Uncomfortable Plot Summary: A young man angsts all over this fine continent.
Year Published: 1953
First Sentence: I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.
Rating: 2/3 (meh)
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I'm getting frustrated with The List. The Adventures of Augie March is yet another example of the "Dude Feeling Sorry for Himself" genre that seems to occur every other book or so. The narration is invariably in the first person, the story is a nonentity, and there's a very heavy sense of the author behind the words, stroking his ego. It's not quite accurate to say that half of The List so far has consisted of these books, of course, but I can think of at least two other examples: A Bend in the River (which defied convention somewhat by not being about a white dude), and Sophie's Choice (which defied convention somewhat by actually having a plot external to the narrator). And frankly, I'm not interested in these books. In fact, while I'm reading them, I'm less interested in what's happening than in whether anything at all is going to happen, and when the book will finally be over.
Yes, they do brush certain truths about people and life that I find interesting and thought-provoking. But mostly they're boring and hard to relate to. The List is supposed to contain the best books written in the last century. To me, this means that these books should have not just the best writing, but also the best characters, best stories, and all the rest. A book about some random dude wandering through his life, trying to figure out what his place is in the world, and boning lots of beautiful women while he's at it doesn't really constitute a great story and great writing, even if some of the philosophizing makes me nod my head. I can't relate to these books because as a young woman I just barely have the amount of agency that a young man does (debatable, I know). I have enough uncertainty about my own place in the world that I don't really have time or interest in reading about someone else if there isn't also a plot of some kind to keep me engaged (see The Magus for what I think is an excellent example of angsty existentialism that doesn't suck).
But as for Mr. March, his story proceeds like so: raised in a sort of hazily Jewish household by a single mother and an old woman whose children have failed her, Augie holds various jobs through his youth and meets a variety of intriguing individuals. At some point the 30s occur, and Augie gets older and gets into scrapes and just sort of drifts. Much later (the jacket talks about this, but it feels like a spoiler because it doesn't happen 'til pretty far in, so, um, be aware) he hooks up with a rich girl named Thea and they pursue a crazy falconry project together and also bone a lot.
Despite my rant and impatience, this book wasn't all bad. Saul Bellow is an excellent writer, although his style only half appeals to me. There was also a really good bit right around the middle where a friend of Augie's has to get an abortion, which I think is the final argument I'll ever need to see about providing safe access to that particular medical procedure for women. Thea was a very cool character, with probable mental illness and a hobby of catching poisonous snakes. There are actually an astonishing number and variety of characters in the book, including several with disabilities, which was a little unexpected. On the other hand, Bellow lost me for good within the first hundred pages, where he wrote about an old man who could just fondle whoever he wanted, because he could hone in on women's best attributes. That and it was just too meandering. The compelling bits were mired in a lot of, for lack of a better word, blah.
It's not that Augie is a bad dude. He cries when his surrogate grandmother dies, and his heart breaks, and he reads books. It's just that I didn't particularly like him that much, or care about any of that. And I guess that's one of the side effects of The List being compiled mainly by a bunch of old men (I keep talking about this and one of these days I should actually profile these board members or something...): the books that speak loudly to them aren't necessarily the books that speak loudly to me.
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I don't know whether it was the refusal or the emotion of speaking and being spoken to that knocked me down, and I wasn't in any condition to touch around and feel for the trigger, where it was and why it was like a loose tooth.
- - - - -
Imagining how this would be, I melted, my chest got hot, soft, sore, and yearning. I saw it already happening. It's always been like that with me, that fantasy went ahead of me and prepared the way. Or else, as it seems, the big personal van, dark and cumbersome, can't start into strange terrain. But this imagination of mine, like the Roman army out in Spain or Gaul, makes streets and walls even if it's only camping, for the night.
- - - - -
"Let me come with you."
That was how it was. Nothing as I had foreseen it.
- - - - -
So works of art aren't eternal. So beauty is perishable. Didn't this saintly German wake up many mornings inspired, with joy in his heart? What more can you ask? He couldn't be both happy and sure of being right for eternity. You have to take your chance that being happy is also being right.