“Doesn’t anybody ever learn anything? Must I watch myself and still be a fool, all my life? Doesn’t any story ever end?”

I think there’s always a danger in putting a phrase like “Doesn’t any story ever end” in a story.  The possibility that a reader will shout “I’ve been wondering that, myself” is just a little too great.  That’s certainly where I was, at the point that Martin Arrowsmith voiced these concerns.  Lewis doesn’t seem to know how to pick up speed—the narrative has, at this point (about 2/3 of the way through the book) run through no less than 5 occasions in which Martin believes he’s found his true passion, throws himself into the work, finds himself not quite up to the task intellectually and not quite comfortable socially, grows irritated at the people who hired him in the first place, and precipitates some kind of dramatic “break” because he suddenly has life all figured out.  I think Lewis needed to find a way to portray a character stuck in a rut that did not necessitate the reader’s being stuck in the rut with him.  By the fifth time this occurs, Leora’s ‘well, I guess it’s time to pack’ feels comic, almost farcical—but the rest of the novel doesn’t really support that idea, so I don’t think Lewis intends me to be laughing uproariously at the misadventures of sadsack Martin Arrowsmith.  I just think he feels Martin’s a bit more interesting than he really is.

Granted, things seem finally to be clearing up a bit—he’s back with Gottlieb, so at least if he wants to have a disastrous break with his superior this time, we’ll have to tread some new emotional ground.  We’ve gradually crawled up from Wheatsylvania through Nautilus to Chicago (which was, frankly, dealt with so breezily and with such little detail that Lewis seemed pretty lazy in that chapter), and now, at last, New York.  Nowhere “up” to go to now, really—Arrowsmith either has to make this work, or accept that he’s not the man he wants to be, settle for what he can actually handle, and grow old and mediocre.

The difficulty in all this is that Lewis is hurting himself by writing in this way.  He’s a convincing writer, but not a poetic one—he will never turn a phrase like Fitzgerald or Wharton (I’ve seen no evidence of it, at least), which means he really needs to deliver on realistic characters and plot to hold my interest.  But he’s thrown himself into a plot that strains my ability to pay attention, and the episodic wanderings of the Arrowsmiths (combined with his stubborn refusal to do anything to develop Leora Arrowsmith’s character) mean that even well-crafted characters are left in the dust, rushing me constantly into new situations filled with “stock” types that are not carefully described.  The fact that Martin is a well-depicted character in whom I feel an emotional investment is what’s carrying the story right now, and that on its own keeps the novel readable, but my opinion of it has come down a ways.  It may well reverse itself, but Lewis is going to have to decide on some worthwhile topic and then deliver, rather than continue a travelogue whose sole purpose seems to be that it lets him satirize each subculture in American society until he runs out of stereotypes to lampoon.


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