Saul Bellow – Seize the Day

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It’s amazing how much you can say in so few words. It’s not even a case of huge paragraphs and a small font. You can read Seize the Day in a few hours, but it covers more topics and points of view than a regular novel. It also feels epic, even though all that happens is that a person talks to his father, checks the market and notices a funeral.

Bellow uses the same starting point as Herzog. His main character is a person who hit rock bottom and is worried that there is a hole there. It’s about being stuck in a terrible situation and being anxious about how worse it can get. The situation is more realistic and troubling this time. It’s no longer the case of a wealthy man who has time to get into trouble. Wilhelm can’t afford it.

It’s an examination of the money-hungry world and its two sides. People who love money make for useful shallow villains that create plot, but here they take a different role. Bellow looks what the ideas beneath just loving money.

We get the two common promises of wealth. Dr. Adler represents wealth via hard work and skills. Despite what your parents say, a degree in medicine isn’t enough to get cash flowing. Dr. Tamkin is the other side, the promise of quick money without a lot of work. Just buy some commodities, sell them later and hope that the changes in the market will be in your favour.

Why do we want all that money anyway? Wilhelm is like many of the middle class who were born into enough wealth. They don’t know the instinct for survival since they never faced the threat of hunger. The main thing they end up searching for is love, fame, quick money that will keep their idle lifestyle and ‘seizing the day’.

There is truth to both sides. Wilhelm fails because he doesn’t take the good parts of the two but the bad. He has the love of money and the reckless attitude, but he doesn’t have the ability to work or to enjoy the present for what he is. His hotel has a pool and a massage parlor, but he doesn’t use them. He thinks he can seize the day and get money from it, but it doesn’t work. You get money so it’ll be easier to seize the day.

Dr. Adler worked hard to gain his position. Being a doctor is agonizing work and after all the time you spend with patients, you will grow to be more dismissive of people who work less hard. This dismissive nature can also spin out of control.

Wilhelm might be lazy and misguided, but Adler is so sure of his ways that he thinks beating him over the head with it will solve his problem. He doesn’t see any other solution besides working hard. It’s a miracle cure for him. Welhelm doesn’t actually want his father to take care of all his funds. He just wants a little affection.

In Tamkin’s world, success is measured not only by how much money you have but how quickly you can get it. It’s all about taking risks, living in the now and so on. The flaw in this, is that what they actually do is not to enjoy the present. They gamble so they could enjoy the money in the future. Buying and selling commodities, at least for Wilhelm, isn’t enjoyable in and of itself.

Even his wife doesn’t have the little bit of kindness to divorce him. She wants money and nothing else. She expects to get it while she’ll simply ‘raise her kids’ despite the fact they can handle a little on their own. Wherever Wilhelm turns, it’s all about money.

Saul Bellow doesn’t write off money completely. You can’t expect to live off society’s kindness. Bellow’s critique against the mindset is that it’s so caught up in so-called ‘survival’, money is so important that they can’t see anything else. Human civilization wasn’t built only by people who could hunt.

His attack in how this society doesn’t give people a chance. Wilhelm isn’t chained to his past mistakes just psychologically. The fallout from his marriage is still after him. He does try to shake it off, but Bellow doesn’t show us whether it worked out or not. Like anything else, putting away our mistakes and moving on is a gamble.

The problem rests not just with the money-hungry society but Wilhelm himself – he’s tied to some his mistakes psychologically, he goes after scam artists although no one points a gun to his head. It’s hard to know where we draw line. If Bellow attempted to do it, he could quickly degenerate into caricatures. What makes this book so convincing and so realistic is that everyone is criticized and understood. We’re not told whether Adler or Tamkin or Margaret are evil assholes who oppress poor Wilhelm. We’re merely shown their sides of things.

You can’t come up with an easy to this conflict and Bellow doesn’t even try to. The only message in the ending seems a cliched one – appreciate your life because someday you will die – but it’s an insightful way of saying it. Some of our problems are our fault and some are our environment’s, but we have to ‘seize the day’ and still enjoy it.

