History: This novel was written in 1944. It is Saul Bellow’s first published work and established him in the literary world.
Plot: At 27, a Chicagoan named Joseph, a university graduate, an intellectual, five years married, leaves his job with a travel bureau, and under the pressure of waiting to be taken to war as a draftee feels himself alienated from society. In his diary between Dec.15,1942, and April9,1943, he objectively describes his quarrels with friends, in-laws, his wife Iva, by whom he is supported in their mean rooming house, and his brother Amos, a go-getting success, as he undergoes intense self-analysis dedicated only to the belief “I must know what I myself am.” Talks with his alter ego, “Tu As Raison Aussi,” finally convince him that man creates his own destiny and send him to volunteer in the army rather than continue to wait indefinitely to be inducted.
Review: Dangling Man is Bellow’s debut from 1944, bringing us into his twin worlds of thought and fascination, and of colourful characters. The book takes the form of a journal kept by Joseph, surname undeclared, as he waits for his call-up by the Army after enlisting, when “there is nothing to do but wait, or dangle, and grow more and more dispirited.” To keep his spirits up he records his thoughts, contrary to the spirit of the day (“Do you have feelings? There are correct and incorrect ways of indicating them.
Pretty quickly Joseph learns that to have all this free time, this freedom, leads him not only into dolour but into mischief, and he manages to start fights during the course of the novel with his wife (“Iva, it’s this situation we’re in. It’s changed us both”), his neighbours, his friends and his precocious niece Etta, who pushes him too far in a superbly ambiguous set piece. He toys with infidelity and it is this “avidity” which is Joseph’s other problem, his desire to experience and record everything.
Opening Line: “December 15, 1942: There was a time when people were in the habit of addressing themselves frequently, and felt no shame in making a record of their inner transactions.”
Closing Line: “Long live regimentation!”
Quotes: “At the root of it all was my unwillingness to miss anything. A compact with one woman puts beyond reach what others might give us to enjoy; the soft blondes and the dark, aphrodisiacal women of our imaginations are set aside. Shall we leave life not knowing them? Must we?”