This really is classic Bellow – dense, tightly constructed, astringent, funny and demanding. I didn’t find it easy to find the rhythm but, once I did, I really enjoyed it.
The narrator is, as in many of Bellow’s books, a central character. He is academic, Jewish, clever and absurdly analytical. Much of the book is about his relationship with his uncle, who shares many of the same characteristics. Early in the book, the thought crossed my mind that the conversations between them were simply ridiculous – insanely intellectual and intense. But that is, I realised, the whole point of the book. It is about how intellect deals with emotion.
Towards the end of the book, we see both characters doing some emotionally crazy things and we realise that all their intellectualising does not free them from these human frailties; indeed, they are what makes us human. As David Hume said:
“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
It is quite a long book and, at times, it is hard to keep up with all the references. But once you grasp the nature of the comedy of the absurd on which it is based, you can simply wallow in the brilliance and craft of the Bellow style.