Dangling Man (1944) – Saul Bellow
‘In all my life I had never felt so stock-still’
The reactions of Joseph to his enforced ‘dangling’ time, while waiting for the glacially slow wheels of government bureaucracy to approve his army enlistment, forms the premise for Saul Bellow’s first novel. At only 144 pages, this is a deceptively rich burst of ideas, interspersed with the increasingly and comically chaotic events of Joseph’s life.
His journal opens with a feisty and self conscious defence of his right to self expression, in the era of ‘hard-boiled-dom,’ where revealing the existence of an emotional inner life breaks the ‘code’ of the era; ‘a kind of self-indulgence, a weakness, and in poor taste.’ Joseph is acutely aware of his level of verbosity, compared to the crime solving heroes of contemporary fictional sleuths. This allusion to the popular genre of the period, highlights the tension between action, reflection and inaction which dominates this novel. Bellow posits a new voice, in a journal, which celebrates and reveals uncertainties, clarifications, complaints, wrong headedness and painful self revelation, at a new level of intensity. This is set against the Marlowe of “I do my thinking myself, what there is of it.’ Economy of words will be replaced by a new plenty.
Using his scholarly interests, and powers of language, he reluctantly undertakes a period of reflection. He experiences shifting levels of self awareness in increasingly chaotic efforts to replace the external sources of discipline and life structuring he so desperately needs.
‘(he) suffers from a feeling of strangeness, of not quite belonging to the world, of lying under a cloud and looking up at it.’
His sense of being once removed from his personal experience creates space in his mind for extended reflections on issues such as his relationship to those around him and his uncertain identity. But it also allows him to commit casual and callous acts of selfishness and cruelty towards his friends and family, especially in his treatment of his wife Iva. The shifting authorial voice is an intriguing mix of Joseph’s musings and those of the narrator himself at times
This is a novel of restricted narrative scope but which is also ‘bursting with intensely felt reflections on themes which Bellow has pursued consistently in his stellar career e.g. the search and redefining of the modern self, the problematic influence of traditions, social participation and alienation and great loves and great hates. This novel is a great place to start an exploration of the Nobel Prize winning author’s work, an expression of the rootlessness felt by many in the western world, as a result of the cataclysmic decades of War and the Great Depression. As he enters service, Joseph considers;
‘I am no longer to be held accountable for myself; I am grateful for that. I am in other hands, relieved of self-determination, freedom cancelled.’