A Year in Reading: Rivka Galchen

I have a friend who - the details don't matter - I think of as a character in a Saul Bellow novel. One of the wild charismats, making a mess of life, attractively, and whose conversation is knit of brainy references, emotive bursts, and half-baked theories. Said friend was enthusing to me the other day about the great Jackie Chan. He said Jackie Chan is our Buster Keaton. Jackie Chan, I didn't know this, was basically sold to the Peking Opera as a child. (Madness!) In that sense Chan belongs - so goes his notion - to the American vaudeville tradition of impoverished genius. What a weird and necessary set of circumstances goes into the making of a Jackie Chan. Well: what weird compression made a literary genius of little Solomon Bellow, who could wax on as enraged and impassioned about teeth as about, say, Hannah Arendt? To go back and read Saul Bellow is to encounter again the kind of mad virtuosity that, in a certain mood, a certain type might argue is a sort of translation of the embodied genius of Chan. Anyhow, my favorite Bellow novel, which I reread this past year, is Herzog. If you want to feel a bit grandiose about your own madness - how charming we remain, nothwithstanding - then Herzog's for you. And if you want that grandiose good feeling you have about being near mad - if you want that bubble popped - then, again, Herzog - with wronged and wronging Moses Herzog at its center - is for you. Moses Herzog - that suffering joker - resembles the best of clowns of any era or field. He's sexual, ecstatic, bitter, and comedic: a fire you watch burn with increasing hopes (intermittently justified) that there will be no ash. So Bellow: the uninsurable stunt man. Buyable. More from A Year in Reading