"You have longings, the male Eros does that to you; you take the sexual path and it leads you into lewdness, lewdness opens up into insanity, a world of madness rushes at you full face." This, for narrator Kenneth Trachtenberg, 35, assistant prof of Russian literature, is the "pain schedule," the "unique ordeal" for brainy, refined men in 20th-century America: men with "the privilege of vision," men with no "gift"—but lots of yearning—for love and sex. And Bellow's new novel—Kenneth's rambling, often richly comic monologue—details the agonies that come when two such men insist on seeking love (in a world where Eros is debased) instead of settling for exquisite isolation. Kenneth's primary focus is on his beloved Uncle Berm, renowned botanist and esteemed professor at a Midwestern university, a man of epic mind and soul: "He had the magics, but as a mainstream manager he was nowhere." So, despite protective maneuvers by Kenneth, widower Benn has recently fallen into "a succession of sexual miseries": seduction by an alcoholic divorcee neighbor; near-entrapment by a freaked-out, jet-setting former beauty; and now—impetuous marriage to "glittering, nervous" Matilda Layamon, social-climbing daughter of a rich, crass local doctor. Living with his pushy new in-laws in their palatial duplex, passive Berm is out-of-place, cut off from his resonating plant-world. Matilda—whose allure has always had a menacing aspect (her wide, thin shoulders remind Berm of Tony Perkins in Psycho drag)—spends half the day asleep, the other half planning her grand salon (with Benn as social bait). Worst of all, the greedy Layamons prod Benn—against all his finer instincts—into raking up an old family quarrel: Great-Uncle Vilitzer (a corrupt city power-broker, now 80, ill, in legal trouble) once cheated Benn and his sister (Kenneth's mother) out of a real-estate fortune. While recounting Benn's degradation (and ultimate escape), however, Kenneth also broods on his own turmoil as the unsexy, academic son of "a father with a world-historical cock." Kenneth's ex-girlfriend lives in Seattle with their child, spurning his obsessed wooing, preferring rough-stuff lovers. Meanwhile, since women too "die of heartbreak," Kenneth's platonic friend Dita (who has bad skin) undergoes awful plastic surgery in an attempt to increase her desirability to him. The provocative socio-sexual ideas on display throughout—the brain/body split (cf. Bellow's story "Cousins"), the futility of love, the "fallen state" of humankind—don't hold up well under incessant repetition without development; Kenneth—part authorial alter-ego, part figure-of-fun (pompous and prim)—is an unsatisfying novel-length narrator, ambiguous yet flat. Often, in fact, this seems to be a dense short-story or two, stretched out to 336 pages—winding down to mild denouements (which are heavily foreshadowed) instead of barreling towards them. (All too aptly, Kenneth likens his speculations to "a stationary bicycle.") Still, there are great chunks of fine, funny Bellovian rhetoric here (that aphoristic blend of scholar and stand-up), along with enough sporadic narrative zing—amused, appalled vignettes worthy of a Jewish-American Balzac—to compensate readers for the longueurs and overall puffiness.
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