The Comforts of Home

April 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

It is weird and disconcerting to see Louis Menand, my favorite critic and New Yorker writer, review the new biography of John Updike, my favorite novelist (and former New Yorker writer). It is like when your teacher runs into your mother at the grocery store. I’m not sure I want them in the same room. Or walking the same planet. I don’t want one using my trust in our reader-writer relationship to influence how I perceive the other.

Ah: but here we are. And somehow it feels a bit of a relief that Menand’s review does not contain much that I didn’t already know. If anything, it lacks the devilish connections that make his writing most enjoyable. Menand’s excitements have mainly lain in post-war, Cold War-themed arts and letters; he writes best on subjects where art bleeds into history and the worldwide political zeitgeist informs culture. Compared to these subjects, Updike has always felt to me safe, white, provincial, reliably consistent, and not very interested in trying to damage neighborhoods or becoming part of the social conversation.

Even as well as the Rabbit books work around real-life news events as centers of metaphor—the moon landing as extraorbital rocketing into unknown heights, the Lockerbie bombing in the same novel the lead character’s heart explodes—they have never felt, to me, as though they were trying to redigest the world we were living in and give us back something new to be angry about. They were a view through the eyes of an adult male American character whose early success had left him slanted, entitled, anxious, and quickening to outrun something catching up to him. Couples and Rabbit Redux say a lot about the sixties, but do not try to leave us with any impression about the moral ambiguities of the sixties. Updike’s near-caricature of Skeeter in Rabbit Redux is not a comment about black nationalism; it is an example of how the comfortable white middle-class fits a frighteningly exotic and challenging segment of the world (justifiably angry minorities) safely into a nook than can be reconciled with the rest of its easy assumptions.

Hermione Lee, who reviewed Begley’s book for The New York Review of Books, has a literary biographer’s pedigree (her subjects include Woolf, Cather, and Wharton). She picks up on Begley’s key observation in the first chapter, that Updike’s authenticity comes from writing about things comfortably close to home: his family, his schoolboy crushes, and Berks County, Pennsylvania.

And it is the ordinary, banal things that Updike tenderly cherished and made fresh on the page. As he said of himself, and as Begley rightly emphasizes, he is the artist of middleness, ordinariness, in-betweenness, who famously wanted “to give the mundane its beautiful due.” For over half a century—even though his own life moved far away from “middleness”—he transformed everyday America into lavishly eloquent and observant language. This—even more than his virtuoso writing about sex, his close readings of adultery and husbandly guilt, his tracking of American social politics, his philosophizing on time and the universe—is his great signature tune.

Menand’s, on the other hand, finds counter-examples to the claim that Updike hewed to the ordinary:

From early in his career, Updike was accused of being a naïve, plain-vanilla realist, uninterested in the formal experimentation that was going on in the literary world around him. But “The Poorhouse Fair” is a futurist novel; the protagonist in “The Centaur” is a schoolteacher with the head of a man and the body of a horse; “Rabbit, Run” was written in the historical present, which, in 1959, the year he finished the novel, had rarely been used in fiction. Symbolism, allegory, and myth run through all his novels, even “Couples,” a novel that looks like a soap opera (or a parody of a soap opera).

Updike’s ambitious autobiographical poem, “Midpoint,” experiments with verse form, mixed media, and typography. He wrote novels about supernatural beings; he invented stories about Africa and Brazil and sixteenth-century Denmark. He was never just a chronicler of suburban mores.

Not mentioned, but in the same category: witches (twice), science fiction, Islamic fundamentalism, the New York ab-ex art scene.

I have only just started Begley’s book. It won’t be a dense read, but I have decided to re-read the Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy simultaneously, to see if there is anything new from the Brewer universe that jumps out at me while the muse that inspired it lies close at hand. This feels like a project meant to be exacted carefully. I’ll be taking my time.

The Strange Pilgrim

April 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

Tributes to Gabriel García Márquez will flow in for a while, but the loudest ones may already reside in the innumerable writers he influenced. He gave Latin American writers the courage and guile to take on the tyrants and dark epochs of their homelands, the hot caverns of the past, and perhaps most crucially, the yearning for a stable sense of identity amid backdrops of upheaval, migration, and disunity.

