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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Sunday, June 4, 2017

Why Man with a Golden Arm doesn't make it as a novel

Yes, I've been offering some praise for the fine writing in Nelson Algren's The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), but this is a "textbook" case regarding the elements of fiction: Writing alone, no matter how appealing or original, cannot carry us through a lengthy novel. As a colleague was dryly offered in one of the meetings of the old PAWs writers' group: Readers like plot. Count me in on that; much as i've enjoyed some of the highlights, insights, quips, and witticisms of Algen's novel, it's in the end (or in the middle, I'm not going to get to the end) more like a social canvas - a Breughel-like painting of a culture in time and place - than like a novel. Things happen - barroom fights jealous rages, petty scams, marital betrayals - but they don't cohere into a story line, the characters do not grow, mature, or change in any way: they are on page 150 what they were on page 1. Yes, the novel feels like vivid testimony about the lives of the marginal, the downtrodden, the forgotten - particularly shameful in that some of the forgotten are the war veterans who come whom injured and addicted to painkilling rx - and we have to tip our hat to Algren in his intimate knowledge - from research? experience? imagination? - about life among the small-time hoods and criminals of Chicago's West Side; the novel feels accurate and intimate and doesn't carry they heavy hand of research (or slumming, for that matter - whatever its fault or theirs, Algren seems to really love the people he's writing about). But it's also no wonder that those most influenced by this novel are nonfiction writers, writers who tried to follow Algren's pathway and capture the sound, voices, habits of an urban subculture. Fiction writers don't talk much about Algren today; Man with the Golden Arm is a great block of characters sketches and rowdy scenes, but it's a stretch to call it a novel. The plot's gone missing.

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