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He said occasionally to Mary, revealing his deepest feelings, ‘I was lucky. I got away with it.’ He meant that his bad start, his mistakes, the things that might have wrecked him, had somehow combined to establish him. He had almost fallen in with that part of humanity of which he was frequently mindful [..] the part that did not get away with it – the lost, the outcast, the overcome, the effaced, the ruined.

Years ago, whenever I had to prepare for an exam, I decided upon a strange little tradition to avoid undue stress. I would plug away at my studies in the weeks before the exam, but during the end of term period I would refuse to look at my textbooks and read a decent novel instead.

There was one book that I repeatedly read in this manner and that was Saul Bellow’s Herzog. Ideas simply dance off the page of this book. I have always found it a very inspiring read, as well as an enjoyable one, that put me in the perfect frame of mind for sitting in a room and calmly answering a series of problems. So for me an unread book by the author is always a pleasure.

The Victim concerns a man named Leventhal who works for a New York magazine publisher. During a sweltering hot summer in the city, he finds himself alone. His wife has travelled South to be with her family. His brother is away working in Galviston, leaving Leventhal to check in on his sister-in-law and her children. He feels it is his duty to take care of the young family, but resents the hysterical calls he receives from his brother’s wife Elena. When he is called away from the office because of an emergency, his resentment towards her grows when he discovers her youngest son Mickey is seriously ill and she does not want him to be sent to hospital, preferring to care for him at home. Lonely without his wife and frustrated with his brother’s absence , as well as concerned that his employer at the magazine will not tolerate his abrupt departures from the office on these emergency calls –  Leventhal’s nerves are already dangerously frayed when he encounters a man from his past named Kirby Allbee.

Though he has not thought about Allbee in years, he is surprised at how readily his name comes to mind when he meets the fellow in a public park late one night. Leventhal can see that the man has hit on hard times, his face flush with drink and remembers that only for the grace of god he might also have shared this humiliating fate.

Allbee drops a series of hints that he has been expecting Leventhal, that he owes him for a serious wrong done to him. Then, frustrated at the obliviousness of his perceived enemy, Allbee accuses him of deliberately ruining his life. Leventhal protests that he has no idea what the man opposite him means, but then recalls that it was Allbee who had recommended him for a job interview with a publisher that quickly went sour. Leventhal had argued with the man, a Mr Rudiger who was used to having his own way and flew into a rage when this interviewee saw fit to lecture him on how to run his own business.

However, Leventhal also remembers that Allbee had always been a serious drinker, a friend of a mutual friend who would often make excuses for his poor behaviour at parties and who enjoyed making malicious anti-semitic remarks within hearing to provoke him and other Jews. In Leventhal’s eyes Allbee is yet another New England Old Family aristocrat who cannot accept responsibility for his own failings.

Despite himself though, he begins to sympathize with the twisted Allbee, even evidence a strong paranoiac streak of his own. The man seems to appear wherever he goes, eventually invading Leventhal’s home, which he is powerless to prevent. Each of them believes himself to be a victim of the other, but also of their class, their race, everything that makes them who they are.

Bellow in effect has reinvented Dostoyevsky’s The Double and aligned it to a Jewish & Anglo-Saxon x/y axis. The demented Allbee views Leventhal’s success as being a result of Jewish influence in the professional sector. Leventhal is infuriated by this, but doubts himself, questioning the validity of his indignation.

Bellow is a master of introspection, the doubling of these two tormented men is perfectly captured. A modern classic.


 


Murray was new to the Hill, a stoop-shouldered man with little round glasses and an Amish beard. He was a visiting lecturer on living icons and seemed embarrassed by what he’d gleaned so far from his colleagues in popular culture.

“I understand the music, I understand the movies, I even see how comic books can tell us things. But there are full professors in this place who read nothing but cereal boxes.”

“It’s the only avant-garde we’ve got.”

When I was still in college I dared to express a negative opinion about Don DeLillo’s Underworld. I found it difficult to read, occasionally over wordy and slightly pretentious. Threatened with expulsion from several friendships unless I revised my opinion, I ploughed on and eventually during the second half of the book, something clicked. I finished Underworld suitably impressed with its themes of how discarded objects and hidden histories have just as much importance as official accounts of where we came from. DeLillo is one of the great figures of American letters. By amending my opinion of the book I found myself once again tolerated by my peers.

This is the second book by DeLillo that I have read and I am sorry to say…I didn’t really like it.

Jack Gladney has cornered the academic market in a peculiar field. A lecturer at College-on-the-Hill, he has founded and is the head of the Department of Hitler studies. He pours over biographies of the Nazi dictator, shows his students hours of propaganda film footage, keeps a copy of Mein Kampf close at hand and muses on the cultural significance of The Holocaust. Embarrassingly he cannot speak German. He befriends a new lecturer who has come from New York named Murray Jay Siskind, who is looking to follow Gladney’s example and set up a Department of Elvis studies. The two banter throughout the novel on how television inoculates us to recorded atrocities and how death underpins all media entertainment.

Gladney and his new wife Babette live with a sampling of their respective offspring from several marriages. Their children are precocious for their age, addressing their parents often as peers, a product perhaps of their multifarious parentage. On Fridays the family gather together as a unit to watch television, a ritual designed to deprive the box of its allure for minors.

Throughout the novel television and the mediated image is shown to desensitize the Gladney family and Jack’s academic colleagues from any sense of what is real. The only remaining reality is that of death itself, something that is impossible for people to understand. Midway through the novel the town is forced to evacuate due to a chemical disaster. Jack argues with his family as to the serious of the event. The children insist on the family seeking shelter after they hear the broadcasts warning of an approaching flume of poisonous gas. Jack questions them as to the intonation of the warning, just how serious was it? His authority as a parent is negligible, his relationship with his wife based on constant prevarication in the hope of seeming always rational. What else if left to define him beyond a fear of dying?

While reading White Noise I found myself continually comparing it to other novels. When Jack and Murray discuss violence as entertainment, the latter finally successfully setting up his own course on car crashes, I was reminded of J. G. Ballard’s Crash. Ballard also focuses on the fear of death, celebrity and the human sex drive, but in a far less disjointed manner. When Jack is lost to a neurotic fugue, unable to relate to his wife, caught in nonsensical arguments with his colleagues, I thought of Saul Bellow’s Herzog. That book featured a much-divorced academic trying to bring his professional intellect to bear on his neurosis. However, it was a far more balanced and solid book, at its core ultimately hopeful.

As a satire I found White Noise to be lacking in focus, at times too broad. We spend our lives waiting for death, so during the disaster Jack encounters a group that practices emergency responses to just such an event in live simulations. Unfortunately they’re not prepared for the real thing. Where other readers might see examples of DeLillo’s humour, I see only failed attempts.

I guess he’s just not for me.

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