Dangling Man by Saul Bellow (1944)

Dangling Man by Saul Bellow (1944)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.

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  1. While I do sort of (sort of) enjoy the work of Bellow, allow me to be completely arrogant in detracting from his works at my inexperienced age. I find he settles too freely in his own world, a world in which his characters follow Bellow’s teachings and demonstrate little more than their desire to be greater than what they are. Wow, how exciting…and I say this as someone who reads slice-of-life philosophy novels most of the time.

    Or, more importantly, fuck Bellow’s accomplishments! Who is he to intimidate you? Let him know who’s boss (everyone) by reviewing this (and whatever else you read from him), and letting us know so we don’t have to bother with the non-existent consensus (if a consensus is one of attitude, then what is there to say that it truly exists?)
    Whatever, it’s just another comment,

  2. Hey,
    Guess I’ll respond to this comment out of all. First, it’s sad to see no updates in a while. Second that I apologise for the last 2 comments on the Weird Sisters. I was experiencing my first night off after 4 weeks of constant gigs, and constant uni work. I also had that week with a nephew (who, mind my language, is a little shit.) Combine all of that with alcoholic tendencies, the fact that I had the tension of considering quitting uni to start a trade, and an internet connection, and you have a bad recipe for commenting.
    Also, I actually have a blog I started (and deleted all posts on) this year: the Opulent Bugs Bunny. In fact, your comment may have been the clincher for me to review…everything via that blogspot (I’m arrogant enough to assume I can, and I reserve the right to do so.) Well, some day, some day…perhaps I could incorporate Bellow into my subtitle.
    Hoping you’re doing well,
    You know my name.

    1. Oh hush you, no need to apologise. Your comments are always welcomed & read with great enjoyment on my part. Just boring old real life stress getting in the way of organizing my thoughts & just generally feeling pretty unintelligent and dull. I’ll be back.

  3. Joseph in Dangling Man appeals to younger readers because he recognizes and confronts the spiritual emptiness of the modern world or at least of most of the life possibilities that exist in the modern world. The conversations with Alternatives and his entries about his friend ABT are the key IMO to Joseph’s entire outlook (or lack of one). They bring to mind a much larger discussion about the loss of the energies (conflict) that have always moved history, that when they stopped churning, mankind was forced back upon itself. Is the end of history (as we know it) the end of man — Nietzsche’s Last Man? That’s why even WWII is inconsequential as a great event for Joseph. Joseph believes it will change nothing “essential” about contemporary life. Why? Because the question from The Alternatives, “Do you want to change anything?” has become meaningless in a world that is destined towards one liberal democratic end. If there’s nothing essential to change, then how is one supposed to believe in anything worthy of a true calling?

    Yes, his disposition makes him hard to sympathize with as a person, but in my experience, the most difficult people to get along with are usually those with the most interesting things to say. It’s good that they write books so we don’t always have to hear them say it.

  4. It’s hard to criticize Bellow if you don’t understand the philosophical issues and arguments that inform the author, both before and after he wrote the book. HINT: Alexandre Kojeve’s End of History.

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