When You Can’t See the Forest for the Trees. A Review of More Die of Heartbreak by Saul Bellow.
If there’s a first moral to the book it’s Kipling’s “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” If there’s a second moral, it’s J. Frank Condon’s “He who wrestles with a hog must expect to be spattered with filth, whether he is vanquished or not.” In other words, as Kenneth Trachtenberg states in the novel, “There were contradictory desires in play.”
We have renowned Benn Crader, Uncle Benn, (ain’t that a doozy?) the myopic botanist, happily grappling with the taxonomy of flora. In a brilliant opening, Benn is fussing over a Chas Addams cartoon. Enter his nephew Kenneth the generally lost confessor, advisor, and Benn’s touchstone of reality. Together they form the book’s master debaters. I mean to fully intend the pun given the sex talk throughout.
The cartoon shows Gomez and Morticia from the Addams Family snuggling on a couch. The caption reads “Are you unhappy, darling?” “Oh, yes, yes! Completely.” It’s a real cartoon, although, interestingly, Bellow describes the couple as sitting on a bench in a cemetery. Maybe there was a second version or maybe it was Bellow exercising his artistic license. The push and pull of opinions about the cartoon introduces the general oppositions that exist in all the relationships of the book. The cartoon is meaningless to Kenneth but for Benn it is burdensome evidence, of what he can’t be sure.
In this sort of ongoing pas de deux, Bellow enables the emergence of character. The remainder of the book will provide events to back up each man’s perspective about life and relationships. While I’m attributing perspectives, it’s interesting to note that almost all of these positions switch when Benn marries Matilda. Then it’s Kenneth who sees the marriage as a crisis that he wants to analyze and it’s Benn who doesn’t want to, he just wants to go along with it, and by the end simply run from it, which is what we discover his modus operandi to be.
More Die of Heartbreak, with its Carveresque title, is built of three stories. The most involved albeit the least significant is the main plot that concerns the sale of the Crader home to Vilitzer the mega-developer who finagled a deal to pay the Crader family pennies on the dollar for their home that sat on a development site. Benn’s eventual father-in-law is a toady to the super rich, who lives off the percentage he gets for his effort. He views the possible legal correction with respect to the Crader deal as setting him, and his daughter, up for life. Benn is the link to make it all work.
The second story is Kenneth’s relationship with Treckie, the mother of his daughter and a woman he wants to marry but who he suspects, correctly, is seeing someone else. This is all minimally sketched out and developed and functions as a rewarding diversion.
The substantial story concerns the ongoing relationship between Kenneth and his uncle Benn. Mainly their connection is a device that allows Bellow to spectacularly parade the type of writing he prefers.
Where does his writing go? Anywhere and everywhere, from NYC to Kyoto, to the poles of the earth.
Where does the conversation between Kenneth and Benn go? Anywhere and everywhere, from cartoons to sex, from botany to power structures.
This is the nature of Bellow’s magnificent late writing. No strand of idea goes unpondered. Throughout, Kenneth tries to live at the higher level of humanity and he admires Benn for naturally being able to do this without much thought. In turn, Benn the genius is continually mystified about the way lesser, more practical people act.
Nearly every relationship in MDH breaches social boundaries. Kenneth’s father, known cocksman, Hegelian master spirit, brags about sexual prowess to everyone including his son. It’s all public bombastic braggadocio, and it that provides the weirdness found in one of Leigh Ledare’s photographs of his naked mother. Yes taboos are challenged. Benn shares his sexual exploits with Kenneth, who in turn teaches courses on sexuality in Russia at the college and who, when not chasing Treckie, spends time with a student. Matilda’s father is involved in controlling her life and prying into that of Benn. Kenneth pries into the life of Treckie who he sees as perfect although the bruises on her legs hint at trysts with a telephone lineman or another type of hard hat. Kenneth’s father adds his two bits about Treckie, asking Kenneth who’s the boss in their sexual relationship and whether Kenneth was rough with her. Treckie’s mother provides Kenneth with information about her daughter and since it appears that Treckie won’t ever choose to marry Kenneth she suggests the only real solution is for Kenneth marry her, (the mother). It’s all delicious in pushing the declaration of TMI. Actually however, everyone’s a scavenger of love, in whatever fallen form it appears.
The most remarkable writing occurs in the ongoing discussions between Kenneth and Benn. They share thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears, that is until surprise surprise Benn marries Matilda behind Kenneth’s back. The mens’ connection is jolted. Now one of Kenneth’s goals is to regain stasis in this relationship. Of course he thinks this too is Benn’s goal too, “Naturally he had given my reactions much thought; many sleepless nights were spent deciding how to square himself with me.”
“Holy hole in a doughnut!,” as Batman exclaimed in season 1, this is extraordinary writing.
I fear that Bellow is ruining me. I turn away for a couple of days and think I recall the writing but when I again look at the novel and I feel like it’s the first time. The universe once more expands.
I thumb through lauded new fiction and see nothing but friction — the writing is cretinous, vacuous, thoughtless, and frivolous.
