To be honest, everyone comes across a book from time to time that they struggle to complete, indeed to get started with. The plot never really seems to start, the characters are undefined and un-engaging, and keeping track of who is who and what has happened doesn’t really seem worth the effort. But one persists, out of stubbornness more than any expectation that all of a sudden the novel will transform into something more compelling. For me this is a relatively rare occurrence, but Bellow’s ‘The Adventures of Augie March’ was unfortunately one such book.
The novel follows the first few decades of the life of the eponymous hero growing up in Chicago in the 1920’s and 30’s. The title deliberately echoes the Mark Twain Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn novels of 80 years or so earlier. While Twain’s narratives were, superficially at least, quite innocent, Augie March is brought up in a very different world.
So why was this book such a challenge, to the extent that I actually felt a sense of relief when I finished? I identified a number of reasons. Firstly, Bellow’s sentence construction is often awkward, almost as if English were not his first language. To offer just two simple examples:
“By dumb concentration and notice-wooing struggle. The only way I could conceive, in my blood-loaded, picturesque amorousness“. (138)
“Thus Mrs Renling in her strenuous wand hacked-up way, and the whiteness that came from her compression into her intense purposes.(151)”
The intention, presumably, is to convey the fragmented nature of Augie’s internal narration. This works effectively at first, but after a while becomes wearing.
Secondly, the novel has no real plot. We follow Augie as he wanders aimlessly from job to job and relationship to relationship. Each situation involves the introduction of a large cast of characters – even on the penultimate page, more than 500 in, Bellow is still introducing new characters. Events are structured chronologically, but the episodic nature of the narrative means it doesn’t flow – I did this, then I did this, then I did something else.
Thirdly, Augie is not an engaging character. He is devoid of any insight into his own motivation – he just wanders through life. His personal attachments to other people are superficial – even his family members are discarded when he loses interest in them. His mother is left in a home for the blind, and he rarely visits her, and his disabled brother is dumped in an institution and he only visits him once in a period of several years. His love life is complicated and unconvincing.
If this was just a series of scenes of urban life in pre-war Chicago, the novel would have had a degree of integrity. But at one point Bellow seems to bore of this theme, and he takes Augie to Mexico to train an eagle to capture lizards. Yes, apparently the best way to catch lizards isn’t to trap theme, but to train an eagle to catch them. As a plot device this would be out of place in a Marx brothers film, but it gets worse, because out in Mexico Augie meets Leon Trotsky, on the run from Stalin’s secret police. Despite the major world events that occur over the span of the novel, from the end of Prohibition and the Great Depression, Augie barely notices them. Even though he has met Trotsky, his later assassination and death don’t merit a mention. The Second World War only intrudes as an interruption to Augie’s plans to finally settle down and marry.
So to summarise: no plot, boring characters, clumsy writing – yet Bellow won the Nobel prize for literature! I’m quite happy to admit I must be missing something. I’m going to guess it’s one or more of the following:
1. ‘The Adventures’ conforms strictly to the traditions of the picaresque novel, defined in the Encyclopaedia Britannica as:
“a first-person narrative, relating the adventures of a rogue or low-born adventurer as he drifts from place to place and from one social milieu to another in his effort to survive. In its episodic structure the picaresque novel resembles the long, rambling romances of medieval chivalry, to which it provided the first realistic counterpart. Unlike the idealistic knight-errant hero, however, the picaro is a cynical and amoral rascal who, if given half a chance, would rather live by his wits than by honourable work. The picaro wanders about and has adventures among people from all social classes and professions, often just barely escaping punishment for his own lying, cheating, and stealing. He is a caste-less outsider who feels inwardly unrestrained by prevailing social codes and mores, and he conforms outwardly to them only when it serves his own ends. The picaro’s narrative becomes in effect an ironic or satirical survey of the hypocrisies and corruptions of society, while also offering the reader a rich mine of observations concerning people in low or humble walks of life.”
See what I mean? Augie is an Everyman through whose eyes the reader can see his world, but his passage through it leaves few traces. So is ‘the Adventures’ a modern day American version of the classic picaresque novels such as ‘Don Quixote’? I think that is a sustainable interpretation, but I am not convinced.
2. ‘The Adventures’ also contains numerous classical references. These left me wondering if there were possibly parallels between Augie’s adventures and those of the classical characters he refers to, as happens in ‘Ulysses’. In the end I just didn’t care enough to try and find out.
3. The range and scope of the novel made me wonder whether this was Bellow’s application for the ‘Great American Novel’ competition. This scepticism wasn’t helped by the quote from Martin Amis on the back cover claiming “‘The Adventures of Augie March’ is the Great American Novel. Search no more.” There are some explicit references to other candidates in that competition, now closed of course. Does this description of Augie’s brother Simon’s spending habits ring any bells?:
‘From the barbershop we’d go to Field’s to by him a dozen or so shirts, imported Italian underclothes or slacks or shoes, all things of which he already had a surplus; he showed me drawers, closets, shelves full, and still kept buying’ (224)
I noted down several quotes from this novel during the week or so that it took to complete, but the one I should have listened to was Bellow’s advice, in Augie’s voice:
“I never blamed myself for throwing aside such things as didn’t let themselves be read with fervor, for they left nothing with me anyhow” (206)
This novel didn’t let itself be read with fervour, and even though I didn’t throw it aside, no-one could surely have blamed me if I had.