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Monday, March 11, 2019

The Adventures of Augie March

Picaresque novels generally convey the story of an imperfect protagonist in an even more imperfect society.  The term itself comes from a word meaning "rogue" and the protagonists are generally individuals who move from place to place surviving by their wits.  This will generally involve illegal behavior of some kind.  Picaresque novels are often defined by the way they use comedy, satire, and sarcasm to skewer the society in which the protagonist is forced to survive.  Publishers Weekly listed The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellows as its number one recommendation for a picaresque novel.  While it certainly wasn't terrible, it's a book I'd have a hard time recommending.

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Originally published in 1953, The Adventures of Augie March shows the evolution of the title character from child to (semi-)stable adult during the Great Depression.  Augie's character development was a high point for me.  He is constantly faced with opportunities to commit crimes and struggles to balance the risk and reward involved.  He seems to have no moral qualms about how what he's doing might hurt others.  When he has an opportunity to truly be set for life in a perfectly legal way, he abandons it because he feels that it would be a betrayal of his family, although his family has done very little for him.

One of the biggest problems I have with the book is that there's no central plot.  This was probably intentional.  Picaresque novels are generally episodic rather than a single cohesive story arc.  I just never really came to care what happened next.  Maybe I was critical because it reminded me, to some extent, of Catcher in the Rye, a book I hate.  They're not the same by any means, Augie hardly ever complains, let alone getting to the constant whining of Holden.  But in my view the books share a narrative style, episodic nature, and coming-of-age feel.  At least of my criticism is probably misplaced, but some also comes from the fact that I don't find it as engaging when there's not really a plot.

Augie would also make decisions that are completely incomprehensible to me.  Maybe I just can't understand meeting a woman and packing up my bags to follow her to Mexico where she plans to train a bald eagle to catch lizards.  I also can't understand how catching lizards would be lucrative; can anyone explain that to me?  The book also dragged for me.  There were large sections that I felt it could have gone without and lost nothing.  This book didn't need to clock in around six hundred pages.

The Adventures of Augie March isn't a bad book, but it's not one I'd really recommend.  I much prefer the book Publishers Weekly fifth recommendation for picaresque novels: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  

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