Friday, January 30, 2009

In memoriam: re-post about Updike

#1 A couple novels per decade; Updike can really knock it out of the park (Roger’s Version is one). Even so, he overwrites and you get the feeling that no editor had better shadow his existence; even so, Updike delivers in novels that rise to his obsessions and intellect. So Roger’s Version is very good (with some stilted overwritten descriptions)…

#1a Anthony Burgess faults U’s sense of rhythmn.

#2 There is so much to admire in this novelist. His Rabbit novels especially. He moves so comfortably through consciousness. Though I do think he gets a bit lazy in these; taking characters right off the pages of Time magazine. What you can’t take away from Updike is his mastery of intense self-introspection...

#2a Updike disturbs because in rendering--always rendering--a heightened reality-- dumbing himself down for certain characters, smartening himself up for others, he sacrifices some of the seer responsibility required of great fiction writers. He is afraid to fictionalize character the way Dickens did. Pecksniff and Uriah Heep are loathsome but they live and stand in for people or circumstances that have thwarted our hopes. Updikes’s high octane sensibility seems oddly right for the novel but oddly wrong for human character. Think of the way Dellilo approached rock n roll in Great Jones Street. He predicted or divined the death wish that accompanies mass adoration (or is its fulfillment). The fans: we love you so much we want you to die so that we can worship pure image or memory or nostalgia and even the balance between your greatness and our nothingness (something like that). The death worship of Lennon and Elvis. The weird and nearly inexplicable power of certain rock figures, the multiple meanings. Updike is too eager to throw his characters middle class life jackets. I hate to see high intellect dumbing itself down to what high intellect imagines dumb people are like.


#3 Anthony Burgess gets close when he says that Updike’s prose lacks inner rhythm; this is true as far as it goes; there is no inner correlative in his prose, no backing, no underground music; the prettiness of it disconcerts. There is no music/time in his prose; it is all effect. He resembles a skillful soloist who can't keep time on his instrument. There is no spiky beat to Updike. Sentences are snakelike and beautiful; the snakes have no teeth. JU derides composers in many of his works. Music in general doesn’t get to him much. Composers rate low. There is not much life to Updike’s life. What has he done but read and write? Get awards and doctorates. Comment and write more. Introductions and squibs and write write write. Muscle and sinew vs. clouds and violet scent water and perambulators and potpourri, sperm vs. cotton candy. Snot verses shit. An arm vs. a leg. Updike writes over his characters. He can’t hold back the observation no matter how irrelevant to the character (critic James Wood complains about this).

#4 I consider Updike’s comments on music rude and baseless. They could easily be inverted towards literature: the seamless ruck of messy writerly personal lives hopes aborted and finally doublihg back on a contrived conclusion, etc...His snotty disavowels of music via some of his characters. God, what would we do without music? And what would Updike do witout the music of his prose? Fool.

#5 Updike takes a pretty hefty swing at Celine for indulging in the picaresque novel form. Says it is like writing poetry without rhyme.

#5a Updike getting slack. He gives Jane Smiley’s latest, Ten Days in the Hills, a good review. I thought it slack, ungainly and poorly executed; she attempts Updikean sexual description and it doesn’t always work. The narrator slighting the mind and thoughts of its egg-like heads of characters. Lack of detail and imprecision. And the heavy, cliched, anti-Bush slant, the why unfired by its own rockets, still smoldering. A work not arising out of anything but the historic injunction to “pay attention” when you are being spoken to by a great artist. But Jane is not a great artist; she is a pupil of the Iowa Writers Retreat. God save me from the Jane Smileys of the world!

#6 ...sumptuous John Updike. Beware, too, of Updike’s “with its” clauses, summations really – too much authorial cock frottage (he was an unwieldy writer as a young man – he got a pass and how). "The city, with its suptuous lights and seductive beat, etc...;" even so the man can write - for sheer ability to transmute reality into words, see Updike’s memoir, Self-Consciousness.

#7 So many of Updike’s judgments in his latest (Due Considerations) are soft; he leaves you hanging in the air with some fluff line at the end. He won’t lower the boom, as it were.

