I Was Wrong: Final Review of “The Adventures of Augie March”

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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.”

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First Thoughts on “The Adventures of Augie March”

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I had hoped to have a short story for all of you, my gentle readers, today; however, a myriad of forces have aligned against me in that effort, first and foremost amongst these being my borderline obsession with making it perfect. It is one of only two works (the other being “A Puzzling Piece,” which is in my short story collection, Stories of Who We Are and How We Eat) which is inspired by a symbolic piece of imagery. I have an acute perfectionism which drives my writing with pieces of this nature, and so it will probably not be for another couple of days that I post it.

However, I still wanted to give you something to chew on; therefore, I will share with you my first thoughts on the book I am currently reading: The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow. I am about a quarter of the way through it, and, unfortunately, I am somewhat disappointed. Many critics have labeled this novel Bellow’s best, and, as an admirer of another novel by him, Herzog, I was excited to read Augie. However, it reads less like a novel and more like a series of disconnected scenes which lack narrative.

This is a weakness I find in most books which could be considered postmodern. Nowadays, it is fashionable in more artistic literature for the author to strip himself of the burden of narrative building and operate more as a painter of portraits who happens to use words rather than pastels. In so doing, each individual scene maintains a consistent whole, and is rather poetically given, but the transitions from one to the other, that which constitutes a “narrative,” are not treated with any kind of fluency and, as a result, the work loses meaning.

This is not to say that these portraits are not without artistic merit. Art can be defined a thousand different ways, but one of the more thoughtful understandings, in my humble opinion at least, is to describe art as a stylized reflection of life. And how we, as actors and characters on the stage of life, interact with life is often not so fluent as the flow of a well constructed narrative might suggest. We are all, from time to time, subject to jarring jumps from one episode to another, and the meaninglessness of existence is something we have all had to face.

But, even in real life, some measure of narrative is always present. If no other is readily apparent, our lives are, at the very least, chronologically ordered. Furthermore, language is restricted to the expression of some sort of narrative flow. In each word, a myriad of images and concepts portray the meaning that lies within; however, as soon as we go on to use two or more words, or write a whole novel of the same, some sort of narrative construction becomes necessary. Otherwise, the words become little more than a jumbled mess of sounds.

Allow me to point to two examples which do a fantastic job of loosening the constraints of the narrative while still maintaining enough of them that the book does not lose its meaning. The first is David Copperfield. Dickens is a master of narrative fluency and, in many ways, Copperfield uses a very tight structure. So there is not much to say here, but I would like to point out that Copperfield has almost no plot to speak of. It is merely a portrait of one man’s life from birth to an arbitrary point set in the future. But Dickens still maintains an easy narrative flow which takes the reader from one scene to the next with almost no jarring and disconnected jumps.

The other example is one I have already mentioned: Herzog, which is by Bellow himself. Herzog is a novel in which Bellow takes the bounds of the narrative to their extreme point, but stops before they break. For this effort, he writes what is one of the greatest novels written by an American. Not only is the book one of the most quotable works I have ever read (“Dear Mr. President, Internal Revenue regulations will turn us into a nation of bookkeepers”), but it is also one of the most intimate and insightful portrayals of man in modern America. And though Bellow pushes at the boundaries of the narrative structure in Herzog, he does not break them.

So what is it that a book like Augie can learn from books like Copperfield and Herzog? Just this: an author can forego plot, and even bend the rules of composition, but some semblance of a narrative structure must be maintained. Otherwise, your book will read less like a novel and more like a Sears catalogue.

Given that I have only read about a quarter of the novel, I still hope to be pleasantly surprised as I plow through it. But even if it continues on this disappointing path, I would like to give Bellow props for always having the courage to challenge the rules of writing. If all I had ever read of him was Augie, I probably would not be so admiring of this courage; but, having read Herzog, I know he had it in him to break the narrative structure just enough to make a great novel even better. Unfortunately though, even with the most gifted of writers, no one can consistently test those boundaries and not fail every once in a while.