Mr. Sammler’s Planet

Bellow_MrSammlers_PengBMr. Sammler’s Planet, Saul Bellow

Some things are so completely and totally of their time that it is impossible that they could have been created at any other time.  Experiencing them is like stepping into a time machine.  Try to imagine someone making Leave it to Beaver at any time other than the late 50s, or the terrible movie PCU existing in any decade other than the 90s.  It just doesn’t work.  That’s how I felt about Mr. Sammler’s Planet.  It’s a slice of the late 60s/early 70s, and couldn’t be anything else.

The book follows a few days in the life of Mr. Sammler, a Holocaust survivor living in New York City.  His friend/benefactor is dying and in the midst of this he has to deal with his daughter, Shula, who has stolen a manuscript that he needs to return to its owner, the benefactor’s son who is convinced that his father has hidden cash throughout their home and is tearing it apart searching for it.  At the same, he is regularly conversing with his benefactor’s daughter, Angela, a sexually liberated woman who keeps talking to Sammler about her sexual exploits and discussions with her psychologist.  This sounds like some sort of wacky, slapstick comedy but it’s not.  Instead, these and other pieces of the plot take place around the edges of the book, just random things happening alongside Mr. Sammler’s constant inner thoughts about how culture is crashing down around him.

And that’s really what this book is about, a compendium of all of the cultural fears of the 60s and 70s.  New York City is a pit of vice and crime?  Check.  Everyone being obsessed with psychoanalysis?  Check.  Large black man who is a criminal and also sexually intimidating?  Check.  Counter-cultural students disrupting lectures?  Check.  An obsession with sexuality and constant disgust with everyone’s obsession with sexuality?  Check.  Extra special disgust for a woman who has lots of sex?  Extra check.

There are authors that I read that are absolutely of their time but everything that I find intriguing about the 60s and 70s–authors like Richard Brautigan, who I absolutely love to read.  Mr. Sammler’s Planet made me role my eyes and was instead everything I wouldn’t have liked about the era.  I can understand its critical acclaim at the time, though.  It’s a near-perfect distillation of all the fears of the decade in one short book.

 

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