Anymore, I read novels to learn how authors handle narrative structure and pace, characterization, and point of view. Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day is an excellent course of study in these elements of novel writing.
The novel follows a day in the life of Tommy Wilhelm Adler, a middle-aged man who is one of the most down-on-his-luck characters I’ve ever read about in Literature. As a young man, under the spell of a shyster talent agent and against the advice of his parents, he went off to Hollywood with aspirations to be a big star. Several years later he returns home to New York, his biggest claim to fame being an extra on a set. He marries, has two children, and settles into a life as a traveling salesman for a corporation. His initial failure in Hollywood gnaws at him and the restlessness he feels while mourning what could have been destroys his marriage and career. When we meet Wilhelm on the first page of the novel, he and his wife are estranged. She’s bleeding him dry and not granting him a divorce. The image his two children have of him is sifted through his wife’s contempt for him. He’s living in a residence hotel for old retirees, among them Wilhelm’s father, Dr. Adler, who considers “Wilky” a loser and a slob. Wilhelm would like his father, who is presented as having money, to help him out of his financial crisis, but Dr. Adler refuses to help his son on principle. Wilhelm has also entrusted his last $700 to a con-artist named Tamkin, who has talked Wilhelm into investing it in lard and rye on the commodities market. I love the ominous, first sentence: “When it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow.”
In seven chapters, Bellow follows Wilhelm around throughout the day. We watch as Wilhelm succumbs to yet another scheme that will leave him worse than he was before. It’s not that Wilhelm is a total idiot, because he does reason with himself, listing several good reasons he shouldn’t trust Tamkin, but just like the other big decisions in his life (his going to Hollywood, getting married, quitting his job), he sweeps aside all the reasons mounted against the decision at hand and does exactly what ends up making him suffer. If I didn’t sometimes find the same inclinations in myself, I would want to knock Wilhelm upside the head. Ironically, Tamkin tells him exactly what his problem is as he counsels him not to repeat the same mistake: “Now, Wilhelm, I’m trying to do you some good. I want to tell you, don’t marry suffering. Some people do. They get married to it, and sleep and eat together, just as husband and wife. If they go with joy they think it’s adultery.” In the end, Wilhelm comes to recognize where all his embracing of suffering leads him to.
Bellow’s narrative weaves between Wilhelm’s actions of the day and his thoughts about the state of his life and his hopes that he’ll get a big payout from his foolish investment. Bellow’s language is beautiful. It’s simple, direct, and appropriate for the scene. Although he does describe character and the Broadway of the day, Bellow doesn’t let description override the action of the narrative. Also, the voices of the characters come through nicely, especially Tamkin’s. One feels enticed to trust what he’s saying, even when one knows he’s a person not to be trusted. He says enough true things that the half-truths, or the subtle twists on the truth, don’t register keenly enough with Wilhelm to save him from being made a fool of. Bellow’s main characters, Wilhelm, Tamkin, and Dr. Adler (Wilhelm’s father) are fully developed. Bellow provides descriptions that are fresh, detailed, and original. Their voices in the dialogue are distinct and interesting. They are human and real. Bellow’s stays focused from Wilhelm’s point of view for most of the novel, but occasionally, he’ll step outside of Wilhelm and give us an idea of what another character is thinking. That played well in the scene where Wilhelm is eating breakfast with his father. We become privy to Dr. Adler’s thoughts about his son. He doesn’t have any good thoughts about him.
I gave the novel only four stars because the novel seems incomplete, as if it didn’t ride out the denouement. At the end Wilhelm is worse off than at the beginning. All he has seized from the day’s events is some recognition that his only release from suffering will be to die, and that if he doesn’t want to end up like the corpse he’s crying over, then he’d better find a way to turn his life around. Whether Wilhelm decides to stop blaming circumstance and others for his failures and stop embracing suffering isn’t clear in the narrative. It’s as if Bellow were trying to say that there’s a hopelessness to human suffering that can only be relieved by death. As much as I admired the novel, I just wasn’t moved by the takeaway.
Read, Write, Execute!
Photo credit: “Thumbs up,” Sarah Reid, Flickr