Whenever a literary figure with such a high degree of respect and esteem as Saul Bellow dies, there is generally a tendency to reflect back over the now-finished body of work that propelled them to their lofty position, and re-appreciate the words and stories that will no longer be added to. A look back over the lifework of the late Canadian-born American writer leads us initially to Dangling Man, his first novel, although whether “novel” is the correct label remains a question - thankfully one that isn’t considered of great importance by most readers.
For you see, Dangling Man isn’t so much a story as it is a journal, a journal of a man in his forties during wartime: a man who has given up his job in order to enlist in the ongoing war effort, more as a means of bringing meaning to his life than out of any sense of patriotism or duty. A man growing increasingly unstable by the void of emptiness created by (perceived?) bureaucratic red tape and paperwork. Our main protagonist is Joseph, an aspiring writer who, like most writers, is rather more a man of words than deeds. We first meet Joseph a whole seven months after his last employment - ironically, given his self-imposed current reclusive state, in a travel agency. This period of time has given him plenty of opportunity to practice, on the one hand, the increasing renunciation of his old 9-to-5 life and, on the other, his morph-like transformation into the moody, introverted loner who we meet at the beginning.
The fact that this, being a journal, is told in the first person doesn’t necessarily endear the reader to the plight of Joseph. For a start, his “plight” isn’t immediately obvious. The malaise that seems to pervade his every waking thought would be easy to interpret as nothing other than pure laziness. It’s possible that that’s what Bellow wants us to feel, giving us the opportunity to judge his main character objectively and without sympathetic preconception. It works! The further we read, the more we begin to see the world from Joseph’s cynical eyes, to the point where his more extreme and generally disagreeable actions seem justified to us, mainly because we have become part of his psyche, for better or for worse. For example, when Joseph physically disciplines his niece for something that from the outside would seem nothing more than childish selfishness, it engenders in us (well, the slightly more contemptuous of us, anyway) a strange satisfaction, directly because we have felt his annoyance and anger. This, however, is just another example of his misogynistic viewpoint, with plenty of other occasions in the novel testifying to this - his considerably patronizing view of his wife, Iva, as someone to be tolerated rather than loved, his trysts with his mistress Kitty, and his barely concealed disgust at the drunken flirtings of his friend’s wife Minna. As a reader, it is difficult to find one general opinion of Joseph and stick to it.
Dangling Man will not appeal to everyone. The subject matter is quite dark, even oppressive at times, and there is a genuine sense of relief as we reach its conclusion. That’s not to say you won’t be glad to have read it. It is clear that Bellow’s true writing style was still some way off, that here he was trying to find his path in the darkness of infancy. That shiny Nobel Prize that he was to receive over three decades later wasn’t even a thought in his ever-expanding mind, but there are still seeds of forthcoming brilliance to be found here. In the context of his overall bibliography, this has to be included in any “Essential Bellow” box set.