T. C. Boyle Pro & Con

September 27, 2009 § Leave a comment


#1) The largest feeling reading TC Boyle, after the first few chuckles, is sadness; his writing makes you realize how hard literature is. He has all the pluses on his side and he still doesn’t pull it off. 1) Be entertaining: Boyle knows how to entertain. 2) Charm: he recognizes social hypocrisy and can deal with it in funny ways, he has a wide embrace of social pathology. 3) Shorthand: he gets to the point. 4) Technique: he keeps things moving. He knows how to move people around.

#2) Why does literature have to be so damnably difficult? His writing has what most other writers don’t have: humor, momentum wisecracking knowingness. Boyle’s got all the gifts but one: heart. He so earnestly tries to get through the story that he misses the most important thing. Yes but…you want to remember and retain. Mostly his stories become linguistic exercises; topping the previous metaphor. Yes, literature is made up of words but it is also made up of the extraneous and there is no extraneous in Boyle. Everything is down to the metal.

#3) Or he overdoes it. Boyle writes over his characters, he applies the literary standard, lapsing when he shouldn’t, allowing clichés. He won’t let anything unfold. The momentum is driving and sharp, but arch. He understands the made up nature of American life and it allows him to puncture it from all sides. But America does work after all, not every money maker is a con, not every housewife is a harridan, not every babe is a whore out for herself.

#4) It is in the interstices that America runs (and inspite of itself), you’d never know that from Boyle where the cartoon standard applies. Boyle tries to make literature out of comics. Graphic novels. In the weird way that graphic novels can be made to strive towards written literature, to emote and promote ambiguity and depth, so Boyle’s prose strives towards the picture frames of a graphic novel. The words get in the way. They are fueled on his metaphors.

#5) The event drives character rather than the other way around. Think of the many ways Boyle must describe anger, surprise, or disgust: a set of revolving emotive stills and a straining after words that exhausts imagination to keep up with his relentless events. It is bar-stool storytelling. Or campfire storytelling: who doesn’t love it? Its appeal is as old as…

#6) Often the thoughts narrated aren’t the character’s thoughts; they are Sociology’s thoughts. Or Boyle’s sociological thoughts.

#7) Overwritten: the characters are plundered, not observed. They are not even invented they are starched, typed out – (does anyone type anymore?) They are buttered with jam, oiled, creamy and sauced and jammed and yolked and creamed again with parmachiano; they are indicated. Shrimped and pimped and recopied; they are meatballed with parsley, oats and gin.

#8) Boyle tends to mount forward movements like military campaigns or football plays. He moves his narrative forward via the exertions of metaphor. Vein popping metaphor making. He goes into the breach. Narrative advances by straining language through metaphor. Yes you can do this but — unless you are Shakespeare, watch out.

#9) Language plundered for its mobility. Boyle tries to get around the technical difficulties of his art by forcing metaphor; too many contrivances, though art is contrivance, he goes too hard at it. Masked by nearly unlimited charm. Where does charm come from? Being different from the norm (which is usually dull as darts).

#10) Consider the world and all its things as an audience waiting to tell you interesting things. Waiting to be noticed and tell you things. You don’t get the sense that Boyle listens to the world of things. He is not open to the world of things so they can’t tell him what they want to tell. He writes over eveything. He writes over his characters and he writes over his things. Arch, contrived, flip, and yes, fun. I don’t mean to sound so harsh. I am trying to identify a technique or a style.

#11) TC Boyle goes wrong by offering up a constant string of metaphor and simile; he never lets the reader put anything together. He does all the work.

#12) His recit is faulty. When Boyle writes, “His ears pointed up and with a flash of white teeth turned like a felon…” it is fair to ask do ears really point up? Do teeth really flash like that? Or when he writes, “The Doctor’s eyes snapped wide open at the thought–” it’s fair to observe that eyes don’t really snap. When Boyle writes, “Ashen, the long bones of his legs chattering, Will Lightbody got unsteadily to his feet,” it’s OK to complain that leg bones don’t really chatter. You have to go back to early Mark Twain to get this kind of Western exaggeration: “Yup. He was spitting teeth after the fight.” Yet, somehow Twain manages to really see, to really describe. Boyle seems to be writing from a memory of rhetoric…

#13) Sometimes I think Boyle is doing stand-up comedy, skits, gags, riffs…no fictional pressure, tension…am I wrong?

Exposing the tyrant while writing a beautiful book

June 22, 2009 § Leave a comment



(from left to right: Young Huber Matos just before Castro threw him in prison for 20 years; Guillermo Cabrera Infante in his prime; Carlos Franqui, an elderly exile in Italy)

Family Portrait with Fidel by Carlos Franqui
Mea Cuba by Guilermo Cabrera Infante
Como Llego la Noche (How night arrived by Huber Matos; not sure if the English translation is out yet.)

Franqui and Infante were both artist intellectuals who held official posts in the early Castro government; by 1965 both were disillusioned and planning their escapes. Their books are by turns fascinating witty brutal and tragic. Matos is a man with truth for a backbone; he was sentenced in 1959 and served out a 20 year sentence, obtaining release from prison in 1979; he was on to Castro early on and paid a steep price.