#8 Updike as thoughtful, provocative literary critic. Updike, in a review of V.S. Naipaul's The Loss of El Dorado says, “But in viewing an entire hemisphere as a corrupted dream, Naipaul dissolves what realities there were…[TLED] rests upon an unexamined assumption, of metropolitan superiority…Was the cruelty of slavery not an extension of the cruelty already present on the African continent?” I think Updike is trying to push back at Naipaul’s assumptions that we – the Americas, say, only got the bad from Europe as all the high flown phrasings of brotherhood equality, constitutions, democracy became pure air under a floor of despotism and slavery; giving the Americas an atmosphere of unreality and emptiness. That real life was happening elsewhere (Europe for instance); that the collapse of metropolitan values led to unreality simplicity and moral degeneracy. Updike ends with this reasonable question: “Does not the collapse of “metropolitan” values amid “simpler” conditions demonstrate their own frailty and unreality?” He pronounces finally about Naipaul’s “bleak and caustic” tone; two adjectives appropriate to much of his writing. In a latter volume of essays Updike refines his assessment of the Naipauls (this time commenting on a book by Shiva): “Yet people live here, under these imperfect governments, and their lives are truth.” What a redemptive statement.

#9 Two Updike ticks that have become near-fatal flaws:
1. “with its”
Example (about Fran├žoise Sagan), “We have come a long way from Bonjour Tristesse, with its animal quickness and…”
2. Summary, smug, last sentences of paragraphs.
Example (touring the graveyards of Europe), of the “…Jews whose death-dates were 1943, 1944, 1945. Years whose smoke permanently stained the ceiling of Heaven.” Something so smug about that last little ending sentence. Does the WWII holocaust of Jews deserve that little flourish, the little smudge? Yeccch! There is no scale in Updike. You don’t know what anything weighs what anything is worth; he drops a dipstick in the temperature of America – right off the pages of Time or Newsweek; there is no peculiararity in Updike. Specificity of incident – conjecture-based. He can’t tell just what happened everything needs to be swathed in an eternal word-swathing…the shiny doorknob carries as much weight as the ass-hairs of the new mistress (see: James Wood). What is observed is not given its observational force by the mind of the observer; it is always Updike’s super-charged observant mind going on and on. Nevertheless―
Updike is a master explainer and expounder of other folks’ prose and fiction. He is very good. Reading Updike I realize I am a man of the 1970s – that was my intellectual formation: a sense that something exciting is happening somewhere (hat tip: Edmund Wilson); and to get there all you have to do is drop in on a party with a friend or hitchhike somewhere. You would always get a ride (this of course died out in the mid-1970s with the rise of local mass murderer, Ted Bundy). Americans would get along better if they viewed their own lives as episodes in the history of civilization; we are so hard on ourselves.

#10 (this was written before David Foster Wallce died) You feel swathed and emboldened by reality when you read Updike, with his lambent, unguent, all-swallowing prose (that last sentence supposed to be a parody; not so good...). David Foster Wallace does a real kendo sword job on John Updike in a review of Until the End of Time included in his book of essays called―(?). Disgraceful mess, sez DFW. It is a sad affair and DFW feels that some kind of mix of demotic and elegance is called for. He summons three opinions of three girls who offer reasons why they dislike Updike (a penis with a thesaurus, makes Rush’s fascism seem funny by comparison, I can't remember the third). Who are these young women? Why should we give them any weight beyond DFW? Are we writing for a high school gossip column? What have they accomplished compared to John Updike? Then DFW mischaracterizes JU’s oeuvre, saying that since 1980 he has portrayed uniquely self-absorbed men who denigrate woman and who are solipsistic. How nice of DFW to forget about The Witches of Eastwick, or the elegant and moving S. Is DFW disingenuous saying that he is one of the only literary types under 40 who really likes JU and that he has read all his work? While not a fanatic on the level of Nicholson Baker? The answer to female criticism is: we wait in vain for women writers to really tell us what it is like―having a cunt. Don’t blame him until women writers come up with the goods. The women accuse him of the sins of male hegemony and male dominance. Foster Wallace is not being truthful here. He ends up by simply calling the character in Until the End of Time an “asshole.” As if that is any kind of criticism! This is what passes for the literary thinking and criticism of the literary mafia’s own then we are in trouble. There is much to criticize in JU but this is not the way to go about it. Let women rise to the challenge. In the same book DFW reports on a AVG (adult porn convention) in Las Vegas. Talk about a barn-sized topic. To the anonymous girl opinionates that DFW quotes I would say: what you cannot write about whereof you must remain silent. Where are the female texts that write about penises with the same detail and meditation that JU offers up. Or what about they own cunts? There is a literary project for you. Tell us what it is like to be a woman. Trouble is, men have done it better. Does the novel's rushing onward probing force of creativity lie with men? DFW has licensed himself to the asinine in this book review.

