The title of this work calls a peculiar attention to itself—even as the action wanders somewhat gingerly, never quite achieving the tightness of plot customary in short fiction. In other words, the story itself seems to elude true “actualization” while questions dealing with “actuality” are raised and explored with wit and imagination. The many meanings of “actual” are all involved and orchestrated in such a manner that the near-absence of an “actual” plot does little to weaken the reader’s sense of experiencing a completely fashioned and finished story.
Bellow explores all that pertains to the “actual” in order to shore up “characterization,” a concept sacred to his fiction ever since the mid-1970’s, when he attacked the aesthetics of choseisme (“thingism”) in the fiction of Alain Robbe-Grillet (see It All Adds Up, reviewed in Magill’s Literary Annual, 1995). Postmodernism, with its strong focus on language and culture, has intensified a rejection of the idea that individualized human experience—characters involved with one another—is the quintessential ingredient of fiction.
First there is the literal meaning of “actual”: that which involves an act or action. There are, of course, many of these in Bellow’s story, ranging from farcical “plot movers” (such as Madge Heisinger’s spilling of hot tea on Amy Wustrin’s dress in order to get her into the bathroom so Madge can talk Amy into jacking up the appraisal on the billionaire Sigmund Adletsky’s furniture) to the outrageously comical transfer of graves at the end of the story when Amy gets her divorced husband’s body removed from the family plot. Yet this kind of actuality (explicitly realized action) is on the surface of Bellow’s fictional world. At its center is the comic agony of Harry Trellman, the orphan hero of the novella who “drowns his feelings in his face” and has a Mongolian “masked look.” He is a man who cannot actualize himself, who cannot, until the very last sentences of the story, express the love he truly feels for Amy, a woman he has loved since high school. These sentences are framed in the recognition of what it means to act in explicit ways without second thoughts:
Taking Amy by the hand, I said, “It’s not the best moment for a marriage offer. But if it’s a mistake, it won’t be my first one with you. This is the time to do what I’m now doing, and I hope you’ll have me.”
Harry’s difficulty in reaching this bittersweet happy ending (“bittersweet” because it is almost too late in life to matter) lies in the essence of his nature, which is grounded in all that opposes the actual. He is speculative, theoretical, nominal. These qualities make him a keen observer, listener, recorder, and interpreter. Bellow’s literary joke is to make his narrator’s strengths the very things that keep him from actualizing his life. Harry’s mimetic and expressive powers bring his story to life, which is essentially a death-in- life.
Harry is saved by the old billionaire Sigmund Adletsky, a man whose whole life has been defined by a series of sensational business deals involving the most expensive real estate in the world. He is a man who always gets his dollar’s worth, what in the world of finance is called an “actual”: something actually received, real, as distinct from estimated, receipts. He admires Harry’s powers of reflection and interpretation and takes him into his “brain trust”; as an inactualist, Harry can sharpen the old man’s sense of what is real and what only appears to be so. Harry is being used for his weaknesses. He is a negative example.
Adletsky, however, is influenced by Harry’s sensibility and comes to understand that he,...
(The entire section is 1537 words.)