As I suppose is the case for most people, I was peripherally aware of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle through references to it in the history of Progressive Era politics. This was the book, I was told, that exposed the unsanitary practice of the meatpacking industry and prompted the federal government to take action to maintain food safety standards.

The surprising thing about the book, then, was that it was actually about the meatpacking industry as such. It’s really a hardluck story to illustrate the evils of capitalism, and the exploitation of workers. But what everyone took away from it was a few shocking food adulteration tall tales that, in the context of the novel, were mere throwaway lines. Sinclair apparently realized the irony here, saying in 1906, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

It has been years since I’ve been so eager to finish a book. There is no plot in The Jungle. The greater part of the novel is just painfully tedious series of unfortunate decisions on the part of the protagonists, who are cheated and taken advantage of in every way that Sinclair can imagine. In every single way. Over and over again. And then again. And then again. With almost imperceptible variations. And then again.

This is not an excerpt, but it could be:

Jurgis strode through the park on a sunny Spring day, and he would have enjoyed it if he weren’t walking home after a 12-hour shift shoveling guts. Peddlers were selling ice cream at inflated prices, their eager cries motivated by desperation to avoid the debt bondange of their capitalist overlords. The ice cream was half-sawdust and nearly guaranteed to cause liver failure in anyone who took a bit, but the poor venders couldn’t do a thing about it. Someone had complained once, but on the owner’s orders the police had come around, cut off the man’s thumbs, ground them up, and mixed them into the next batch of cherry ice cream.

For the sake of variety Sinclair writes about people with different names. But this is all that differentiates them. They think the same way and react the same way to all of the stimuli. There is no character development. There is no growth. One character is forced to undergo psychologically implausible convulsions so that Sinclair has an excuse to change scenes. It’s poor writing indeed when the tension that drives character development is the author’s own evident boredom with his writing.

This is the fictional equivalent of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States; or rather, this is the fictional world that he was wrote his history about.

It affords me some pleasure to write that this is worst book I’ve read since Atlas Shrugged, a book that is The Jungle’s equal in literary quality, though it is the mirror image of its politics. Both books are written by people who would prefer to be writing manifestos, but for some reason couldn’t pull that off.

The most enjoyable part of the book, for me, was when Sinclair dispenses with the pretense at fiction and introduces some mouthpiece characters that will give the longwinded speeches he’s been aching to give all along. These are enjoyable because they are so absurd. The proposal is communism—communism to the letter, with the single exception that violent revolution is replaced by the ballot box. And he enthuses to no end about how efficient a centrally planned government will be; how little waste there will be; and how all the necessities of life will be provided for free—or at the cost of an hour of work per day. It was not too long after the book’s publication in 1906 that those passages took on their comedic quality.

Workers of the world, read something else instead!