#11 Memories of the Ford Administration; Updike’s tendency to hijack his characters’ thinking with these “nail-it” tags; “the world’s bloody business of birth and murder.” Who in reality thinks like that? In bite sized summations of the world, sex, death, the other? It is a cheap way of moving the plot along. When he is on he is on; and I do love his prose – he is so good at interpersonal dialogue (help that last phrase is quicksand); I am never quite finished with him. he uses a figure that scores all his work and the figure is “with its.” For example (my invention):
The mall, with its requisite contingent of 12 year old girls and boys, dressed alike in tight jeans and tee-shirts, bodily decorated with hanging metal rings, opened before us as the breadbasket of the ancient middle east, upon which hope and anguish reigned in the higher quarters of the nation’s capital with its..etc….

#12 Some of the purpose of prose is to capture the swing and sag of life and you can’t always do that with sterling prose – you end up with a John Updike novel, if Plato were to write novels he would write like John Updike. There is a certain manginess to the novel;

#13 Updike’s lacquered prose; (sentences. Layered coated glazed glossy prime coat); overbooked sentences.

#14 Funny. Reading through Updike’s A Month of Sundays. I haven’t looked into it for over a decade but always considered it one of my favorite Updike novels. I thought he achieved his aims in a challenging but entertaining way. The intimate 1st person the extravagant poses and postures the processing of detail always expert but it seems to fit in with the over-the-top or slightly insane. Thomas, the narrator/pastor, is a Christian version of Ellellou of The Coup, long sentences voiced into, fed, saturated with particulars of intensity and insanity. Does Wood’s criticism apply? Yes, sorry. The gorgeousness of which Updike is capable inhibits the actions of the book. Everything is beautifully rendered. You wonder if the novel is solely for beautiful rendering.

#15 Brazil. The imperial intelligence of John Updike. He has characters notice things that implies a super intelligence. Tristan notices the hushed way that his brother and wife process each day; how they forge a lower middle class existence. I can’t believe that Tristan, a child of the Rio slums, would have such a compressed synthesizing intelligence. Yes he would notice the difference but he would not be able to process it so thorough-goingly. So updikily.

#16 On a book buying spree we get Updike’s Seek my Face; ergo, the usual adjective fest. He doesn’t so much describe things as assign tags to them. He reads an issue of Time Magazine and decides to make a novel of it. He fills in standard interpretations. No original organic vision. Rabbit Run may have been his best, along with The Coup and A Month of Sundays. The Life magazine nostalgia-view of the world. Anyway we get a spinster, an elderly lady with a super-slick synthesizing ability with the English Language that sounds like Updike; soft floating recumbent prose. Much use of grand adjectives, gallant, luminous head, etc. The elderly lady observes and generalizes about an younger woman - her observations and notations are slightly off the mark but just accurate enough to keep the engine of the novel going. This is Updike irritatingly dumbing himself down. Grrr.

#17 Let Updike have the last word here: “Authors do well to remember that they are not really kin to priests and politicians but to singers and stand-up comedians―entertainers, of a devious sort.”

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike, R.I.P.


#1 John Updike died yesterday, January 27, 2009; I am moved. Anyone who loves writing and the imagination must stop to acknowledge Updike's power and talent. Updike brought the adjective back into American letters after Hemingway banished it for decades.

#2 Updike was a generous reviewer, junp starting many writing careers from his post as book critic at The New Yorker. He only wrote mean-spiritedly of one writer that I can think of: James Gould Cozzens; perhaps because he saw in Cozzens a slapdash overreacher , a sprayer of adjectives - in short, a lazier version of himself, Updike.

#3 Updike's love of the adjective did not always serve him well. Adjectives should be treated like viruses in English writing; they tend to multiply and infect all the other words around them, sapping their punch and singularity, and generally inducing torpor into the whole sentence.

#4 Some of his books demanded adjectives. The Coup, for example, attempted to catch the mental arabesques of an African dictator educated in the French Foreign Legion and at an American mid-Western campus during the 1950s. Here is an excerpt:
"My education here has been strange," Felix told Craven, contemplating with loathing the toubab's dry prematurely gray hair; his soft broad lips like two worms bloodless and bloated; his complacent, ever youthful eyes.


#5 When Updike stretched himself (The Coup, A Month of Sundays, Brazil, Roger's Version, The Witches of Eastwick), he wrote well, exquisitely well. When he leafed through Time Magazine and wrote a novel based on current events (the later Rabbit Novels, S, In the Valley of the Lillies) he wrote less well. He had the intellect, talent, imagination, the magic to write a large, all-encompassing American novel - a War & Peace - but he refused to lend his magic to a project not anchored in a local street or family; instead of one magnificent novel he left us a shelf of good, sometimes wonderful, novels.

#6 Thank you, John. You gave me so much reading pleasure over the years and inspired my path as a writer. Thank you.