I have never read Saul Bellow before, but his novel “The Actual” won’t incline me to read any others. Obsession, denial, life, dreams, all of these great themes crammed into a story without momentum or even a plot really. Harry Trellman is Jewish, but looks Chinese. Not important to the plot but this information about his appearance is discussed again and again! And I have no idea why! Maybe to illustrate how much of an outsider Harry is to everyone around him, including himself. And Harry is not only in this obnoxious trait of describing every single little physical detail. Every one of the characters is discussed ad nauseum by similar, if not identical, physical specifics. In fact, physical appearance takes up much of the non-dialogue sections of the novella. It happens so much in such a short book, that Bellow must be after some deeper meaning, must have some compelling reason to continuously describe his tiny cast. Whatever the reason, I missed it. So instead of being profound, it was distracting and irritating.
The book starts out very strongly. Harry is an enigmatic character and the reader is caught into the folds when the rich Mr. Adletsky pops up and has a mysterious tête-à-tête with Harry. But 20 pages later, Harry's and Mr. Adletsky are kaput and the focus shifts to Amy Wustrin, who is the center of the plot for the rest of the book. An old flame of Harry's, Amy is the woman he has never forgotten and who he continues to swoon over. The obsession is nice and had lots of potential but it never really develops further than fantasy and back story. The confession which is supposed to be the climax is not really climatic and comes way too late in the game. It would be interesting if the confession came earlier and then to see how the relationship progresses because of it.
In all, there is nothing very exciting or titillating. It is hard to do romance and Bellow gave it a good try, but it just fell flat. Maybe if Bellow kept the story narrated by Harry and quit with the excessive, mind-numbing attention paid to detail such as Harry’s physical appearance and Amy's ex-husband's burial arrangements it would have allowed the story of obsession and love shine through, instead of becoming an endless, pointless yarn about a Chinese looking Jew and his long lost love.