Thursday, December 6, 2007

Books: The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow

Unlike Bellow's other novels I've read (Mr. Sammler's Planet; Herzog), this book took me more than a month to get through, for reasons other than its relative length. Rather than tackling a late-middle-aged protagonist, barging in on his life as a third person omniscient narrator, Bellow here takes on the meandering voice of memoir, writing in first person, and beginning at childhood.

Augie grows up in relative poverty with an older brother (a go-getter), a younger brother (a retard), a meek single mother, and a domineering older female boarder they call grandma. The era is that of the depression, and since money is tight, Augie and his older brother are constantly working odd jobs while going to school, and collecting charity as well. As he gets older, Augie continually finds himself in the service of other people—first employers, then lovers—who, taking advantage of his relative aimlessness, try to make him into what they want him to be; he works for an old wealthy cripple, Einhorn, an aged childless couple, the Renlings (who want to adopt him), and tries to work for his brother, who has married into business and big money. None of these yokes fit for long, and Augie throws them all off, eventually running to Mexico for a proto-beat adventure with Thea, a beautiful devil-may-care debutante-type, who wants to make documentary films about an eagle they purchase and train to catch giant lizards. This doesn't work either, though; the eagle, not raised in the wild, refuses to fight the lizards, fleeing in fear as soon as they bite him, and Augie, seeing his own failure to be what Thea wants mirrored in the eagle's failure, lets his (emotional) wounds fester after he takes a fall from his horse. While Thea continues with her western fantasy, absent for days at a time hunting snakes in the mountains, Augie hangs around town and collects stacks of foreign currency playing poker. Eventually, he decides to go back to his hometown of Chicago, after giving most of his money to a beautiful girl named Stella to help her escape her crazed husband and thereby formally ending his broken relationship with Thea. During this time, he has had an opportunity to travel in the revenue of Trotsky, who is hiding in Mexico from people who want to kill him; he has mixed feelings about the opportunity and is ultimately relieved when it is withdrawn. Augie returns to Chicago and knocks about for awhile, then moves to New York, reconnects with Stella, and decides to join the Army (WWII is exploding all over the news). Because of deficiencies in his fitness, even after an operation, Augie is still ineligible for the Army, so he joins the Merchant Marines and, a few days after his wedding, ships out. Not long into the journey, the ship is attacked, and Augie finds himself alone in a lifeboat with Bateshaw, a mono-maniac who doesn't want to be rescued, and instead wants to find solace on an island where he can conduct his scientific experiments in bioengineering with Augie as his assistant. By a combination of wits and brawn, he manages to tie up Bateshaw (after Bateshaw has tied him up), light a flare, and get them both rescued. Eventually, Augie gets back to New York and Stella, who now has a promising career as an actress. They move to Paris, where the novel at long last finally ends. Somewhere along the way, Augie also works as a union organizer and has an affair with a Greek hotel maid, and is also a college student who steals books for a living and who helps his female flatmate through a botched abortion (the child isn't his), but, considering all that happened, you will hopefully forgive me for not being certain where those parts quite fit, as well as any other parts that I might have left out.

My honest impression, at the risk of sounding philistine, is that Bellow might have left out quite a bit of this. The childhood memories, valid as they are, drag without a stronger plot arc, and the reader has no impetus to turn the page until past the half-way point in the novel, when Augie goes to Mexico with Thea. This section in and of itself would have made a good short novel, not that enough good short novels haven't been written about Americans going to Mexico in the first half of last century. The end, what with New York and the Marines and shipwreck and Paris, rings false and tacked-on after the lengthy Mexico portion, as if Bellow were scraping together scraps of other books he had read.

All of that aside, the girl sitting next to me is on the phone, and she just said the following: "I hope you do win the lottery, but in the mean time, you need to get a coat." It's good advice, even if completely unrelated to this book I would have preferred not to have read. I do want to add that Augie March is a distinctly likable character, one in fact with whom I empathize a great deal, being relatively aimless myself (we two being the kinds of aimless people who are a bit interested in everything, rather than interested in nothing); that said, I wonder why I haven't had any Adventures yet, though I have certainly had employers who tried to mold me as more than mere assistant (from that yoke I have finally broken, finding freedom within the confines of the corporate structure). Additionally, I can't help but read Augie as a writer, a writer-in-the-making, who doesn't write anything, or that is, hasn't written anything yet (and again, thereby, I connect with him); his passivity is that of an observer's (he does quite a bit of reading throughout the novel)—he is spongy, allowing himself to be swept into other people's currents in order to collect the flotsam that will eventually comprise his story—and if he lived in isolation, his story would be a mere page long, since all of his storytelling consists of other people's stories. It's something of a warning signal to me, so whether I wish I hadn't spent an entire month reading this book or not, it isn't bad medicine.


b said...

auggie march was a piece of shit and put me off bellow for good. (well, that and 'henderson the rain king'.)

i think kingsley amis at some point said when reading virginia woolf, he kept thinking, 'this is exactly what that character would not do!' that's pretty much how i felt reading auggie march. everything rang false, and the prose was too over-heated and boring to make up for it. i gather most people who admire this book figured they had read enough to get away with pretending to like it before they got to the scene on the life-raft, where auggie march is stuck with a deranged psychology student who wants to kidnap him for behavioral experiments on the canary islands. if that sounds like something a second-rate zadia smith would make up, it is.

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