Thursday, January 1, 2009

Sending up Chicago's Gold Coast (Books - The Actual by Saul Bellow)

Backtracking to some brief thoughts on my last read of 2008, Saul Bellow's novella The Actual. I found it a fluid, mischievous set of intertwining character studies at the center of which is Harry Trellman, a Chicago businessman - an eternal outsider with a talent for assessing character.
It's easy enough to see what people think they're doing. Nor is what they really are up to hard for common sense to make out. The usual repertories of strategems, deceits, personality rackets, ringing the changes on criminal cunning, are hardly worth examining.
Bellow maintains this chatty, appropriately cumbersome, smart-boy-up-from-the-streets voice for Harry throughout the book's 100 pages. The plots concerns Harry's 40-year high school crush on Amy Wustrin who, in the book's present time frame has divorced Harry's best friend. She is an interior decorated for the ultra wealthy. The story has some marvelous send-ups of the whimsical upper crust of Chicago society. In the most memorable scene in the story, a social climber who has spent several years in jail for trying to have her wealthy husband knocked off, pours tea onto Amy Wustrin's lap in order to manoeuvre her into the bathroom and pursuade her to inflate her estimate of her apartment's furniture. It is simultaneously hilarious, tense, and embarrassing. I found the book swift-moving, entertaining, skillfully set up, and well written, but I can't say I had the impression I was reading a gushworthy masterpiece. I am not going to ruin the story the way the book cover does, but I wasn't surprised where it led and found that rather than making the piece profound, it rendered it into a one-joke wonder. Still, it's worth a read, and I may search out some complete reviews by critics who thought it particularly good to see if I can learn something. So far, I am a bigger fan of Bellow's longer works.

3 comments:

C. B. James said...

I read The Victim earlier this year and had mixed reactions. It's not a funny book, at all, like this one is. I've had Seize the Day on my shelf all year. Maybe I'll get to it in 2009.

Do you think Bellow will stand the test of time?

Eva said...

Isn't it funny how different authors can be in different formats? I love Henry James' novels, but his novellas just leave me cold. I've never read any Bellow...sounds like I'll start with a novel. :)

Ted said...

CBJ - Interesting question. I think his best novels like Augie March are really great stories. The theme of overcoming adversity is universal and their being firmly rooted in a certain cultural mileu gives them interest. Even if their vernacular becomes dated, its so specific. I think he may have an appeal in a few hundred years the way Jane Austen does now.

Eva - I've read many of his later novels like Herzog, but I really enjoyed Augie March.