Some authors strike fear into the hearts of wary readers. Faulkner. Joyce. You know the usual suspects. For me it is the White American Male literary triumvirate of the mid 20th century – Roth, Updike, Bellow – celebrated, praised, awarded and much adored, and because of this, damn intimidating. I suppose it stems from a fear of “just not getting it” and having any literary appreciation credentials stripped away and shunned from the readerly world forever. Stupid, I know. So it was with a considerable amount of trepidation that I approached Saul Bellow’s debut novel Dangling Man.
Written in a diary format, Dangling Man is the story of a moderately intelligent young man, Joseph, who has enlisted in the army but is stuck in some sort of bureaucratic purgatory while the authorities figure out what to do with him. While his colleagues go off to battle, or are stationed around the country, Joseph spends his days in a shoddy boarding house, walking around Chicago, avoiding questions about his current position, having meaningful conversations with himself, looking back over his past, and generally being a layabout little shit.
Joseph considers himself as something of an intellectual, a scholar who had previously found success in rote employment. Joseph’s self-assuredness and confrontational methods of dealing with the world and others brings Salinger’s Holden Caulfield to mind. More appropriate a comparison would be with Frank Wheeler from Revolutionary Road, who also believes that his self proclaimed intellectual ways put him above the less educated. (Although I’m thinking that, as with Caulfield, reading this book at a certain age makes one more likely to relate to Joseph’s outlook.)
As he is in most things, Joseph is conscious of a motive in his choice of clothes. It is his answer to those whose defiant principle it is to dress badly, to whom a crumpled suit is a badge of freedom. He wants to avoid the small conflicts of nonconformity so that he can give all his attention to defending his inner differences, the ones that really matter. Furthermore, he takes a sad or negative satisfaction in wearing what he calls “the uniform of the times.” In short, the less noteworthy the better, for his purposes. All the same, he manages to stand out.
For someone who declares himself intelligent beyond compare, Joseph is not only lacking an element of self-awareness that would make him more tolerable, but unforgivably misogynistic. He is unable to accept his wife Iva’s agency, constantly belittling her with his moods, unable to influence her and shape her into the well-read intellectual he wants her to be. He is given to sudden outbursts of anger and, in one scenario, a strange scene of faux-parental discipline, which are not given the same amount of consideration as the minute actions of others. His diatribes about how the world and his friends, colleagues, family are all deemed lacking and his uniqueness are tiresome and become very tedious to read. When he simply recounts his days or his past, the prose flows better, but for the most part it is difficult to empathize with Joseph and his precarious predicament. Maybe if he didn’t resort to massive generalizations about mankind (while excluding himself from those crude beasts) and unfair criticisms.
Sometimes he manages to appreciate simple serene scenes from his domestic life – such as napping with his wife after eating strawberries rolled in powdered sugar – yet, even this becomes another opportunity for a long pronouncement about … whatever, who cares by this stage. His arrogance and verbosity quickly becomes boring. And yet, though Joseph is an arrogant asshole, and irrationally horrible to those around him, it’s impossible not to feel just a small amount of sympathy with him when he gives up his dangling days and demands to be called up for duty. One is left wondering whether the discipline of army life will be beneficial to him.
So, as it turns out, my trepidations was largely unfounded. Though this is Bellow’s first novel so perhaps his later works will, whenever I get around to reading them, be somewhat more challenging. Dangling Man, while having some moments of insight, didn’t make much of an impression.