Sequels often fall short for many reasons. One is the characters and their behavior are known quantities, which limits new plots and actions. History gives Steinbeck’s Cannery Row a higher place than its sequel, Sweet Thursday. Yet ST is a better book, in part because Steinbeck was a more skillful writer nine years later. An indicator of that skill is how well he disguises it while expanding the characters of CR.
On the surface ST looks like it merely extends the story of CR, but it is much more. Its characters have a greater depth and the story has a more complex structure—and both are done in ways that conceal his skill.
Here is an example of this subtle skill. One of his characters frequently abuses words. Nothing unusual there. However, one of her mis-sayings reveals a literary insight second to none. But Steinbeck has her do it so casually, if you didn’t know the reference you’d think it was just another malapropism.
He has her say “new roses” instead of “neuroses.” This offhand throwaway is Steinbeck’s comment on the confusion of “blue roses” with “pleurisy” in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Steinbeck understood Williams was substituting this for “new roses” and “neuroses.” Clearly the latter was personal for Tennessee but too personal to use in the play.
It’s not just that Steinbeck recognized Williams’ substitution. He wanted his readers to understand what it must have meant to Williams, thereby deepening their appreciation of the play. Or at least it does if you’ve read ST. So, I’ll ask: Have you?
You see, that’s the real reason for this post. The lesser known (through the collapsing telescope of time) works of great writers are probably also great. In fact, I think they’re more worth your time than most popular stuff of the moment. I have rarely been disappointed delving into unfamiliar works of great writers. (One exception: Fitzgerald’s play The Vegetable—an inexplicable disaster.)
I could give endless examples from ancient to modern, but I’ll leave you with just one. A guy I know said he really liked Philip Roth, yet when I mentioned two of his earlier, offbeat works (Our Gang and The Great American Novel) he drew a blank. I said if he liked Roth. he should try all his books. This is my advice to everyone: if you like a great writer, try all of his or her books. You won’t be sorry.