These books are not hard to get hold of. When you hear pretty-faced Hollywood/and TV reporters praise Castro you realize that these people do not read. How many talking heads have given a stern look over the last couple days and said, “we don’t know much about Raul Castro but…”

This is nonsense. It common knowledge that Raul is a bigger thug and murderer than Fidel and it is well documented. In the early days of the Revolution Fidel would purposefully humiliate Raul in large meetings to the point that fellow revolutionaries, hardened murderers, would turn their faces away so as not to have to share in Raul’s utter abasement.

Anyway, these books are loaded with fascinating and sometimes funny but always tragic detail of life under the tyrant.

If All Seattle Read A Different Book

June 16, 2009 § Leave a comment


It is a measure of Seattle’s endemic middlebrow infantilism that Nancy Pearl, author of the Booklust series, holds such sway over the Seattle reading public. About a decade ago she started Seattle off on the If All Seattle Read The Same Book kick. For someone who knows writers and the world of writing she, and her reading publicity stunts, shows a real callousness towards them. Why not encourage the reading public this way: IF ALL SEATTLE READ A DIFFERENT BOOK. There are thousands of writers published in English each year; encourage the discriminating Seattle reader to look into them. Forget the childish rule of One Book. I don’t see how this dotty little bookmaven can get a large, supposedly well-educated, gentrified city to go along with If All Seattle Read the Same Book. What writers want is for everybody in a city to be reading a different book. Pearl promotes a slightly fascist, pajama-party view of reading culture and literature.

To be fair Pearl does present a wide variety of books in her frequent radio and TV interviews. Even so something rankles about her literary enthusiasms. She misses the hallmark of literary masterpiece: excellent books savage you and drive all other books off the shelf, for a time anyway. A masterpiece enfolds you and takes you over and shoves out of the way all the other books floating in your brain. When I hear Pearl bubbling with delight over the latest detective thriller then moving on to a pre-teen novel I suspect I could never trust her to recognize a true masterpiece. She can go from breathily praising the latest trash detective novel to some new young adult fiction and then onto Toni Morrison’s latest novel and then over to the latest ethnic cookbook without pause. Pearl for all her admirable reading misses the point that a good book drives out all before it. I believe Pearl represents a librarians’ view of books: bring ‘em on, that’s what we’re here for…a Dewey Decimal reading list. For Pearl it doesn’t seem to matter as long as there are words on the page and glue in the bindings. Again, great books drive everything before them: criticism, book clubs, social fashion. Excellent books rage and turn readers inward to pause and then hate all other books, even if only for an hour. Pearl’s multitudinous book enthusiasms are really declarations of Seattle’s hopeless middlebrowness; she has bubbled for too many books.

Every good book carries seeds of criticism within it. Seattle reading culture represents another manifestation of Seattle’s colonial, past twice removed: once a colony of England and now a colony of east coast intellectual fashion. Never though, will Seattle have the confidence to recognize something beautiful and homegrown. Seattle media doesn’t have enough confidence to trust its own reactions to things artistic. It needs the swell of millions of other opinions before it can weigh in with its own non-entity opinion.

Garcia Lorca and thoughts…

June 12, 2009 § Leave a comment


I really love the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936). His poems sneak up on you like sunshine slipping from under a cloud. They are full of taste and smell and color processed by a loving sensibility. Garcia Lorca was a poet, an artist, a playwright and a musician and he was also an amateur folklorist, gathering folk-nursery songs from all corners of Spain. He celebrated without shame Spain’s southern/Arab-influenced region at a time when it wasn’t fashionable to do so. He formed part of Spain’s generation of 1927 which gave the world a great burst of unique scholarship and artistic achievement.

When I think of the various generations of Spanish writers (generation of ’98–that would be 189–of 1927, etc) and looking at photos of Garcia Lorca, arm in arm with Vicente Aleixandre, Luis Cernuda, Damaso Alonso, etc…I really have to admire those guys. Those Spanish poets and writers saw, before their politicians, that Spain, in the first part of the 20th century, was headed for the sewer culturally and politically; these bold men (and women) rallied as artists and writers and thinkers; they overcame their jealousies and competition and they really did something for their country and their mother tongue. You can see them taking off from the powerful 19th century influences (American: Poe, Whitman, French: Hugo, Mallarme, Baudelaire) and committing themselves to making something of their own. It is tremendously affecting to see how cross-fertilized they were in all the arts: music, painting, sculpture, theater, poetry, fiction.

Maybe I am dreaming but I think Seattle will forever be muddled in provincialism as long as none of our cultural leaders take a stand on anything. Until they stop taking their cue from the New York Times or the National Librarians Guild or National Bookclubs or whatever. The first step away from provincialism is to commit yourself to something you love and trust with your own reactions. Having an opinion that doesn’t have to be shored up by 1000 or a million other consenting opinions. Until then Seattle will be mired in provinciality and maintain its backwater status.

