bellow is dead

The passing of a mere pontiff is, after the hustle and bustle is done, as nothing compared to the passing of Saul Bellow – Bellow was a real genius. Was he, as Roth said, one of the two great American novelists of the 20th century (the other being Faulkner?). We’d say no. We don’t think American literature maps out like this, with novelists making their marks over their whole career. That is a credible way of approaching, say, Dickens, or James, or even Woolf – but it breaks down in the U.S. in the twentieth century. In one way, that is the crack up that Fitzgerald complained of – the quiet but devastating segregation of art and career. Every garbageman in America has a career, which is why the American novelist often operates out of sheer envy – it is envy that sharpens the eyesight.

There is nothing in Bellow that is as good, we think, as Invisible Man, or Gravity’s Rainbow, or Blood Meridian. But – and this is where the Faulkner comparison comes in -- Bellow really created an oeuvre, unlike Pynchon, Ellison, McCarthy, et al.

There is one thing about Bellow that we haven’t seen mentioned: Bellow operated as a counterweight to the suburbanization of the U.S. The hustlers that ring the changes in his novels are all incredibly urban – urban to the pores. They none of them long for the nirvana of the suburbs – the nirvana of being attached to the main only by highly guarded access routes: the highway, tv, the internet. Bellow’s people actually like the way the body can absorb the images of the crowd, they like the anecdote, they like character, they feel that this is living. Recently, we had to review the latest novel by Jonathan Safron Foer, a terrible mess that follows an implausible eight year old around New York City as he “investigates” a small mystery left to him by his dad, who was a victim of the 9/11 attack. I liked Foer’s first novel, which just skirted sentimentality by ingenious exaggeration. His second, though, achieves the intellectual level of a socially responsible book for the children of divorced parents, ages 5 to 8. It is, in other words, an utter disaster. Not content with simply milking 9/11 for easy tears as thin and tasty as those shed over some Hallmark get well card, Foer also goes on to milk the bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima. All the people that died, man. And all the cute kids they left behind. Don't those kids deserve hugs?

But what is most interesting about it is Foer’s complete and utter lack of interest in careers, in hustling, in deals. This is the genuine mark of suburbia – employment is what you go home from, you get away from. It is so boring to Foer. So boring that this happens: at a certain point in Foer’s novel, he asks us to believe that a character who only communicates by gestures and by two words tattooed on his hands rises through the ranks at a jewelry business in the fifties to become the owner of one. Except he doesn’t ask us to believe that – he throws the information in, in a couple of sentences, like catch up info in a daydream, so he can get on to the main business at hand: the utter cuteness of his main character, and how utterly bad it is that human beings die in bombings. So we are not left to ponder the idea that, in a business drenched in talk and dealing, a man who operates at, shall we say, a disadvantage rises effortlessly through the ranks. We aren’t left to ponder the world outside the airless vacuum of the progressive children’s story.

This is where Bellow has such authority – he does know how people rise through the ranks in America. He knows that it happens in broadly the same way in academia as in construction, or organized crime – he knows that there are betrayals everywhere, that there is sex everywhere, that there’s a hunger extending beyond the dinner table or the table at the best restaurants. He knows that money is power and joy and guilt, that it builds up from boys' treasure hunts to the moments of panic and exhilaration that put one person on the street and another in a spectacular office in a skyscraper. And he is after all that.