Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Actual What?

Saturday Night Live had this great skit in the 80's where Pablo Picasso (played by Jon Lovitz) is sitting in a cafe in Paris, comfortably resting on the laurels of a brilliant career in all his megalomaniacal glory. A waiter approaches him and asks that he pay his bill; in lieu of money, Picasso instead sneezes into a napkin, signs it, and then declares, "Here you go - this is a PICASSO! It's worth MILLIONS!"
I was somehow reminded of this skit while reading The Actual, even though I quite honestly enjoyed the book very much...somehow, it inexorably got under my skin, much like a cheerful fungus. I just couldn't shake the characters or Bellow's sharp insights into human nature. I guess the point I'm making is that even at the ripe old age of 82, Bellow could basically sneeze into a napkin and nobody would really have a problem with it. He's Saul Fucking Bellow, right? And the thing is, even at his advanced age, Bellow could still out-write 99% of his contemporaries, with a lifetime of literary craft and insight at his disposal. He is like the old guy in a pick-up basketball game who consistently outperforms younger, stronger, and more athletic players by reaching into his time-tested bag of tricks to confuse and confound his opponents, leaving them scratching their heads in deep frustration and wondering, "How the hell did he just do that? This guy is three times my age!" Beware of the old guy at the gym - he will always find a way...always.

The Actual seems to be a lesson in subtext, with layers of meaning and intrigue slowly unraveling themselves as the plot progresses, but only up to a certain point. I guess that's why the book got under my skin so much...because it is intentionally ambiguous, I was forced to fill in the blanks with insights from my own personal experience. Occasionally, inevitably, this made me rather uncomfortable, but to be honest, I'm glad it did. That's the stuff of great literature. We can start with the title of the book. I teach grammar for a living, and when I first saw the non-adjectival application of the word "actual", I was rather puzzled, and was sent scrambling for my dictionary to see if there was some noun-based usage that I perhaps had not yet encountered. There isn't. So there is a very clear intention on Bellow's part here - he wants us to fill in this blank ourselves. He does use the phrase "actual affinity" near the end of the book, but again, since he leaves the word "affinity" out of the book's title, we can ultimately complete the noun phrase however we wish. Actual love? Actual romance? Actual life? Actual woman? All of these phrases are fair game and perfectly valid. It all depends on who you are, what your personal history is, what you bring to the table yourself.

Is all of this just a colossal, steaming pile of horseshit? Perhaps, if you choose to see it that way. But I didn't. Personally, I saw something more...a master writer at work, inviting the reader to struggle alongside him in the process.

I am astounded at Bellow's ability to create very real characters who navigate within this strange and unreal world that I will personally never be a part of or fully understand. I loved how Bellow played with that notion within the dynamics of the characters themselves. Observe, for example, the toy tycoon Heisenger, a millionare several times over whose wealth is well outside the orbit of most readers. Pitted against Adletsky, though, Heisenger is hopelessly out of his league - the distance between Heisenger and Adletsky is in some ways even greater than the distance between Heisenger and the average Joe. Through this dynamic, Bellow seems to imply that no matter what kind of orbit one inhabits, there will always be others occupying stratums that are simply impossible for us to comprehend, and the only real recourse is to maintain a little perspective and humility as we make our way in this world. Those who fail to realize this are probably doomed.

I remain troubled with the character of Harry. He is so marvelously insightful in some ways, annoyingly shallow in others; for example, he often fixates obsessively with physical appearances, both his own and the characters that surround him. He makes these observations as if they have the air of great importance; frankly, they do not. He is deeply in love with Amy, but throughout the novel, he finds the need to comment at great length on her fading looks; he makes similar mean-spirited observations about Frances Jellicoe. It's no small wonder this man has issues with women. All of his pettiness appears ultimately rooted in his own self-image, as when he comments on his "seldom barbered, spiky black hair, chub lips." He sees himself through a fairly pathetic hall of mirrors, and in the end, he really has no idea why. "Having for years been a deliberate mystery to others, I find that I am unable now to say what the mystery was about or why mystification was necessary," he says. Exactly.

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