Back to Garcia Lorca; how can you not love a poet who writes poems to the guitar? (My translations)

Memento
When I die,
bury me with my guitar
beneath the sand.

When I die,
among the orange groves
and the heirbabuena.

When I die,
bury me if you please
in a wheathervane.

When I die!

To the Ear of a Girl
I didn’t want to.
I didn’t want to tell you anything.

I saw in your eyes
two crazy trees.

How they wriggled.

I didn’t want to.
I didn’t want to tell you anything.

If You
The sky will get lost:
country girl,
under the cherry trees,
full of red cries,
I want you.

The sky will disappear…
if you understand this,
just walking by the tree
you give me your kisses.

Anthony Burgess and spring sundry

June 7, 2009 § Leave a comment

1985 by Anthony Burgess.
A pastiche of essay and story telling and futuristic projection based on George Orwell’s 1984. Written in the late 1970s it is interesting to see what Burgess got right. He predicted accurately the rise of Islam in London, with active construction of mosques funded by oil-rich gulf princes (a telling line from the book: With the death of institutional Christianity will come the spread of Islam). More: the wide screen TV, tighter airport security, search for fuel substitutes, women in trousers men in kilts, more and more newspapers closing down, microbombs of immense destructiveness placed in public buildings, a German coup breaks down the Berlin Wall.

He got a few things wrong. Burgess thought labor unions would excercise an overwhelming power over daily life in the future, that porn would overtake violence in the movies and he missed the computer/telecommunications revolution in daily life (though he does portray the union enforcement officials capable of a Google-like effiency in capturing personal details on a computer system). A wonderful overlooked book.

The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Dr. Li Zhisui.
A 625 page nightmare. Mao’s private doctor lived in nervous terror of the various cabals surrounding China’s maximum leader. Fascinating but in the end repetitive; Dr. Zhisui is mainly concerned with keeping Mao alive. Mao unleashed insanity on a mass scale during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1975), but Dr. Zhisui, it appears, was not privy to the political machinations that constantly flowed from Mao’s brainpan. We read mostly of the difficulties of getting Mao to take his medicine. Mao was a megalo-maniac and often quite ill during the last 20 years of his life. What comes through is his heartlessness and cruelty. His policies led to the death of millions. You can’t help thinking that there is a bill come due in China – despite her current power and prosperity.

Before the Sabbath by Eric Hoffer.
This book is a half year’s worth of diary entries from the mid-1970s by this fine and original thinker. Hoffer extrapolates the future just looking around and commenting. For example let me quote a few entries at random:

If the present fuel debacle brings about a decline of Western Europe, France wants to make sure that it ends up sitting on top of the heap. To solve the fuel problem by force would result in a situation in which France could not play a paramount role. Hence France will urge submission to Arab dictates. It will also be for the abandonment of Israel and the cold-shouldering of the United States.

I have long assumed that the stagnation of the Arab world is due to the congeniality of the religion of Islam – its lack of the inner contradictions and tensions which stretch souls. But it seems that hashish is also a factor. The Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century which put an end to Arab supremacy also introduced hashish. Egyptian doctors have blamed this drug for the sluggishness of Egyptian workers. Will the use of marijuana have a similar effect on American workers?

Backward countries are crying about the maldistribution of the world’s wealth: one quarter of the world’s population has threee quarters of the wealth. Not a word is said about how wealth comes into being; the toil, sweat and self denial which make an accumulation of wealth possible. This is how a once poor and backward Japan became an affluent country. It is curious how in both domestic and international affairs there is at present a stubborn refusal to see a connection between effort and income. It is widely assumed that individuals or countries are poor because they are exploited or discriminated against.

The danger inherent in reform is that the cure may be worse than the disease. Reform is an operation on the social body; but unlike medical surgeons reformers are not on guard against unpredictable side effects which may divert the course of reform toward unwanted results. Moreover, quite often the social doctors become part of the disease.

It needs an effort to realize how offended Europe’s cultivated, aristocratic minds were by the spectacle of common people eloping with history to a vast, new continent and essaying to do there all the things – build cities, found states, lead armies – which from the beginning of time were reserved for the privileged orders.

Hoffer thought a special line of cultural demarcation occurred in the Sputnik launch by the Russians in 1957. As a result, back in America, Hoffer proposed that many traditional business types got washed into academia during the early 60s (and conversely, many creative or scholar-types washed into the business world). The new academics Hoffer wrote, “felt superior to the trivial businessmen and politicians who were running the country. They were going to create a new society in which every act was pregnant with meaning and destiny…”

Maybe. Hoffer puts forth interesting models-as-tools to help think about the various antagonistic-worlds that bump against each other in modern America: businessman vs artist, politician vs professor/theorist, ancients vs moderns. His thoughts often carry a counter-intuitive streak that give them a pugnacious or challenging effect. Even so, Hoffer presents his ideas in vivid, musclular prose worth reading for its own sake.

In memoriam: re-post about Updike

January 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

#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 Françoise 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.”

John Updike, R.I.P.

January 28, 2009 § Leave a comment


#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.

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