In the Guardian, Wayne Gooderham pays tribute to Saul Bellow‘s 1964 novel, Herzog, which he thanks for helping him to dig out of a rough time. One attribute of the novel’s healing power, Gooderham suggests, is its clear, firm prose. “It is so precise, so carefully constructed, with not a badly chosen word or comma out of place, that it demands your full attention and focuses your mind so that you are forced to concentrate completely on the novel (one cannot speed-read Herzog. Or at least I cannot),” he writes.
I read Herzog last fall feeling just fine about myself, so I can’t speak to its curative powers*, but it’s true that the novel’s precision is one of its charms; after finishing it, I figured there was nothing I could say about the book that couldn’t be said better just by quoting it at length. But precision isn’t enough by itself to be inspiring—if it were, our hearts would sing more often reading the news. (Of course, there are times when a work of journalism can do that.) It may be more that in Herzog, Bellow openly faces the messiness of what it’s like to be in the midst of an identity crisis—Moses Herzog is one of the more fascinating, wide-ranging neurotics in fiction. Yet writing can be a little sloppy to get neurosis across too. Part of the appeal of a messy cult novel like Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s 1968 novel, Nog (reissued last year), is the way it turns confusion into an asset. Jumbling up genres, questioning what’s true and what’s imaginary, clouding up the identity of its main character, shifting perspectives—all of it reflects Wurlitzer’s anxiety about a society straining to order things. “If only nothing would grow, nothing change, nothing take hold and join where things take hold and join,” he writes.
Both Herzog and Nog are 60s novels, and perhaps the following decades have made novels about mental illness a little less interesting. That’s a point Marco Roth made in his recent essay in n+1 magazine, “The Rise of the Neuronovel”—now that we’re better able to identify and treat what’s malfunctioning in our heads, obsessive letter-writing campaigns and genre mashups may seem too frivolous for a writer who’s now more prone to study up on diagnoses and treatments. That, or writers have just sublimated those old neuroses into fake memoirs and stunt memoirs. That’s a notion Daniel Mendelsohn recently floated in the New Yorker:
[T]he trauma-and-redemption memoir, with its strong narrative trajectory and straightforward themes, may be filling a gap created by the gradual displacement of the novel from its once central position in literary culture…. In a way, not only the spate of memoir hoaxes but the recent proliferation of what [Memoir: A History author Ben] Yagoda calls “stuntlike” memoirs—narratives that result from highly improbable stimuli (“One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States”)—arise from a deeper confusion about where reality ends and where make-believe begins.
So, just like Herzog, James Frey worked through a breakdown by getting it all down on paper. And just like Bellow, he knew it would be more appealing if he made it up.
* When I was having a rough go of it a while back, the only book I felt mentally capable of processing was Sidney Sheldon‘s 2000 novel, The Sky Is Falling, which is horrible in every conceivable way. Either I had it worse than Gooderham, or he’s more ambitious about his reading during his funks.