubt it changed a lot of his ideas regarding social structures.

(And, to be fair, our own capitalist system had a whole lot of pain still in the future in 1927, as well. I'm of course not arguing that the stock market crash and Great Depression were equal to the formation of a totalitarian state and massive purges and gulags, but the hands of the capitalist state were not then, and did not ever become, as clean as many apologists would like them to be.)

Nowadays, of course, even out most left-wing politicians endorse the values of capitalism, "socialism" is an incredibly dirty word that will swing elections, and "communism" is so filthy that it cannot even be uttered in polite company. If there really is a war between capital and labor, then capital won the war long ago, crushing labor into the dust and so far into memory that we can't even imagine it today.

Lest one think that this novel is all about politics and ignores the people involved, and their individual dramas, nothing could be further from the truth. This book is filled with human stories, with tragedy and heartache, with suffering and triumph, with heroism is places small and large, with corruption, vice, and destruction coming from sometimes unexpected places. It is a story of personal awakening, of political strugge, and sexual advance. No character ever becomes a caricature; everyone is fully alive and breathing at all times, and events surprise them (and we the readers!) with great regularity. It is an epic tale told in personal stories, a novel about history and society told in the tiny details of interpersonal interaction, and it is if nothing else a masterpiece of tightly-drawn character. Which is probably a large part of what drew the writer/director of Magnolia and Boogie Nights to adapt it into a film, although Anderson apparently takes great liberty with the material here. (I'll be seeing the film today or tomorrow, it just having opened in my city yesterday.)

There's so much more I could say about this book, with its richness of character, theme, and mood, but I'll stop here. It's a great novel that I will be returning to with some regularity, and definitely makes me want to approach The Jungle again with a more adult eye. This comes highly recommended for anyone with the patience required of a long novel.

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