Michiko Kakutani writes in her appreciation:

In the end, it’s not politics, but time and memory and love that stand at the heart of Mr. García Márquez’s work. How the histories of continents and nations and families often loop back on themselves; how time past shapes time present; how passion can alter the trajectory of a life — these are the melodies that thread their way persistently through his fiction, reverberating in novel after novel, story after story. In later works, like the stories in “Strange Pilgrims” and the novella “Memories of My Melancholy Whores,” Mr. García Márquez wrote about older characters, falling under the shadow of mortality, but then, death had long been a focal point in his work, going back to his early novella “Leaf Storm,” and on through novels like “The Autumn of the Patriarch.”

García Márquez’s dreamscapes offer a grasp at controllable logic in a universe of institutional unfairness. On the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, Edwidge Danticat defends García Márquez’s method, nowadays applied with the neat, approachable label “magical realism”:

I am often surprised when people talk about the total implausibility of the events in García Márquez’s fiction. Having been born and lived in a deeply spiritual and extraordinarily resourceful part of the Caribbean, a lot of what might seem magical to others often seems quite plausible to me.

Of course a woman can live inside her cat, as the character Eva does, in García Márquez’s 1948 short story “Eva Is Inside Her Cat.” Doesn’t everyone have an aunt who’s done that? And remember that neighbor who died but kept growing in his coffin, as in the 1947 story “The Third Resignation”? What seems implausible to me is a lifetime of absolute normalcy, a world in which there are no invasions, occupations, or wars, no poverty or dictators, no earthquakes or cholera.

Money Problems

April 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

In this week’s New York Times Book Review, an issue devoted to the theme of money, Pankaj Mishra and Rivka Galchen offer contrapuntal looks at how money is treated in fiction. Mishra, aptly, starts off with a quote by William Dean Howells: “Business is the only human solidarity.” He finds money as a topic too often glossed over in fiction due to the writer’s discomfort with what he calls “a compromising and humiliating relationship with his aggressively commercial society.” The writer, kept afloat by grants and patrons, is too insulated to understand money’s cruel realities:

One result of the steady professionalization of the imaginative life is that the working classes, let alone the poor and the destitute, have largely disappeared from contemporary fiction. The dominant tone of irony, part of a characteristically bourgeois project of self-concealment and euphemism, has merely enhanced money’s amazing ability, in Saul Bellow’s words, “to survive identification” as a great evil and “go on forever.”

This is not to say that many works — from John Updike’s Rabbit quartet to Dave Eggers’s “A Hologram for the King” — haven’t registered the main events in the recent history of money: oil shocks, the proliferation of technologies, the migration of low-wage jobs to the newly industrializing countries, shifts in consumer habits, hubristic technicism and reckless financialization. “Without money he was hardly a man,” Jonathan Franzen writes in “The Corrections,” which dramatizes the fantasies of neoliberalism (“The more patently satirical the promises, the lustier the influx of American capital”). … But only a few contemporary fictions have bracingly exposed the writer’s own furtive participation in the vulgar pursuits of wealth and fame.

This view seems too ahead of itself in the age of the MFA student struggling to make ends meet on a teaching stipend. Galchen takes the view that money finds its way into narrative most effectively at the periphery, a cold dousing of our obsessions, offering the example of Don Quixote never considering the need to pay his squire until it is requested of him, or Ishmael only entering the whaling industry in the first place because he needs a living.

Yes, these summaries are off, but are they really so off? Part of what makes those fictions literature, instead of just varieties of chivalric fantasies, is that they do not participate in the appealing fiction that money is inconsequential and can be blithely ignored — an exceptionally popular fiction in real life, especially among the more moneyed, the original and abiding reading population.

