"Life is hard. Vae victis! The wretched must suffer."
This is Saul Bellow's first novel and there is the pervasive sense that he was still in the process of developing his craft. It lacks the author's usual fluid prose, charm, wit and pathos. Instead, the writing is cold, stagnant and purposefully self-indulgent. The novel does have its brief moments of inspiration and philosophical insight but even at 140 pages, the prose is very slow to read through. Nothing of real significance happens in the story, although that is the author's intention--the protagonist named Joseph (no last name is ever given) finds himself stuck in perpetual limbo; his unstable and disenchanted mind is influenced by prolonged idleness as he waits to be drafted into the army.
At the beginning of the novel, Joseph feels the need to defend the art of journal writing to himself and by association, the reader as well:
There was a time when people were in the habit of addressing themselves frequently and felt no shame at making a record of their inward transactions. But to keep a journal nowadays is considered a kind of self-indulgence, a weakness, and in poor taste. For this is an era of hardboiled-dom. (1)
Keeping a diary or a journal has often been perceived as a feminine activity (writing about one's 'feelings' is not considered manly) and Joseph attempts to subvert this gender stereotype by advocating its value as an effective means of self-reflection; a way to make sense of the external world. After being rejected from being inducted into the army, he ironically perceives that the journal entries will be a way to reassert his masculinity--in essence, great men don't have to commit heroic deeds on the battlefield; they can also be recognized as 'great thinkers.' Joseph finds himself conflicted over choosing the contemplative or active life although it becomes explicitly clear which path he decides to take by the end of the novel. Thus, the entire novel consists mostly of Joseph's introspective musings and inner dialogue--the perfect literary platform for Saul Bellow who enjoys exploring human consciousness and grappling with complex philosophical ideas. Unfortunately, the narrative's deliberate torpidity is aggravating; the self-reflective, metaphysical concerns far too excessive. Dangling Man seems like a precursor to Herzog in aesthetic approach (the latter engages in letters) but obviously not as polished or self-contained.
With the outbreak of WWII, Joseph is living in an age of "hardboiled-dom" filled with violence, destruction and chaos. Men are supposed to enlist in the army and join the fight overseas instead of being like Joseph--staying indoors, scribbling in their diaries, acting indolent or wandering around aimlessly. Then again, Joseph is not entirely to blame since it is not that he does not want to join the army to fight for the freedom of his country--they made a mistake assessing his application form and there was some kind mix-up so now he has all this extra time before re-enlisting. He loses track of time and soon cannot distinguish between the different days of the week. He becomes isolated, wholly preoccupied with his own thoughts where suffering from estrangement eventual leads to bizarre behavior, psychological break-downs and even outbursts of violence.
The novel covers a wide variety of subjects including morality, death, reason, imagination, ideal construction vs. the real world, the power of art but it strongly emphasizes the universal human struggle for freedom. Or as Joseph calls it, "pure freedom" which is the penultimate human quest:
We are all drawn toward the same craters of the spirit--to know what we are and what we are for, to know our purpose, to seek grace. And, if the quest is the same, the differences in our personal histories, which hiterto meant so much to us, become of minor importance. (114)
Whether it is a a type of self-imprisonment as experienced by Joseph or the structural functionalism of society, I am inclined to agree with this eloquent and profound statement. As individuals, we are constantly struggling to free ourselves (both internally and externally), desperately trying to find purpose to this incomprehensible concept called 'life.' Perhaps it is love, a career or religion that gives life meaning but it is all subjective. For Joseph, it seems that art and the imagination might be the answer but the novel remains ambiguous on this issue.
Even though Dangling Man is disappointing in many different aspects, it still showcases a young author in the transition of becoming a great writer. Learning from his mistakes and developing his own voice, Saul Bellow will later go on to establish himself as one of the great American writer's of the 20th century. Besides, nobody's perfect.
This review is part of my Saul Bellow Project.