Try as I might, I’ve never connected with Saul Bellow’s prose. My first attempt was The Actual, his penultimate work, and his shortest. A few pages in and I was lost. Then, The Adventures Of Augie March, the novel that signalled his worth as a writer: after reading the opening page repeatedly, I knew I couldn’t continue through the whole book doing so, and abandoned it.
There’s something about Bellow, though, that makes me persist. It’s probably the perception of him as one of the best American writers, what with other writers citing him as their favourite. By not reading him, I’m surely missing out; in reading him, I’m more than likely missing the point. In order to grapple with the beast it seemed a logical idea to dismiss his better known novels as an introduction and to head back to the start, to Dangling Man (1944), under the impression that his earliest work may offer a way in to his style before it solidifies him as that great American writer.
Dangling Man is the journal of Joseph, a young man who resigned his job at a travel bureau seven months before, expecting to be drafted into the army, instead finding himself ‘dangling’ due to complications that he describes as “a sort of bureaucratic comedy trimmed out in red tape.” Rather than get a job for now - “As a 1A I could not get a suitable one, anyhow” - he opts for staying at home, living off his wife’s wage, rarely venturing out, and with little company other than his own thoughts, all jotted down.
In loneliness and bureaucracy, there are echoes of Kafka’s The Trial, and a Joseph caught up in it all confirms the nod. Bellow, however, is not so concerned with the situation of bureaucracy, instead using it as the springboard into a mildly philosophical story about destiny.
Six hundred years ago, a man was what he was born to be. Satan and the Church, representing God, did battle over him. He, by reason of his choice, partially decided the outcome. […] But, since, the stage has been reset and human beings only walk on it and, under this revision, we have, instead, history to answer to. We were important enough then for our souls to be fought over. Now, each of us is responsible for his own salvation, which is in his greatness. And that, that greatness, is the rock or hearts are abraded on.
Admittedly, as stories go, Dangling Man is short on incident, given that Joseph rarely leaves his room, but there are a number of great set pieces as the frustration of living within one’s mind - and Joseph’s mind, given his journal’s literary references and philosophial meanderings, is highly intelligent - takes its toll and cracks appear. It may not be a metamorphosis in the mould of Gregor Samsa, but the once easy-natured man he was has found himself prone to violent outbursts.
There is nothing to do but wait, or dangle, and grow more and more dispirited. It is perfectly clear to me that I am deteriorating, storing bitterness and spite which eats like acid at my endowment of generosity and good will.
In all his wanderings - physical and mental - Joseph’s problem is destiny. Unable to live up to the lofty expections of his making and “unwilling to admit that I do not know how to use my freedom” he not only seeks, but needs solace in the Army, where he need not think for himself. At the beginning, Joseph’s choice to keep a journal, in “an era of hardboiled-dom” is a seen as contrarian to the mores of society:
Do you have feelings? There are correct and incorrect ways of indicating them. Do you have an inner life? It is nobody’s business but your own. Do you have emotions? Strangle them.
The journey from individual thinker, an outcast from society, to one willing to strangle his own self is an interesting premise. Where one would expect - perhaps because it’s clichéd - to see someone fight for their individuality, Dangling Man talks of belonging. In reading it, and understanding it to a degree, and even quite enjoying bits of it, I find that I may just see the case for belonging myself - to those that praise him, that is.