an american tragedy: so far…

novice prose

So far, An American Tragedy reminds me a little of The Adventures of Augie March -an innocent young man gets caught up in the volition of others, there’s even the mention of Croesus!- but Saul Bellow makes Dreiser look like a novice. The prose is rife with redundancy and disjointing thesaurus-like words, and is almost entirely devoid of the texture created by imagery.

To make matters worse, the moment Clyde forsakes his desperate sister for that silly twit, Hortense, he becomes unsympathetic. It is really difficult to read a book like this.

is bellow a rape apologist?

letting off steam

It is always so difficult to separate the narrator, the character and the author in a first person narrative, so god knows who I should be pissed at. All I know is I’m up to my gills in the persistent need to belittle women. I’m not particularly precious, especially if the critique is insightful, or at least balanced, but this depiction crosses all kinds of lines for me:

Commissioner Einhorn,

in a kindly, sleepy, warm-aired, fascinated way petted and admired all women and put his hands wherever he liked. I imagine women weren’t very angry when he saluted them in this style because he picked out whatever each of them herself prized most- colour, breast, hair, hips, and all the little secrets and connivances with which she emphasized her own good things. You couldn’t rightly say it was a common letch he had; it was a sort of Solomonic regard of an old chief or aged sea lion.With his spotty big old male hands, he felt up the married and unmarried ones, and even the little girls for what they promised, and nobody was ever offended by it pp.76-77

I am offended! Deeply!  This idiotic surmising has discredited sexual assault, harassment and paedophilia in one fell swoop. This passage has me ropable.

monkey divinity v. axial lines: a summary of augie march

Monkey was the basis of much thought with us… see-no-evil, speak-no-evil, hear-no-evil, a lower trinity of the house. The advantage of such lesser gods is that you can take their name any way you like. p.9

This is the philosophy spoon-fed to young Augie by Grandma Lausch: She and Simon teach him to rort the system and Augie, ophan of such divinity and having a ‘weak sense of consequences,’ obeys. Until he gets caught. Then, he is emotionally cast off by them both. But fallen or not, he is an angel.

Augie is taken in by William Einhorn and inducted into more sophisticated crime, but after Einhorn’s loss of ‘Croesus proportion’ in the Depression, he is once again cut loose. He takes up with Gorman, a menacing criminal, but Augie, with his ‘soft answer’ and inability to be a ‘trick Tybalt all coiled up to stab’, is rendered a failed protégé. When Einhorn hears of his association with Gorman, he rehires him, if only to protect him, until Augie finds a job at a department store.

While at this job, Augie is ‘adopted’ by the wealthy and childless Rendlings. Mr. Rendling, his upper lip having ‘a pretty big perch on the other one’, and the demanding Mrs. Rendling see the radiant virtue in Augie and offer him the position of son and heir. But Augie has no use for earthly trappings and rejects their kind offer. He sheds everything they have given him, and to ratify this decision he takes up with the wicked Gorman again with near-horrific consequences.

Augie, by pure luck, narrowly escapes arrest after a botched ‘job’. Penniless and alone, he hitchhikes and train-jumps back to Chicago with only an almost-rape and a night in jail to speak of. He is hungry and filthy, but free and whole. The monkeys were looking out for him.

Meanwhile, Simon has fallen on hard times and rents the house out under Augie. Homeless, he takes up with Padilla, a childhood acquaintance, and joins in on a book-stealing racket. But Augie is a bad thief and ends up keeping the books on poetry and philosophy, and giving his clients too much credit. He soon forfeits this occupation as well, but he is not empty-handed. Padilla introduces him to a new aphorism:

Either it comes easy or not at all.

Simon reenters Augie’s life a wealthy man, having married a rich coal-miner’s daughter, Charlotte Magnus. Though their marriage is loveless, they both share a hunger for power that rivals Macbeth’s.

Unsex me here… A call so hard, to what is so hard, that it makes the soul neuter.

To consolidate his status, Simon wants Augie to marry Charlotte’s cousin, Lucy. He conforms to their plans and the artifice – the lackluster courtship, the dandy clothing – to make the still reckless and suicidal Simon happy. This arrangement takes Augie to the ‘end zone of his adaptability.’ Thankfully, his angelic act of helping Mimi procure an abortion gifts him a release. He walks away with nothing after the engagement is axed. Augie once again narrowly escapes a different kind of prison.

Soon after Augie obligingly follows Thea, a girl he met while with the Rendlings and the love of his life, to Mexico to hunt snakes and lizards with a trained eagle.

I was never before so taken up with a single human being.

