Sunday, January 2, 2011

Modern Library Challenge: #81 - The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

[Happy New Year to anyone reading this! I hope 2011 is a prosperous, fulfilling, and healthy year to you all!] /Back to regularly scheduled material

One thing I have noticed since I started working through this list is that my idea of what one of the best books published in the past one-hundred years is much, much different than the idea held by whoever put the Modern Library list together.

Is The Adventures of Augie March a bad book? No, not at all. The writing is tremendous, Augie is a very likable character, and the settings all felt authentic. Could the book have been two-hundred pages shorter? Yep. Could Bellow have done without all of the esoteric references to works of random antiquities? I say yes, but then again I am not a literary critic or a publisher.

Anyways, this novel is essentially about a Jewish kid (named Augie March, as you may have guessed) who grows up in Chicago and goes on wacky adventures. The just of the story is that Augie has an extremely difficult time telling people no, so he gets roped into all sorts of silly shenanigans. Even though the first one-hundred or so pages are spent explaining the characters in the Windy City who will appear and reappear through the novel, Augie finds the time to fall in love a handful of time (each with disastrous results), work countless menial jobs, work smuggling people over the Canadian border, become rich, then poor, then rich again, travel to Mexico as a bald eagle trainer, join the military, and become a well-off business man. All of this, I believe, before he is even thirty.

The problem is not the whirlwind of activity, but Bellow's ability to make none of it seem like it matters. Bellow's prose is just as grand for the passing of an uneventful day as it is for sinking of a military troop ship. There is just no differentiation, which is relatively frustrating. It becomes hard to sympathize with March when (another) awful thing happens to him, not just because he keeps asking for it, but because it almost seems Bellow doesn't care very much what happens to his lead, either.

It was slow reading, but it wasn't the best book I've ever read. Probably not in the top one-hundred either, which makes this another one of the disappointing reads I've made my way through so far. It was interesting at times and the writing is brilliant, so I can't completely dismiss it, but I probably not return to it ever.

I give The Adventures of Augie March three out of five stars.

Next up: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (I'm already one-hundred or so pages into this one, so I should be finished with it within the week)