Bellow’s writing is far more focused here. It’s the rambling style again, but it doesn’t feel like a collection of excerpts from essays. There are inner monologues which still feel awkward – Bellow should’ve just wrote this in first-person – but this time they’re tied more strongly to the themes and ideas. They are either Wilhelm’s various thoughts about the characters and how he perceives them, or they are about the Money Society and other such concepts. There’s more of the former, thankfully. The latter still feels like leftovers from an essay collection.

There’s a blurb on the cover that describes Bellow’s writing as ‘energetic’. That’s a very good descriptor. The novella has a brisk pace to it. It reads like an epic story condensed. Compared to other novellas I’ve read, it doesn’t have the contemplative atmosphere. It’s hard for me to describe how Bellow achieves this (Tamkin’s dialogues are the best examples. He rants endlessly like a salesman) but it fits. Everything is urgent on this novel.

He also avoids the main problem of any realist authors. His characters feel real because of the traits he gives them. He achieves his realism by giving him distinct descriptions, worldviews and dialogue. Even Rubin, who appears briefly in the beginning feels more developed than those in Hemingway’s novels. He always wears pretty clothes although he’s behind the counter and no one sees him. Bellow could’ve skipped telling us what this means, because it’s a unique enough detail that can tell us all kinds of things about who this person is.

It’s a tight, foucsed novella with a purpose that I think I haven’t found yet. I came up with some things but I’m sure it’s not enough. Bellow is a man of big ideas and strong writing, and here his ideas are more apparent. It’s not buried under essays, unlike Herzog. Its short length will also make it friendly for re-reading. The occasional rambling style is a problem, and this can’t escape the “this is very literary, so pay attention” trap. This trap can confuse the reader more than help transmit the ideas. Still, I hope to return to this someday and find more.

3.5 stock market crashes out of 5

Focus (2015)

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Focus is a pretty meta film. Like the characters, it walks a very thin line. It’s never clear what it wants. It’s always on the verge of either fucking up big time or a major success. The end result is similar to the character’s end. They haven’t hit the bottom, but it looks pretty bad compared to the peaks.

The beginning is promising. Nicky (Will Smith) seems desperate to try to prove to us how cool he is, but the filmmakers know the life of crime isn’t that glamorous. Jess (Margot Elise) shows the humanity of her character so much that her good looks move to the back.

The traits of the characters drive the story. It may be about con artists and big money schemes, but the twists and turns aren’t as prominent as the characters’ reactions and relationships. Nicky is a jaded, borderline nihilistic person who cons only because he got nothing else to. Jess is a woman so excited by the thrill of theft that she could easily lose herself. There are a few key scenes which focus on schemes and whether or not they’ll fail. The intensity comes not from just wondering what the outcome will be, but how it will affect the characters.

The film doesn’t always go in that direction though. The most powerful scene is ruined by a monologue desperately trying to convince how cool Nicky is. It’s just a string of events less probable than Elvis Presley landing with his alien friends. They also fail at the climax. Instead of putting the characters face to face with being, for a change, out of control it hands it back to them at the last minute. It may be a clever twist, but it’s a cop out that prevents us from getting close to the characters.

There’s also a terrible, Tarantino-inspired soundtrack full of songs that tell you how cool these characters are because they’re, y’know, big time criminals in a film. The characters are in a constant state of paranoia and fear. They’re not glamorous criminals who smoke a cigar and suddenly their enemies die. Focus shows us the humanity of these people. The soundtrack wants to drown it out.

The soundtrack, coupled with the conclusions to a few great scenes try to negate this. It may seem clever to put such songs in what’s a pretty paranoid film, but this ‘contrast’ has been run to the ground. We get it. The soundtrack doesn’t match the emotions the character feel. When does this cliche keeps appearing because filmmakers are just awful at music? There isn’t an obvious antidote to this. It’s not like half the soundtrack is Front Line Assembly and Nine Inch Nails track. That would’ve made a bipolar soundtrack that expresses exactly how the characters feel. With nothing to contrast the coolness, the soundtrack is there just to drown out the humanity.

The attempts at making this another glamorization of criminals only prevents it from being a great film. The climax is less of a cop out than they hinted, and Smith’s and Elise’s great performances are enough to push the crappy soundtrack in the back. It’s not a brilliant film, but these are 104 entertaining minutes that show you that you don’t have to dumb down in order to make a fun, satisfying film.

3 stolen watches out of 5