A deeply psychological novel, Seize the Day
follows the middle-aged man in the life of a single day in New York City. "Psychological"... "single day"... Bellow's ante into the pool of single-day novels, alongside Joyce's Ulysses
and Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway
, is a much slimmer volume than its fellow one-day wonders, but carries perhaps no less of a whollop. The story follows Tommy Wilhelm, a middle-aged man, a failed actor, a failed salesman, a husband whose wife refuses him a divorce but takes his money all the same, and a son who - despite his proximity and frequency of visits with his father, remains philosophically and emotionally estranged. The story is loaded with irony, but in the ironical mass there are small nuggets of truth: strange and wonderful insights into what it means to be alive. According to Herzog
: Unexpected intrusions of beauty. That is what life is.
And Seize the Day
is studded with unexpected intrusions of beauty.
For a thorough and well-written discussion of the psychoanalytical edge of this very psychological novella, I defer to s.penkavich's great review of this book
. Bellow is a highly psychological writer, in Herzog
he re-invents the Hamlet
dilemma of betrayal (Herzog's wife Madeline standing in for Gertrude, his friend Gersbach for Claudius), and in Seize the Day
we see a textbook case of suppressed emotion (as spenk points out: a lack of 'orgastic' release). The novella opens with this supression:
When it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow. So at least he thought and there was a certain amount of evidence to back him up.
He conceals his troubles, but his troubles build and boil, wrack and rage beneath the surface, tear him away from the core outward. Wilhelm has self-proclaimedly 'reached the end of his rope' - he is in dire financial straits: unable to pay his rent for the month or support his demanding wife, he is without current employment, having dropped out of school to pursue of pipedream in Hollywood, then quit his job at the Rojax Corporation, where he worked as a salesman, when they divided up his territory. He has failed time and time again, and is won over by glamorous, but meretricious, opportunities which he pursues full-heartedly and abandons wallet-emptied.
What strikes me as the reader is Wilhelm's imaginative vigor for what is new
. Like the lovably-stupid Bouvard and Pécuchet, he endlessly pursues "new starts" - the consequence being that he remains in every endeavor a disappointed novice. At each junction of failure he faces the choice to 'crawl back' or to free-fall and hope to catch at a new opportunity before he reaches the ever-rising bottom: he chooses the later. It is a strange failure of human pride which prods us toward our own unhappiness. Our pride eludes us except for grand successes: each success raising and raising the bar, but only a small slip is enough for our pride to drop away beneath us. For Wilhelm, he has never, or rarely, experienced success, and each failure causes him to retreat more and more into himself, to hide away his failures in the shallow recesses of his remaining dignity. His socio-economic pressure compounds his troubles: his free-falls become more and more worrisome as he has less and less financial padding to cushion his imminent ruin.
The most interesting and perplexing character of the novella, however, is Dr. Tamkin: Wilhelm's dubious and mysterious savior. A man of many tall tales, exaggerations, and flat-out lies, Tamkin offers Wilhelm the opportunity to invest in futures with him, guaranteeing him exorbitant profits. He is apparently a psychologist, an expert in hypnosis, an inventive man, but ultimately a shady figure, and likely a crook. He proselytizes his "seize the day" perspective, which borders on ironically religious, to Wilhelm, and frequently psychoanalyzes him to Wilhelm's dismay. The theme of time-perspective is prevalent throughout the novella, and reminded me of this article in the Wall Street Journal
which discussed how time-perspective affected our moods. According to the parlance of "time-perspective therapy" it would seem that Wilhelm has a strongly past-negative, and perhaps present-fatalist outlook on his life. He is very much mired with regrets of his past: of his choice to leave school to pursue acting, his choice to get married, his choice to leave his wife, his choice to leave his job, etc. He is constantly reminded of these failures throughout his day and lacks a healthy outlet for relieving his burden: his father will not discuss his son's failures or give him the sympathy which Wilhelm so badly desires, his wife will not talk to him, and he has little else in the way of human contacts. What is ironic in Tamkin's plea for Wilhelm to "seize the day" and live in the "here-and-now" is that the great failures of Wilhelm's life have been made under just that operating mentality. Despite his belabored decision processes, his choices are ultimately made in gut-reactions to opportunities. He follows his instantaneous feelings and momentous emotions, and they continually lead him to undesired paths which he fails to follow through on.
The background of futures trading strikes a particular key in the time-perspective theme. Futures contracts, to be technical, are purchased agreements to exchange goods at a future date, at a predetermined price. When they say that they have purchased contracts for "December rye" they mean that they have purchased the right to sell some quantity of rye-commodity, at some date in December, at the fixed price of the contract (the price fluctuates over time before narrowing in on the exact value as the day of exchange approaches). Wilhelm, whose view of the future is wary if not pessimistic, is in a state of constant agitation throughout the day: he fears the movement in prices and feels impotent but attached to his remaining small savings. He feels that Tamkin is swindling him, but due to his own ignorance and his invested hope in the potential "easy-money" he does not withdraw his savings. Wilhelm is always looking for some easy escape from his condition; he feels that his life thus-far has been very difficult and that at some point he must receive some manna-like relief. Tamkin, he believes, could be that relief, though his hope and his skepticism are constantly at odds throughout the day as he is fed psychology, platitudes, and unbelievable stories.
The final release of Wilhelm's pent-up emotions, at the funeral of an unknown young man (perhaps about the age of Wilhelm himself, hence the excess of emotion), is his ultimate emotional release, but leaves the reader wondering about his still-precarious position. His savings have been decimated, his father has cast him out and refused to help him, Tamkin has disappeared, and he remains jobless with the growing demands of his wife and children. He tells himself that he will return to Olive (his mistress) and invests in her his next "new start" - but a new start which does not renew him, does not renew the reader's faith that he will succeed or even get by. His position remains impossible. Seize the Day
is not Bellow's greatest novel, but it is an excellent exercise in the novella format, which from the beginning introduces a tension and unease which pervades the 118 pages.