Top positive review
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on 5 April 2015
Can there even be a Great American Novel? Looking in from the outside, I'd argue otherwise. There are too many American experiences, and such a diversity of experiences across a nation the size and population of Europe that arguing a single novel can articulate them is futile. This is borne out by the way in which novels as different as The Great Gatsby, The Sound and The Fury, The Adventures of Augie March and Infinite Jest are all trumpeted as Great American novels. Given that these books have nothing in common given a common language and the nationality of their authors, perhaps it makes more sense to speak of Great Novels of a particular American experience - in which case The Adventures of Augie March is a triumph, articulating the interwar American experience of the working class to such a degree as to make it intelligible and resonant across the ages, long after the historical events informing the life and times of the aimless but highly intelligent Augie March have receded into history.Whilst this mightn't be the place to start with Bellow (mostly due to length, the much shorter Seize The Day provides a better introduction to his body of work), it's a great novel and the best of his I've read. All varieties of life are contained here, understood in joy,tragedy and madness through the eyes of Augie March, a deceptively intelligent everyman scattered by the winds of change.
There are strong parallels between Bellow's life and March's - in some ways Bellow uses the novel as a vehicle to understand the kind of man he'd have been were it not for his art, exploring the tensions created by an inability to specialize or focus when all around him manage to, much as Bellow went from a variety of odd jobs to joining the military to becoming an academic before choosing to pursue literature properly, much as March does, albeit in the manner of a Dedalus whose Bloom never truly arrives (apologies for the nerdishness). I feel that this is a book that it's worth buying a copy of, as I started reading a library copy of this before. Whilst it seemed great (if nothing else, Bellow is a good storyteller and witty with it). I didn't manage to finish it on time. I really enjoyed the chance to reread the chapters I had read, and to appreciate how strong Bellow's prose is: Martin Amis' claim that "his sentences seem to weigh more than anyone else" has some truth to it. Bellow manages to be incredibly articulate and learned without ever being ostentatious- every sentence feels necessary. Whilst I still suggest reading Seize The Day first so as to get a feel for Bellow and his themes, this book is outstanding and deserves the praise it receives.
The Great American Novel? No, but it's the great novel of a certain American experience, much as Updike's Rabbit saga is of the WASP experience Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby of the aristocracy and David Foster Wallace's work is of the MTV/Facebook generations.