This book touches all of my most persistent insecurities. The narrator is troubled by an education that operates as prefabricated thought robs him of all sense of spontaneity and authenticity. Is he living or is he merely acting out roles? He is also troubled by a too acute perception of the world that reveals it to be unbearably false and silly. (Or is his vision simply distorted by exaggerations?) He feels unlovable yet he needs love. He wants to act, to make something worthwhile or beautiful, but he cannot find any basis to begin to do so. He is unhappy and knows that this is because he either lives better and more truly than those around him or because he doesn’t really live at all. And he has no idea how to tell which option is true.
As dark as this book can be, I remember how inspiring it was when I first read it. At the time, I felt as if there were high walls holding me back in every direction and that they were insurmountable and impossibly solid. But they seemed to crumble when they came in contact with this book. The Underground Man was abject, but he was glorious too.
Now all these years later, the book looks different to me. Now I see how much the Underground Man bemoans the absence of the legitimate constraints that make action possible. Lacking those constraints he can’t even be lazy: “I wish I were a lazybones. That would be something.”
The book lives still.