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

One Punch Man

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Many bad shows are a case of good ideas poorly executed. It’s rare for a show to miss its target in the premise, but One Punch Man does. For a while, the series assumes that powerful characters are a problem in fiction.

They’re not. Anyone who’s concerned with how intelligent or strong or agile a character is should stop talking about fiction. These aren’t role-playing characters. They don’t have charcter stats and skill trees. If a character has a trait, it’s supposed to be meaningful to his personality.

A character isn’t defined by how strong he is but by simply being strong. It’s not hard to write intelligent characters. Just have someone solve mathematical problems and put the answer in the character’s brain. It doesn’t matter that Max Cohen is a walking calculator. What’s interesting is how his genius affects his worldview and isolate him.

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In the first episodes, the series piledrives into the ground the idea that overpowered characters are silly. I don’t think anyone thought otherwise, so we get something like Kill La Kill only with less charisma. Everyone looks like Arnold Schwarznegger. Everyone screams and every conflict is solved with one punch. Mr. Krabs also makes a cameo appearance in the first episode, but he’s transformed into another bodybuilding loudmouth.

There’s only so much you can do with a character who solves everything with one punch. Thankfully, Saitama is not as bland as his skill. He’s a great protagonist with a personality that’s connected to his super-strength. It’s almost psychological how bored he is of all the macho bullshit, but he’s also vain and wants the attention. The anime remains satirical and exaggerated but the protagonist has a realistic psychology.

It’s Saitama’s desire for stardom and everyone’s megalomania that shapes the main arc. At this point the anime abandons making fun of obvious targets and starts creating actual absurd situations. The villains are rarely interesting. Their purpose is to always get knocked out by one punch. Rather, it’s stardom that’s being satirized.

How ironic it is to discuss the Bandwagon Fallacy in a review of a popular anime? Popularity doesn’t prove quality. Just because you don’t have a diploma from an Intelligence Institution doesn’t mean you’re stupid. Yet we take these things very seriously. People are often more curious about whether my writing is popular instead of how good it is.

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Diplomas or popularity don’t prove you’re talented. They only prove someone thinks are you are. Popularity is even worse than diplomas, though. Diplomas are given by people of authority who take their topics seriously. People can be easily swayed.

The most popular people on earth aren’t the hard workers or the life savers. The most popular people are those with the highest social value. They are the charismatic, the beautiful, the entertaining. Taylor Swift is more well-known than a person who saves a baby from a fire. That’s because Taylor is charismatic, beautiful and writes catchy songs. Just because you save a person from a fire doesn’t mean you’re a desirable social presence. It gets even worse with peolpe who Famous Because They’re Famous.

The series is wise enough not to pull that strawmen. There are these silly celebrities, but here the popularity of most heroes are justified. They’re both charismatic and talented, but they’re never as talented as Saitama.

That’s because, unlike them, he never worked on being popular. He became the strongest hero because he only put effort into being strong rather than being popular. That’s the cost of talent. Sometimes you focus so much on it that you forget to make people notice you.

There’s a major rise in quality once the series finds its satirical target. While it presents it well, pointing absurdities without resorting to strawmen it can never attain a sense of madness it aims for.

In the first episodes, it thinks it will get by having everyone scream and some stupid ideas like a muscular crab and a kabuto macho dude. I used different words but this is the same idea. It tones down later but the series never gives up on this.

There are some interesting visual ideas, but almost everything is given the macho look. It fits with themes, but after the 10th dude who looks like sirloin steak it becomes boring. When Tornado appears and we get a cute girl it’s a shock.

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Just as they are all macho dudes, their personalities are all macho. Besides Saitama’s everyman personality and Genos, who acts like he walked into the wrong anime, characters blur into each other. It makes for a consistent world. At least the anime tried to find variety in macho bullshit rather than pretend their kaleidoscopic. Still, it makes for a world that’s always less exciting than how the characters perceive it.

One Punch Man isn’t amazing and quickly stops acting like the Most Hyped Show of the Season. That’s a good thing. It’s when it realizes its limitations (the world is monochrome and tame, overpowered characters aren’t worth satirizing) and its strengths (satirizing celebrity culture, finding variety in macho bullshit) it becomes a worthwhile show that has enough personality to appeal to those outside the genre.

3.5 one punches out of 5