Jack London's output never ceases to surprise me with its diversity. There's a lot more to him than stories about dogs and the Arctic. For example, the sailing adventure cum debate about evil, The Sea Wolf, autobiographically inspired story of a self-educated writer, Martin Eden, pro-Communist revolutionary tale, The Iron Heel, tongue-in-cheek philosophical action adventure,The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., and various science fiction shorts (many of them also pro-Communist) including ones with pre-historic settings. This book takes us into another area again; specific and direct social protest, specifically regarding the California penal system circa 1910. It also covers quite a bit of ground overlapping with the works mentioned above, including two sea-tales and a story set in pre-history. Historical fiction can be added to the list and even a Wild West story. Which might seem a little odd, considering this is ostensibly a novel.
In fact it is a collection of short stories linked by being found in the memoirs of a Folsom Death Row inmate. Said inmate, who openly admits to being guilty of murder, rapidly gains our sympathy when he describes his experiences in a California prison where he is beaten, abused, threatened and tortured. The torture comes primarily in the form of solitary confinement whilst strait-jacketed for days at a stretch. This jacketing is not to prevent self-harm; the protagonist is not an inmate of a secure psychiatric facility; he is simply being punished for perceived willful refusal to co-operate with the prison authorities. I have no idea how accurate a depiction of the California prisons of the time this is, but it reminds me very strongly of Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol in both intent and power to move. It also provides cogent arguments against capital punishment, including the fact that it is institutionalised revenge that makes all tax payers of the State involved no better than the murderers usually subject to it. Reducing the entire populace to the level of its worst criminals seems to me a peculiar form of justice. I'm a victim of it; when I lived in Illinois, the USA Federal moratorium on executions ended. I paid, in part, to kill a man for crimes I know nothing of. Of course, that is nothing compared to my forced complicity in the various resource wars of recent years...
But back to the book. The fact is that the material warrants only a short story, not a full length novel, but a full length novel is what we have. The bulk is made up of the experiences the protagonist has whilst strait-jacketed. He puts himself into a trance during these days-at-a-stretch sessions in the jacket and relives previous lives. London seems to have taken everything he has ever read or heard about mystical trances, sensory deprivation and hypnotic regression and mixed it all up for these passages about how the protagonist resists the prison governor and escapes his abusers whilst squeezed more than half to death in a basement solitary cell where he was kept for a period of years. And this is how we come to get such a varied collection of settings and stories within a novel that has almost no plot of its own.
The prison material is powerful but limited and repetitive, which eventually weakens it. The various past-life-retold adventures are almost as varied in interest as the they are in setting. Personal taste will no doubt vary, but my favourite was the desert island survival story. London was the Grand Master of survival stories and knew the oceans from direct experience. The Roman perspective on the Christ story was primarily interesting for its take on Pontius Pilate's character and motivations. The historical Korean story vies with the pre-historic story as my least favourite. (See how crazily diverse they are?)
Despite the clever and powerful framing, this book really feels too episodic for its own good. I found it very easy to put down and I read a handful of other novels in the time I was also reading this. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile and I recommend it to anyone who ever liked anything else by Jack London. His capacity to mix philosophical and moral musings with adventure stories was his great strength and it is on show once again here.