Sunday, 11 August 2013

Dangling Man Review


Dangling Man by Saul Bellow
(1944)

Saul Bellow, Nobel Laureate, is best known for his masterpieces The Adventures Of Augie March and Herzog.  Of course, I've read neither of those.  Not just because I'm a wanker who prefers the lesser known works of respected authors, but because I only had $3 on me when I wandered into Fowlers' Second-Hand Books, Lorne, and this book, at $2.50, was the only Bellow I could afford.  I did in fact read Bellow's The Victim several years ago and I recall none of it; oh, there was a scene on a subway I think, or at a train station, but that's it.  But I do remember I thought it was an okay book, and that Bellow was worth another shot.  He was certainly worth a $2.50 shot. 

Dangling Man is about a Canadian-American called Joseph.  He has enlisted in the US Army (WWII) but due to some red-tape about his Canadian citizenship there's a hold up and he is forced to wait indefinitely for the call up.  It could be tomorrow, it could be never.  He doesn't know.  Thing is but, he'd quit his job, and they couldn't take him back even as a casual, and he can hardly apply for other jobs because he could be called up the next day, and so he's just stuck at home, waiting, waiting.  His missus has a job, and she's become the bread winner.  They live in a small rooming house (Chicago).

With nothing to do, and little money, he gets a kind of cabin fever.  He reads Goethe, among other whacko things to wile away the time.  Goethe recounts the tale of an Englishman so overwhelmed with the ennui of having to get dressed and undressed every day that he kills himself.  Joseph understands this.  That's where he's at.  He's edgy.  So edgy, that in social situations, with no provocation, he becomes a cantankerous cunt.  Like an un-funny George Costanza, he ruins every social engagement (for everyone), every party, every small catch-up with friends, every interaction with neighbours - he ruins them all by being hopelessly argumentative and anti-social. 

I know people like this.  The type for who the question "How are you going?" can be answered with "What do you mean by that?"

Those with smarts, but no job, little money, no school to go to, no real reason to even get up in the morning... and weirdly lacking the drive to dig themselves out of the hole.  Idle hands make ... With so much time to spare, they tend to over-think everything, see conspiracies where there are none, feel pressed, pressured, stressed, obsess over innocuous tasks that a busy person would take in their stride.  I think it was in the movie Casablanca there was some line that ran:  If you want something important done, ask someone who is already busy.  I have found that to be anecdotally true.  And the thing is, I dislike people who are both idle and cantankerous.  I can take one or the other but not both.  They bug me.  And now I got stuck for 140 pages with one of them. 

As for why he keeps causing scenes...

"It may be that I am tired of having to identify a day as 'the day I asked for a second cup of coffee', or 'the day the waitress refused to take back the burned toast', and so want to blaze it more sharply, regardless of the consequences..."

There have been many novels written by fictional social misfits in a kind of diary-form.  It's almost like a rite of passage for white morose male authors.  Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground is the best of them (because at least he does something, eventually), and I guess Kafka's The Trial is another that works.  The very worst of them is Hell by Henri Barbusse which I read a couple of months ago (here's my rating: F.  F for Fucking Shithouse.)  Bellow's book is somewhere in the middle.  He captured the spirit of an idle man very well, but he failed to elicit any sympathy from me.  I just wanted Joseph to go to the fucking war.  Oh, and on that, I wondered why he would even want to go to a war.  He seemed too cynically erudite.  But he worded it beautifully (in a way that sums up my feelings about US aggression towards, say, Taliban): "...as between their imperialism and ours, if a full choice were possible, I would take ours." 

Also, in the end, he just wanted the regimentation.  A reason to get up in the morning.  Don't we all?

I give it a C.







8 comments:

Cath said...

I find that the reason to get up in the morning is an elusive one... and given how our nights are lately, getting up in the morning is to be celebrated. A child screaming on and off all night, coupled with his boredom over lack of life direction, would be something to be pained about. A child screaming all night, and having to be chirpy and productive - now that is a tragedy of the highest order, and something many of us face daily.

I dedicate this rant to my youngest child and her continued refusal to sleep without hours of screaming....

Perseus said...

I reckon having a baby is reason enough to get up. Maybe that should be my advice to everyone that's idle. Have a kid.

We were lucky in that Norsename wasn't/isn't a crier. She slept well from Day 1. Only problem was that she slept so much the back of her head was flat!

Alex said...

I like your review style, Pers. I don't know anything about any of these authors or books, and I still enjoyed this.

But I don't think I understand the kind of idleness you're talking about. Buy some timber and make furniture, get some paper and teach yourself to sketch, pick up a book and learn something, start gardening.

I think I have the opposite problem. I often feel like I don't have enough time.

squib said...

I ended up in a second-hand bookshop because I finished Crusoe and then I finished the other book I brought with me 'The World of the End' by Gafla. I bought 'Three Stories and a Reflection' by Patrick Suskind and finished it the next morning. Got '1984' from Big Squib which I didn't want to read because I thought I knew how it went but ended up liking it. But getting back to Suskind, there's a bit called 'Amnesia in Litteris' where he talks about not being able to remember what he's read. I haven't read Bellow so at least I can remember what I haven't read

Perseus said...

Thanks Alex, and yes, I agree. I mowed the lawn with a manual lawn-mower last week and I was invigorated!

Squib - is there any shop in the world better than a second-hand bookshop? No.

I banned Suskind after 'Perfume'. Hated it.

I recently joined Good Reads, and I've started to tick off all the books I've read, but I'm slowing down after about 150 because I just can't remember what I've read unless the title or author jumps out at me. I'll keep plugging away. Since I was about 15 years old I reckon I've read about 25 novels a year, so the figure should be whatever 29 times 25 is.

Note: I was reading a lot more than 25 a year before I was 15 years old, but I couldn't be bothered ticking Fox In Socks and The Wishing Chair Again.

squib said...

I would never read a book called Perfume. You can just tell it's going to be bad

Goodreads is an excellent memory aid

Perseus said...

Oh, I joined Good Reads a few weeks ago but I have no friends there. Can we be friends? I'm under Perseus Q.

squib said...

Okies. Have you read The Sound and the Fury? I'm up to page 85 and I still have NO IDEA what is going on. I think I'm going to throw it in. Should I? I mean I stuck through part two of Don Quixote, I've got what it takes