Dangling Man, the first published work by Saul Bellow, testifies to the psychology of a whole generation that grew up during the Great Depression and the war. We are in 1942; Joseph is twenty-seven, he lives in Chicago and he’s waiting to be conscripted to the Army as a draftee. He left his job in a travel bureau and currently lives with his wife. He has “all the time in the world”, as his mother-in-law says. This period of inactivity gives birth to a diary that covers five months of quarrels with friends, in-laws, and intense self-analysis; we go through his intimate daily notes, insecurities, fears, daily habits, conversations with his alter ego, “Tu As Raison Aussi”.
The constitutive incompetence of humankind
The long wait for enlistment as well as Joseph’s incapacity to enjoy freedom trigger a change that he witnesses in the first person. To use Bellow’s own words, “confronted with the inevitable shrinking of the horizons, everyone has, eventually, to face the craters of the spirits.”
Far from being isolated, though alienated from society, Joseph gets in contact with many people, all influenced by the atmosphere of the war in different ways. What shows through Bellow’s book is the constitutive incompetence of humankind and the various weaknesses in and around us. In the end, his alter ego convinces Joseph to create his own destiny and sends him to volunteer in the army rather than continue to wait.
Lack of future
Another large topic is the future, or better, the lack of it; something the writer must have known personally, as he served in the Merchant Marines during World War II.
Other books focus on World War II, but from a more historical perspective, are In Our Time and A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, The Enormous Room, by E.E. Cummings, and Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos.