Review of The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

First read: 5/2000
Reviewed on: 5/30/2000
Click here to buy it

I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

The beginning of this book was painful.  Normally, when I walk to work, I crack open a book as soon as I leave my door, and put it away when I reach Wright Hall, or (if it is particularly gripping), I will read it while walking up the stairs and only stop when I reach my office.  I was not able to keep reading this book for the whole commute, it was too awful.

I would amuse myself while reading by doing things like checking the page number after a session, dividing by 536 (approximating the result, I'm not a savant) subtracting from 1, and thus figuring out what percentage of the book I had left to go.   After page 30 or so, I began rehearsing for what I was going to say on this review page.  I was pretty much set on a one-word review:  "Sucked."   But then, after about page 50, I thought that this one word didn't really convey the work and suffering I endured, so I mentally changed it to "Five Hundred and Thirty Six pages of solid suck." 

The month I spent with Augie March was actually quite a productive month for me.   I co-authored a paper with Roger Sell, did some work on the Collatz Conjecture, finished up the Doctor E contest, etc.   Reading novels is usually avoidant behavior for me; and this month I found that my avoidant behavior was actually MORE unpleasant than the work I was avoiding.  The cat-box has never been kept so clean.  Laurel sometimes would come home to dinners cooked for her.  I was actually behaving like an adult.  All because of Augie March.

"But Doug, why did you hate it so?"

Many reasons, primarily that it sucked.  But I will be more specific for you.   Saul would spent pages describing someone, and then say words to the effect of, "But he isn't going to appear any more in this book.  Let me tell you about his sister" and then go off on describing her.  It was page after page of describing people, with no luxuries like Plot or anything like that to break things up.   Sometimes (for variety) he would stop describing people so he could work in a description of Setting.  But then it would be back to whirlwinds of description and suck.

Part of the problem may be that the book I read before this one was a collection of hard-boiled crime fiction short stories.  Three paragraphs of one of those stories takes you around the world on a roller coaster designed by an acid-addled architect and driven by a drunken five year old.  In a good way.  So it was quite the transition to go from that to The "Adventures" of Augie March.

Saul Bellow.  Feh.

But then, something happened to make the book tolerable.  For the past few months, I've been working through a truly fantastic book by Ursula Le Guin.  It is the only "how to write" book I've found that is neither condescending nor insulting.  She doesn't proselytize ("Oh!   Writing is such a joy!  Write what you feel!") or assume you are stupid ("Do you want to express the feeling of a person, place, or thing?  We writers use a noun in that situation.  Can you say 'noun?' ").   Well, I was currently reading her views on very long sentences.  And Saul's books are lousy with long sentences.  So, I got the idea to pay attention to his sentence structure, to figure out how he was able to take a long sentence and give it enough rhythm so it was readable.  Viewed as a story, Augie March wasn't interesting, but viewed as a "how to write long sentences textbook", it was terrific.

After a week or so after I started this novel, I was in my office working on a story of my own.  I was frustrated, as I always am, at my inability to describe characters as well as I would like to.  "Hey!" I thought, "That's the one thing Saul Bellow does well!"  So I had another thing to enjoy about the novel.  I paid careful attention to his descriptive technique, and tried to understand how it worked.  I think I became a better writer as a result, and I also got through page 200 without incident.  Somewhere in there, I even found a phrase that I liked.   I reproduce the sentence below, and I'm sure you can pick out the phrase that I think is tres cool.

"He often abandoned himself to ideas of death, and notwithstanding that he was advanced in so many ways, his Death was still the old one in shriveled mummy longjohns; the same Death that beautiful maidens failed to see in their mirrors because the mirrors were filled with their white breasts, with the blue light of old German rivers, with cities beyond the window checkered like their own floors."

I also could relate to this sentence:

"Clem Tambow still went to him to be shaved, saying that the red-headed barber was the only one who understood his beard."

Anyway, at some point, the book became more readable.  Someone must have slipped Mr. Bellow some medication, and he began moving the story along.  I started making it from home-to-work and from work-to-home without putting it down.  Once I even got home and finished the page I was on before putting it down.  (In the first 50 pages, I would often quit mid-sentence.)  And it kept getting more and more readable as it went on.  Maybe because I am a sucker for a yarn about a guy in his thirties who is still unmarried and feels like he doesn't have a clue as to what he wants to do with the rest of his life, but he damn sure doesn't want to wind up like his older brothers.   I'm funny that way.

So the story started to take off, and even became gripping at one point.  A woman from his past drops by while he is in bed with someone and... well I am not going to spoil it for you... well yes I am, trust me you don't want to read this book for yourself.   He winds up falling in love with her, and they go off to her hotel room and make love for a week.  Then she says, "We are going to Mexico to train an eagle to hunt lizards."  He has no interest in hunting, Mexico or eagles, but he is in love, so he has no real choice.  And then, after an entire half-book about growing up in Chicago, we find ourselves in Mexico.  And then more unexpected stuff happens and you find yourself taking the book out even when you aren't walking to or from work, just to find out what happens next.

What happens at the end?  Saul gets wise to the fact that he is being medicated, and stops caring about the plot again.  The last part of the book is the same as the first, except instead of describing, he is pontificating.  And pontificating.   And pontificating.

I finished the book the day Laurel and I went to Chicago.  We stayed with an old friend and a new friend.  There was a pause in the conversation, and I said (Ol Doug, the Social Genius) "I just finished the most terrible book."  "What was it?" asked someone, being polite.  I told them.  Old and New friend started laughing their asses off, in an odd way.  New friend said, "Saul Bellow is my Grand-Uncle."  And indeed he was.  She grew up with him, and pointed out that most of those descriptions were actually descriptions of members of her family.   In fact, she will be seeing Uncle Saul soon at a family wedding, and had just received an email from him two days ago.

"Please do not tell him that I hate his book." I said.

"I won't." she replied.  She then asked me the obvious question: "Why did you finish it if you hated it so?"  I explained that I wanted to read every book on the top 100 list, and she said, "Oh yes, Uncle Saul was very happy that he made it on that list... twice."

Twice?  TWICE?  TWICE?



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