A Silver Dish by Saul Bellow, 1978
The magic trick:
Sprawling Woody’s memories out and allowing the reader to make our own connections
Much of this story reminds me of “Hot Ice,” the Stuart Dybek stunner that remains my favorite story I have read for this blog. Both are set in Chicago – that is an obvious link. But more importantly, both stories concern the meandering paths memory takes as it links our pasts with our presents.
Whereas Dybek is pretty explicit in the way he connects the pieces of “Hot Ice,” Bellow is more hands-off in “A Silver Dish.” Don’t get me wrong – I love the way Dybek produces beautiful contrivances. But I also really appreciate the way Bellow puts more responsibility on the reader here.
The death of Woody’s father sends our protagonist on a long, wistful trip down memory lane. The story is sprawling as layer upon layer of characters and anecdotes shape Woody’s character. It seems to be more than he can manage in terms of adding it all up into some kind of coherent message. But that’s where the reader comes in. We’re left to pick up the loose threads of story and make whatever connections we choose. And that’s quite a trick on Bellow’s part.
Pop was no worse than Woody, and Woody was no better than Pop. Pop wanted no relation to theory, and yet he was always pointing Woody toward a position—a jolly, hearty, natural, likable, unprincipled position. If Woody had a weakness, it was to be unselfish. This worked to Pop’s advantage, but he criticized Woody for it, nevertheless. “You take too much on yourself,” Pop was always saying. And it’s true that Woody gave Pop his heart because Pop was so selfish. It’s usually the selfish people who are loved the most. They do what you deny yourself, and you love them for it. You give them your heart.