After the failed affair he returns home literally broken from a horse fall.  In typical Augie fashion, his problem with Thea was that he empathized too much with the lizards. But while in Mexico, he meets a kindred spirit, Stella. She says of them both,

‘You and I are the kind of people other people are always trying to fit into their schemes.’… I was grateful for her plain way of naming a truth that had been hanging around me anonymously for many long years. p.384

The break-up with Thea and the brief encounter with Stella lead Augie to ponder his life’s meaning. He knows that the ‘moha’ or love that he possesses is infinite, but he yearns for axial lines. He eventually distinguishes these as: truth, love, peace, bounty, usefulness and harmony. He starts rejecting monkey business and decides he’s tired of being borrowed, so he does something volitional and definitive. He marries Stella and joins the navy.

This however does not insulate Augie from the ‘sign of the recruit under which he was born.’ His ship goes down during an attack and he is stranded with a lunatic who tries to inveigle him into schemes to take over the world. He is attacked and bound for refusing. When he gets his chance for revenge, Augie uses it to tend to his deathly ill co-survivor.

He makes it back home to Stella only to discover that she has been ‘double-lifing’ him. Her history is as checkered as Augie’s, only hers haunts her in the form of debts and the memory of a bout with ‘appendicitis’ similar to Mimi’s. Augie only has two false teeth to show for his escapades.

Theirs is a marriage filled with the usual toil of staying together. Augie dreams of a life surrounded by children of his own, but knows life is a never-ending pursuit. The novel closes on this sentiment:

We all refuse to live a disappointed life.

Augie is still involved in shady deals in Paris. No children are on his horizon.

kissing an angel

two words: poignant picaresque

somber city

I am an American, Chicago born -Chicago, that somber city- and go at things as I’ve taught myself, free-style and will make the record in my own way: first to knock first admitted, p.1

So many promises are made in this opener – about the narration, the setting, the characterization.

Bellow starts delivering immediately, especially on characterization. Grandma Lausch is a ‘Machiavelli of small street,’ for whom ‘it was great to make us take a long swig of her mixture of reality and to watch the effect come up sober in our eyes’; Mr. Lulov is a ‘serene bogus’; Mrs. Kreindl is a ‘woman quiet and modest to the neighbours and violently quarrelsome at home’; Simon’s personality darkens with his chipped tooth; and Georgie’s wisdom is ‘kept prisoner by incapacity’. Much later, there is the cop with ‘a face with one eye emphasis’.

Augie’s imagery is stark and brilliant. The best is reserved for Augie’s Ma, who

leda and the swan

occupied a place among women conquered by a superior force of love, like those women whom Zeus got the better of in animal form and who next had to take cover from his furious wife. Not that I can see my big, gentle, dilapidated, scrubbing, and lugging mother as a fugitive of immense beauty from such classy wrath…But she does have a place among such women by the deeper right of continual payment. p.10

Stunning prose! I am hooked, but not a lot is happening. Not yet.

The sequence of action begins fairly chronologically, no surprises here as Augie tries to recreate events faithfully. Thankfully, this doesn’t last very long. Precision gives way to poetry with one terrific line:

Saying “various jobs,” I give out the Rosetta stone, so to speak, to my entire life. p.28

These two words are the briefest summary of Augie’s life, and a misdirect if there ever was one.

lizard-hunting eagle

Augie’s life degenerates into a series of vignettes loosely strung together by dates and people, and even these become increasingly  blurry and bizarre, as he sheds lives like snakeskin, hitchhikes to Chicago, hunts lizards with a trained eagle in Acatla, encounters a panhandler from his dreams in Naples, and gets shipwrecked with a mad scientist off The Canaries.

I was thrown for fair on the free spinning of the world.

Furthermore, there is the, ‘Let it be hot…‘p.69 and ‘Suppose it was lunchtime…’p.74. Augie is always telling us that his memory is unreliable, that he’s only guessing what others are thinking and feeling and is not a credible omniscient third, but a very fallible ‘I’.

Believing in and keeping up with Augie is all the fun, though.

Then there is the setting – Chicago, that ‘somber city’ by the lake, Chi-town, New Gotham… it’s legendary! Al Capone, Bugs Moran, Joe Aeillo, all are Augie’s contemporaries and he gets a taste of it from the Einhorns, his shady benefactors, in more ways than one. After graduating high school William Einhorn takes him to a hooker. Augie comments,

Paying didn’t matter. Nor using what other people used. That’s what city life is.

Augie can’t walk anonymously on a street, or rob a department store without the ‘store dick’ being a childhood friend. He knows everyone and everywhere. Chicago is the familiar. Augie always returns to heal his heart, lick his wounds, be himself.

You enter your native water like a fish.