I would propose that money is underutilized as an element in fiction because it is too banal a means of conflict to be a source of inspiration. For most, debt is too readily accepted as a fact of life to carry any sense of wonder. With rare exceptions (Fitzgerald), money does not take the reader on an emotional journey. It is also sloppy in its measure of human capacity. (Mitt Romney would tell you it is the only way to keep score.) It breeds complacency in a medium that is most effective when it portrays upheaval and lets character be revealed in tense moments of moral choice. If narrative fiction should ultimately be concerned with humankind’s journey toward happiness, money is too constant an element to offer any insight into why humans think and act the way they do.

What I Read in March

April 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque. Translated from the German by A. W. Wheen. A Fawcett mass-market paperback that I purchased for a history class in the summer before eleventh grade, my copy holds an authentic aged-newsprint smell. All Quiet is, I think, the first and only war novel I have ever read (as in actually depicting the brutalities of war, not set during a war), and I wonder where its distinction lies, other than the fact that Remarque was himself wounded in combat during World War I and is writing as a journalist as much as a storyteller.

The hero, Paul Bäumer, is a twenty-year-old soldier who has signed up for the German army with the rest of his classmates. From the beginning, Paul’s tone is one of cautious optimism, his happiness measured in material things like cigarette rations and who will get his dying comrade’s boots.

Morale quickly sinks as mortar shells fly, and those same classmates are killed off, one by one; more pertinently, we hear next to nothing about the progress of the war, the Kaiser, the Archduke, or any kind of missive to provide a reason why the young men are there. The novel loses awareness of its periphery; with no way to keep track of what is success, all sense of reason is lost.

Paul’s youth evaporates. His mother, back home, is dying. In a prescient acknowledgment of what would now be called PTSD, the trauma of combat follows Paul home on leave; he is “startled a couple of times in the street by the screaming of tramcars,” which sound like exploding shells. In the second half of the book, Paul’s weary voice turns philosophical:

We count the weeks no more. It was winter when I came up, and when the shells exploded the frozen clods of earth were just as dangerous as the fragments. Now the trees are green again. Our life alternates between billets and the front. We have almost grown accustomed to it; war is the cause of death like cancer and tuberculosis, like influenza and dysentery. The deaths are merely more frequent, more varied are terrible.

Our thoughts are clay, they are moulded with the changes of the days;–when we are resting they are good; under fire, they are dead. Fields of craters within and without.

From a historical standpoint, it is fair to ask what All Quiet tells us about war that The Red Badge of Courage and Catch-22 do not. The answer may be how close it lies, without flinching, to a seat of decay inside one human.

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980, Susan Sontag. The second volume of Sontag’s journals, covering her thirties and most of her forties, begins with the year she published her groundbreaking essay “Notes on ‘Camp.’” There are still a lot of lists (books read, movies seen or to be seen) and seeds planted for novel ideas that never sprouted, but we also get a lot of sketching-out of the thoughts that went into the books she published during this period: the essay collections Against Interpretation (1966), Styles of Radical Will (1969), and Under the Sign of Saturn (1980) and the novels The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967).

We also hear more confession about relationships—particularly her affairs with Jasper Johns, Harriet Sohmers, María Irene Fornés, and particularly the duchess Carlotta del Pezzo. These sections hardly read as the kind of experimental draft prose you expect to find in a private journal. She analyzes her relationships as she would an admired work of art, seeking meaning out of the sublime with the artist (herself) elevated as the moral center. From February 10, 1970:

The meaning of Carlotta’s “collapse” this past week: You see, I would if I could, but I can’t. For the behavior to be effective (i.e., self-exonerating) the collapse must be “total,” which excludes even the slightest gesture of consolation or reassurance to me. For it she could make such a gesture, that would mean she was capable of concern for me (of feeling a sense of responsibility) and therefore that the collapse was not total, and if not total then demands could conceivably be made on her, etc. (That, not sadism—conscious or unconscious—explains why she couldn’t give the smallest reassurance those last days.)

What I have to get over: the idea that the value of love rises as the self dwindles. What Carlotta doesn’t want—should anyone want it?—is that I’m prepared to give up (disvalue) everything for her. What she was attracted to in me was that I was a person with interests, success, strength.