Readers lured to plot like a slugs to a pie tin of beer will detest these long heady discussions. Kenneth, i.e. Bellow goes after this low level of arts consumption. He says, comparing it to Russian literature and its readers, “In the U.S.A. you had, instead, a population confined to the lowest of human interests — the emphasis in Russia being on the abolition of the higher, in America on indulgence of the lower….There is far more display of feeling here than in the Soviet Union. It’s not an altogether pleasant feeling, but there’s plenty of it.” Yep, look at book reviews, cough — I mean synopses, today, they by and large simply describe plot and emotion.
Bellow sets everything out. He presages and then revisits, or vice versa. At the end of one chapter Kenneth says regarding his uncle, “Anyway, at Christmas, while I was abroad, he married this lady…” then at the start of the next chapter he says, “Somewhere, I’m still sore because he cheated on me — broke the rules of our relationship.” I’m not sure which statement might have come first. Kenneth attempts to build upon his past deep connection with Benn to draw attention to the possible problems with this sudden marriage. In his opinion, Benn will be coopted into the life of the rich and famous or, he won’t be able to assimilate without a good half of him dying. As the novel progresses, Benn seems to clue in, he is becoming Has-Benn. He wanders through Matilda’s fathers apartment lost and unmotivated, pressed into logical and quotidian thinking, mistaking a silk flower in Matilda’s mother’s room, which he never enters, for a real one as he discovers later. His life is becoming a simulacrum of real life. He imagines his wife’s shoulders look like those of Anthony Perkins in drag in Psycho and this disturbs him greatly. Besides, he finds her breasts too far apart. It makes a difference, he tells Kenneth. Kenneth suggests the fixation is negative fetishism, this is during a 2:00 am phone call for which Benn has snuck down to the laundry room of the building. The botanist, to strike up the idiom, can’t see the forest for the trees. Kenneth, who has a good sense of what’s happening, wants Benn to return to a life more like that of William Blake “governed by metaphysical and esthetic concerns” and not this reported humdrum bickering over a new apartment or desires for money.
Motivations, reflections, reactions. The dynamic trio is found everywhere. This causes, at times, us to wonder from a writer’s point of view whether at times Kenneth knows things he could not know. The reflections also allow Bellow to revisit little details after we have a more complete background that increases the significance of the details. I see this as one of Bellow’s tics although I’m not sure how I feel about it. For the most part I think it works well, except when it seems a trifle tawdry in its predictability, and I mean this generally with the late work, not just this book. Finally, about everyone seems hyper-self aware, whether they explicitly share with us or not, and I wonder if Bellow felt this about people generally or just wanted to ascribe everyone with that ability.
The first real emphasis on plot is characterized by the occasional shift a Chandleresque, crime noir tone. For example, “There she was, a full feminine presence. Getting into the Dodge, you felt the warmth of her bust before you felt the heater.” A primary difference between the noir and Bellow is Bellow’s use of “you” that I discussed in my review of What Kind of Day Did You Have? I found these roughy 100 pages in which Bellow had to advance the plot about wheeling and dealing somewhat off-style, more like 80% Bellow than the author at his best.
MDH is also a denunciation of kleptocrats and the people who kiss their keisters. We’re in an era where once people bragged, “Anyone can become President,” and when anyone did, they got mad. But it’s never the figurehead. It’s not Trump or Obama, Clinton or Bush. It’s the structure, the kleptocracy in which power wielding leaders characterized by greed and dogged by corruption work to extend the wealth and power of the few. Many in the book know this and it’s Treckie who says it straight up,
“The premise is that at the very top of the power structure, in D.C., people are getting away with murder, making themselves government gifts worth hundreds of millions, so why shouldn’t the rest of us fool around, play at work?” The evil is not Vilitzer is the figurehead, rather it is a bunch of oligarchs playing one hand washes the other.
When Bellow hits his stride he moves quickly. In one instance he begins with Russian publications to Soviet hardships to Cruikshank and Rembrandt and onward to Dutch canals to a joke on The Ed Sullivan Show. These diversions are often Sternean in style, for example “Still, Uncle’s garment was incomplete. It didn’t quite button. In Paris, attending…” and off he goes again on a diversion. Me, I’m a fan and always have been since first reading Tristram Shandy years ago.
For anyone wanting writing advice, Bellow offers some. His first is to quote E.M. Forster’s “How do I know what I think till I see what I say?” This is very similar to Marlon James’ advice to write and write and write and the story will emerge. How different is this approach compared to all those online forums and how-too books that advise authors set up 3, or 4, or 7, or 22 part carefully preplanned structures, the results of which are often so formulaic and predictable that one would rather gnaw on a ball of ear wax and cat hair than keep reading. Secondly, Bellow says “The next requirement is to carry your thought forward, to take it out of the category of bright sayings.” In this I think Bellow is after the complete thought as examined from all sides. This is not to diminish the fact he offers some great lines throughout of which a couple examples will suffice:
“Some kids are smooth and beautiful at birth, others look as if they were delivered by an avalanche.”
“Those hairstyled anchormen who learned everything they know in a communications course — it’s true they draw down staggering salaries, but I’d just as soon marry my daughter to a slice of quiche.”
If there’s a third moral of the book it’s that earth borne and cerebral types shouldn’t tangle with the Robert Moses and Donald Trumps who live higher than the stratosphere scratched by the tips of their skyscrapers. If there’s fourth and final moral, it’s that if those who attempt to unweave the rainbow of human relationships ought be prepared to enjoy the miserable mess they create.