Fans of Saul Bellow’s mordant animadversions on the modern condition will be glad to hear that he is still as deeply unimpressed with the way the planet is going as he was when he produced his last full-length novel, The Dean's December, in 1982. No one (with the possible exception of Martin Amis, his most gifted admirer) writes with more savage uplift about the ways in which our Western throwaway, phone-in, made-for-TV societies tirelessly conspire to get a sensitive soul down. 'Being on mood pills was one hundred per cent contemporary,' comments Kenneth Trachtenberg, the narrator of Bellow's new novel. Among other things which, one gathers, also qualify as being one hundred per cent contemporary are: trying to make a fast buck out of an 'acupuncture abortion' racket; hotel rooms where, in unconscious, debased imitation of the great medieval libraries, the memo-pad and ball-point pen are chained to the table; telephone services where, by merely giving your Visa or Amex number, you can pay to have a voice talk you out of committing suicide, recite a prayer or bring you to a sexual climax; and a state of literary culture where the hardboiled money-makers and consumers can 't even spell the name of Mammon 'which is just the way Mammon likes it'.
The word 'contemporary' and its variants ricochet jumpily and self-loathingly around this novel. Admirably maladjusted to this 'Moronic Inferno' (a phrase which Bellow appropriated from Wyndham Lewis and which Martin Amis pinched in turn from him) is the narrator's Uncle Benn : 'He [Uncle Benn] was too inner-directed to be