Looking for Mr. Green by Saul Bellow, 1968

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by Saul Bellow, 1968

Herzog, one of the most famous fictional creations of Saul Bellow, wonders "what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass." Bellow has said that Herzog appeals "to those who yet hope to live awhile." George Grebe, the hero of "Looking for Mr. Green," published in 1968 in Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories, is one of those who yet hope to live awhile. Grebe is Bellow's typical twentieth-century character, having "an immense desire for certain durable human goods—truth, for instance, or freedom, or wisdom" (from the author's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976). As the epigraph from Ecclesiastes makes clear, Grebe also believes in doing a job well, and by the end of the story he is himself a modern "Koheleth" (Hebrew for the Greek "Ecclesiastes," or "preacher")—although not as confident and conclusive a one as some critics argue.

Bellow's philosophical meditation on the human condition is played out in this story, as in his other fiction, against the landscape of Chicago, that "cultureless city pervaded nonetheless by Mind." For Bellow the city challenges its inhabitants to combine the physical and spiritual, just as America does. The narrator of Bellow's The Bellarosa Connection laments his lack of a European Jewish tradition: "You pay a price for being a child of the New World." That price is, quite literally, dollars. Indeed, according to one interpretation, the whole story is an allegory of this condition of consumer capitalism. If a lawyer's client does not pay him, the lawyer asks for the case to be delayed by saying, "Mr. Green is not here"—meaning he hasn't been paid yet.

The story is mostly written from Grebe's point of view in free indirect discourse. From the outset we are given contradictory images of Grebe's work. On the one hand he "feels like a hunter" in pursuit of his quarry; on the other the relief checks in his pocket remind him of "player-piano paper," as if humans are ciphers who will emit the appropriate noise when called upon. Grebe is similarly contradictory, both a thinker and someone avoiding "definiteness of conclusion." The sentence "Nothing was deliberately hidden" catches Grebe's ambiguousness perfectly, since something may still be hidden by chance, and the sentence refers equally well to the city he tries to penetrate.

His boss Raynor (his name suggesting "rain or snow") encourages Grebe and the reader to think symbolically. "The closer you come to your man the less people will tell you," he says, echoing what Marlow discovers in his similar search for Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness." Raynor adds an overt metaphysical dimension to Grebe's quest by suggesting that he and Grebe might swap positions, save for his law degree (later we learn that the two of them work in what used to be a factory, reinforcing the anonymity of a dystopian bureaucracy); he and Grebe are similarly cultured, quoting Latin to each other, trying to reconcile their learning with expediency, the city with the mind. Raynor admits that "there ain't any comparison between twenty-five and thirty-seven dollars a week, regardless of the last reality"; he gets a bonus for seeing life (in a parody of Matthew Arnold's terms) "straight and whole." Aware that he lives in what he calls "the fallen world of appearances," Raynor nevertheless yearns for "the last things that everything else stands for." His talk of Tanganyika reminds us that even civilization is a culture-specific veneer and that our notion of meaning may not fit there, or even in Chicago, where black people cower in the honeycomb of run-down tenements.

The allegorical dimension of Grebe's quest thus established is reinforced by his first descent into the underworld, the furnace room of his first building. Indeed, as he questions person after person, the reader senses a pilgrimage, perhaps through Dante's rings of hell. Grebe hopes that each one may be a possible guide through this inferno, this "terrific, blight-bitten portion of the city," where everyone seems an immigrant or refugee and is destitute. Staika is perhaps the most obviously allegorical character in that she lives by literally giving her blood to the system. Grebe sees her as representing "the war of flesh and blood" that will wear down governments and nations but that has nothing to do with the desires of the spirit. The unemployed who are Grebe's clients and about whom Staika rails may be more deeply alienated than she suspects, may be rejecting the whole "fallen world of appearances" out of a profound spiritual revulsion.

The quest takes on a mood of increasing absurdity and black humor: from the Italian shopkeeper with his horror of alien immigrants to the old man who refuses to accept a check until his identity is truly established. Both voice truths: that each culture has its own sign system, and that Western society's system is based on the cash nexus (in Field's pun, "Money, that's d' sun of human kind").

The reading process parallels Grebe's ("he needed experience in interpreting looks and signs") as we are confronted with realistic details that sometimes do, and sometimes do not, seem to slot into an allegorical pattern. What are we to make of his card that reads "TULLIVER GREEN—APT 3D"? Is his quarry like the quester, since his name begins with the same three letters? Is he a pastoral ideal (see Hardy) at odds with this squalid inner-city ghetto? Is he relevant or "apt" to Grebe's own condition? Should he be found and realized in "three dimensions"?

Grebe's splendid meditation reminds one of Thomas Pynchon on entropy, Henry Adams's imaging of the United States as a dynamo. Grebe sees his city as "a faltering of organization that set free a huge energy"; he finds this energy revitalizing rather than entropic. If he can only sort out those who need relief checks from those who do not (like Pynchon's "Maxwell's demon"), he will be doing his part to maintain the system in its differentiation. He becomes heartened by the constant rebuilding of Chicago. The city reminds him of the covenant, or agreement, of its citizens to transform appearance into reality by sheer imagination. He almost succeeds in finding intellectual satisfaction in the cash nexus, until he contemplates on the one hand the millionaire Yerkes's interest in astronomy and on the other the continuing poverty of the inner city. The system fails materially (why are people starving?) as well as spiritually (why else would Yerkes "offer money to be burned in the fire of suns"?).

His final confrontation, not with Mr. Green but with a naked woman in a surreal "high box" of a house, is deliberately fantastical. It does not connect with anything, although Grebe makes it connect by an act of will, his decision that "the woman stood for Mr. Green." This is not enough to assuage his spiritual anxiety, for he realizes that he comes as "emissary from hostile appearances"—that is, from the world of money and signs that pit people against each other and do not satisfy the soul. The verb form of Grebe's conclusion ("he could be found") is carefully chosen to slip between enacted past and conditional future, since Grebe is unwilling to rest with a semantic agreement and "yet hopes" for a center where the Minotaur will stand revealed.

One detail typifies Bellow's genius for threading onto one spool the contingent and the allegorical: as the woman signs the check, Grebe "came near believing that someone was standing on a mountain of used tires in the auto-junking shop next door." Who is this person? Someone who is observing his deceit to report to Raynor? Someone (God?) who approves of his decision and blesses it? Or the devil atop his entropic garbage heap, laughing?

—David Dowling

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Looking for Mr. Green by Saul Bellow, 1968

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