Chicago, the somber city, is Augie’s home.

a ride of my life

I’m really glad I strapped myself in for The Adventures of Augie March: freestyle is an understatement. The beginning is like the departure of any other train ride, gentle and ambling. Then comes the stomach-churning jolt and the ascent begins. I cling for dear life for three days and 500 pages; now red-eyed and white-knuckled I’m struggling to come off the high of kissing an angel.

By the dénouement, I’m heart-broken it has to end, and am tempted to close the book ten pages out. But I persevere, because there will always be a homecoming, like Augie’s, when I read this novel again.

homecoming-kanye west feat. chris martin
the very thought of you-billie holiday
the wings of a dove-blues busters
wherever i lay my hat (that’s my home)-paul young
born to be wild-damien ‘jr gong’ marley
one crowded hour-augie march


I’m really excited about reading Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. For one, now I know where the Victorian band gets its name from! Another is, I love The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and this novel sounds like a modern equivalent.

wise guy

I can’t wait so I sneak a few pages on my way back from the city library, family in tow. As I’m reading, I say to Galactus,
-I love the narrator’s voice. He sounds like a real wiseguy.-
From the back seat, The Mix-Master, who’s 6 pipes in,
-You mean like Yoda?-
Galactus and I laugh for a good minute before we explain the difference between a wiseguy and a wise man/Jedi/mystery species little green guy, all the while setting a brilliant tone for this novel.

American authors have a great legacy in the bildungsroman, so let’s get stuck into it!


Though still a work in progress, here are the novels that I’ll be reading in 2011.

Struck through titles have been completed.
Bold titles are presently being read.
* indicates reread.

  1. 1984-1948-George Orwell
  2. The Adventures of Augie March-1953-Saul Bellow
  3. All The King’s Men-1946-Robert Penn Warren
  4. American Pastoral-1997-Philip Roth
  5. An American Tragedy-1925-Theodore Dreiser
  6. Animal Farm-1946-George Orwell*
  7. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret-1970-Judy Blume
  8. At Swim-Two-Birds-1938-Flann O’Brien
  9. Atonement-2002-Ian McEwan
  10. Beloved-1987-Toni Morrison*
  11. The Big Sleep-1939-Raymond Chandler
  12. The Blind Assassin-2000-Margaret Atwood
  13. Blood Meridian-1986-Cormac McCarthy
  14. Catch-22-1961-Joseph Heller
  15. The Catcher in the Rye-1951-J.D. Salinger*
  16. A Clockwork Orange-1963-Anthony Burgess
  17. The Corrections-2001-Jonathan Franzen
  18. The Death of the Heart-1958-Elizabeth Bowen
  19. The French Lieutenant’s Woman-1969-John Fowles
  20. Go Tell it on the Mountain-1953-James Baldwin
  21. The Grapes of Wrath-1939-John Steinbeck
  22. The Great Gatsby-1925-F. Scott Fitzgerald
  23. A Handful of Dust-1934-Evelyn Waugh
  24. The Heart is A Lonely Hunter-1940-Carson McCullers
  25. The Heart of the Matter-1948-Graham Greene
  26. Herzog-1964-Saul Bellow
  27. Housekeeping-1981-Marilynne Robinson
  28. I, Claudius-1934-Robert Graves
  29. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe-1950-C. S. Lewis
  30. Lolita-1955-Vladimir Nabokov*
  31. Lord of the Flies-1955-William Golding
  32. Lucky Jim-1954-Kingsley Amis
  33. The Man Who Loved Children-1940-Christina Stead
  34. Midnight’s Children-1981-Salman Rushdie
  35. Mrs. Dalloway-1925-Virginia Woolf
  36. Naked Lunch-1959-William Burroughs
  37. Never Let Me Go-2005-Kazuo Ishiguro
  38. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-1962-Ken Kesey
  39. The Painted Bird-1965-Jerzy Kosinski
  40. A Passage to India-1924-E. M. Forster
  41. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie-1961-Muriel Sparks
  42. Snow Crash-1992-Neal Stephenson
  43. The Sound and the Fury-1929-William Faulkner
  44. The Sun Also Rises-1926-Ernest Hemingway
  45. Super Sad True Love Story-2010-Gary Shteyngart
  46. Things Fall Apart-1959-Chinua Achebe*
  47. To the Lighthouse-1927-Virginia Woolf
  48. Ubik-1969-Phillip Dick
  49. Ulysses-1922-James Joyce
  50. Under The Net-1954-Iris Murdoch
  51. Under The Volcano-1947-Malcolm Lowry
  52. Watchmen-1986-Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons*
  53. White Teeth-2000-Zadie Smith*
  54. Wide Sargasso Sea-1966-Jean Rhys*