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1001 Book Review: The Victim by Saul Bellow

the victim

After reading and hating Henderson the Rain King, I approached The Victim with a sense of dread. I read this book as part of a reading challenge. Henderson the Rain King is one of those books that made me mad. I resented the author for putting me through that awful experience and desperately wanted the lion to just go ahead and eat Henderson, so I could be put out of my misery. I know lots of people love Bellow but he strikes me as a pretentious author who enjoys battering readers over the head with his philosophical musings.

So I approached The Victim with a sense of apprehension and resentment for the fact that I had pulled this particular author for one of my challenge books. Expectations, whether they be negative or positive, influence how we evaluate books. So, when I didn’t hate this one, I was pleasantly surprised and almost wanted to write a glowing 5-star review. However, had I not been basing my rating on my prior experience, this would not be a 5-star rating for me. So in an effort to be somewhat more objective, I settled on a 3-star rating.

Here’s my review:

The Victim by Saul Bellow
Published in: 1947
Reviewed by: Jen
Rating: 3 stars (average rating on Good Reads: 3.49)
Find it here: The Victim (Penguin Classics)

Asa Leventhal is the perpetual victim who is driven by a desire to be liked by others and is constantly second guessing himself. How he is perceived by others forms the motivation for much of his behaviors and leads to an ever-present sense of guilt and neurosis. When Leventhal is approached by a former acquaintance who accuses him of ruining his life, Leventhal descends into a nightmare of paranoia and regret. The New York Times described this novel as “a kind of Dostoyevskian nightmare.”

Bellow has a knack for writing despicable characters. Kirby Allbee is an anti-Semitic, narcissistic, and manipulative alcoholic who blames his misfortunes on others. For me, the dislikeability of Allbee detracts from the interesting premise of this book. What makes the book most appealing is the ambiguity initially established between Leventhal and Allbee. Is Leventhal in some way responsible for Allbee’s past? Is he thus responsible for his present and future? These are interesting questions that become diluted with the unpleasantness of Allbee, turning what should be a moral gray zone into a clear black and white situation (for me). I want to say more about this, particularly about how Bellow resolves the conflict, but to do so would reveal too many spoilers.

In this particular book, there also are lots of side stories (sick children, the blacklist at work, tangents about acting and actors) that made me feel like there was just too much going on. I did appreciate how Leventhal’s paranoia and guilt permeated through these other examples but I could have done with fewer distractions within the plot line.

Stylistically, Bellow is a solid writer. His descriptions are very vivid and at times beautiful. The book was much easier to read and follow than some of his others, and it is much more subtle than the heavy-handed philosophizing of Henderson. There’s just something that I still don’t like about his style.  I find that his books feel overly-contrived.

Every once in a while, you come across an author whose books just don’t connect with you in any way. It is hard to describe why you dislike them, you just have a visceral reaction to their writing. Bellow is one of those authors for me. I will likely never be a fan of his work but at least I found this book more approachable and interesting than the awful Henderson.

But, don’t take my word for it. Try the book for yourself and tell me why I’m wrong. Find it here: The Victim (Penguin Classics)

Have you read this book? Do you disagree with me? We’d love to hear your thoughts on either this book or any other Bellow.

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