A bad lesson I learned from Irene, who did want me to give up everything for her, and did measure my love by the amount I was willing to give up.

Sontag also travelled a lot ,so there are numerous datelined entries giving impressions of such places as Tangier, Paris, and Prague, along with many of the notes that went into her Vietnam essay “Trip to Hanoi” (found in Styles of Radical Will), and “Project From a Trip to China,” the first story in her collection I, Etcetera.

Who Can Make It, Mike Young. One of the first chapbooks released by Big Lucks Books, Who Can Make It includes Young’s crowdpoem “Aliens We All Know and Love.” Young invited visitors to add in their own text to the poem, Mad Lib-style, and he chose his favorite submission for each line. I don’t recognize any of the lines as mine, nor does H., who also submitted, but we’re thanked in the acknowledgements, and anyway, the poem is electric and the ending is nails:

I love telling you we should move to North Dakota

even though we never will. Televised rain


getting away with it, the animals still recovering

from bad press. I love how at a movie,


just before the credits,

you try to guess the song.

Meditations From a Movable Chair, Andre Dubus. Finishing up my journey through Dubus that I started in February. The essays in this volume take up many of the same themes as Dubus’s fiction: manhood and its beguiling limitations, religion, guilt, anger and forgiveness and the search for purity of the soul. The author, who died in 1999, experienced no shortage of the kind of real-life tragedy that puts to test one’s faith, including the rape of his sister, the aftermath of which is detailed in the first essay here, and another attack on his oldest daughter (not mentioned here but included in his son Andre Dubus III’s 2011 memoir, Townie). In 1986, while stopping to help a motorist in a disabled vehicle on Interstate 93 in Massachusetts, the elder Dubus was struck by a Honda Prelude and lost the use of his legs.

As the title implies, many of these essays radiate from that incident, which gives the impression that life as an immobile person has turned Dubus into someone more observant, reflective, and patient, but also reduced in the eyes of those among whom he had been an imposing presence. He vacillates between humility (as when he writes of needing to be carried by loved ones up a steep hill to a field) and righteousness (as when he shared the angry letter he wrote to Amtrak after being unable to use the train’s facilities). Through it all, Dubus seems to yearn for a reassured tranquility that he isn’t sure he deserves.

The Isle of Youth, Laura van den Berg. In a bit of missed opportunity, I heard van den Berg read along with three other writers in Northampton last fall, but didn’t meet her or buy her book; then, a few months later, I got it for Christmas.

There are seven long stories here, with settings ranging from Florida to Antarctica, and they all feature female narrators clinging to a distorted sense of their undertakings and operating with an inability to weigh the gravity of situations. In “Opa-Locka,” two sisters try to run a private detective business with licenses acquired from an online course. (One sister did the coursework for both of them.) Slights, held-over grudges, and personal histories (a forgotten husband, a vanished grifter father) get in the way of the task at hand, blinding the characters from the understanding that they are out of their element.

A running theme is performance, both from the point of view of the performer seeking to please and the rapt audience member looking to be taken somewhere. The narrator of “The Greatest Escape” works as the teenage assistant to her mother, a struggling illusionist with demons; in “Acrobat,” a woman is so enchanted with street performers in Paris that she ignores her husband when he announces he is leaving her. Another theme is disappearance: particularly by men—fathers, husbands—and the itch of their anticipated resurfacing. Van den Berg’s characters struggle to adjust their expectations–of others and themselves–in light of unreliable environments and bent realities:

I decided to order a big meal. I decided to eat until I felt like bursting. I started by asking for my own bottle of wine. As I sipped my first glass of wine, I felt something in the room change, like all the electrical currents had been moving in one direction and then suddenly started going in another. Or, as my husband would say, the “emotional weather” was different. He was always accusing my emotional weather of changing without warning. The forecast had predicted clear skies and then, out of nowhere, here came the rain clouds. Time after time, I tried to explain that I didn’t have much control over my emotional weather, and viewed the local weatherman with newfound empathy whenever I saw him on the evening news. I stared at my hands as I thought of these things. These moments that pass for a life.

Where Am I?

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