Tuesday, November 14, 2006

it's not that i took out a gun, exactly...

I'm in the process of reading Henderson the Rain King.

I was trying to explain to my friend Melanie why I have mixed feelings about Saul Bellow. There's the one hand--he's a rambler. Undeniably. He starts talking (self-indulgently; none of his books is really much better than this enterprise of mine as far as honorable intentions goes) and goes on and on from one thing to another and at the end of it all there wasn't really a plot but there was born a whole collection of semi-cohesive ideas vaguely reminiscent of reality. On top of it all, his style is a little on the dense side and doggy-paddling my way to the end takes up the same amount of time as reading two or three books by a more lucid writer. Which, for me and my book book, means that a given Bellow book provides as little as 33% the ultimate satisfaction as a lighter load.

"So why do you even bother?" Melanie wanted to know. She is a cutter. She has what is possibly a lower tolerance for bullshit than anyone else I have ever met (although she has a remarkable capacity for generating said bullshit). "Give me the book," she said. "I'll be able to tell from the first page whether I'd be able to tolerate it."

Alas, Henderson proved intolerable.

I tried to show her why I wasn't sure. I flipped through to the page where Henderson first encounters the Arnewi. He describes himself as "sweating boisterously." What a lovely little turn of phrase. I don't know why but it really tickles me. Like Maria Dehvana Headley's "nocturnal malfeasance" of the Big White Cat--those words alone are worth reading the whole [albeit rather entertaining] book for. Try a google search on the words "nocturnal malfeasance"; you'll only get one hit. Well, I guess now that this page is up you'll get two. I think it's little gems like that that keep me reading through all the meandering slog.

An old friend, Anne, gave me my first Saul Bellow book, and my first Saul Bellow book cost me my first potential job out of college. It was spring of 2005 and I was reading More Die of Heartbreak, thoroughly engrossed (as one becomes when someone one has placed on a pedastal buys one a book and tells one to love it), when Saul's obituary splashed all over the New York Times. The day after I found out about this horrific coincidence, I was interviewing at a boutique mass market publishing house when it was asked of me (as someone a little less guppy-like than myself might have expected to be asked at an interview for an editorial position) what the last book I read was.

After some hemming and hawing and being utterly unable to come up with a convincing lie, I admitted I was working on my first Saul Bellow novel.

"Oh. And how do you feel about Saul Bellow?" asked the unsuspecting publisher.

"Just terrible," I blurted. "I think I might have killed him."

I really do think that I have an evil eye; whenever I develop interest in an aging author they seem to die. I couldn't help but wonder if Saul might have lived to see his infant son into kindergarten at least if I hadn't engaged so earnestly with his stupid book. Needless to say, the publisher was unimpressed by my logic. Not to worry; only two days later I had another frazzled interview and through that I found myself a way into my current ever-so-rewarding and oh-so-rarely sarcasm-inspiring "career" (of sorts).

There's one other thing about Saul, though, that redeems him and keeps bringing me back. He has this way of hiding compelling nuggets when you're not expecting them. Don't let me spoil Ravelstein for you, but he ends this three hundred and something page nattering chatter about a lost friend with this, abruptly, unceremoniously: "But I would rather see Ravelstein again than explain matters it doesn't help to explain." I'd been wondering all the way through why I had carried on reading this book and suddenly I got to that line and I saw why.

At least I didn't kill him before he was able to create a substantial body of work.

No comments: