In a previous post, I remarked on the lack of narrative coherency I found in Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March.” I do not stand here corrected, for the description was apt enough; but I do stand humbled. Like any great crescendo, the narrative took time to rise to itself; but, if not for the softness of its feet at the beginning, the ending’s crash and bang would not have had the power it did.
I have written elsewhere (not on this blog, but rather in the megabytes of philosophical wandering on my laptop) that art, though at times inspiring and uplifting, should not be chained by the idea of the “happy ending.” It is a reflection of existence, a crystallization of life’s form given in large swathes of color, whether painted by pigment or word, and that is exactly what Augie March is: a reflection of life.
In the beginning of our lives, beyond our biological and molecular makeup, we are largely tabula rasa waiting for the concepts, experiences, and all else of life to write upon our brow. And so we, like a sponge, absorb everything around us without prejudice or judgment. Jumping from one thing to the next without ceremony or finesse, our lives lack narrative during these days, much like Bellow’s work did.
But as time progresses and patterns are spotted, we begin to weave tales of our lives from the cluttered fragments of existence. No longer do we take from the rawness of life, but rather we begin to give that same life as an offering to the order against which we hope our lives will measure favorably, and it is from that order that the narratives of our lives are composed.
This is exactly what Augie, the protagonist of the story, does, same as the rest of us. From the imposition of his childhood experiences, he builds an idea of the world, and then sets out to conquer the same in the name of his wants and desires. But, along the way, he comes to realize that the world has its own ideas concerning his life, and from this struggle is born the narrative of this well crafted work.
As I read books in print (I mostly read from a Kindle these days), I fold down every page in which I find passages I like. In the first one-hundred pages or so, I think I folded down two at most; however, by the end of the book, I felt I needed more than the mere two corners any single page has to fold over. Hell, I probably could have had hundreds, one for each of the words on the page, and still felt limited. And this feeling continued to increase up to the final paragraph, the narrative having reached the peak of its crescendo, whereupon the reader gets Augie’s final self reflection on the nature of life and how he fits in the mix:
“What’s so laughable, that a Jacqueline, for instance, as hard used as that by rough forces, will still refuse to lead a disappointed life? Or is the laugh at nature—including eternity—that it thinks it can win over us and the power of hope? Nah, nah! I think. It never will. But that probably is the joke, on one or the other, and laughing is an enigma that includes both. Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze. I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.”