Tag Archives: John Updike

Beefier hands and more of them

All of the Moore–Updike ping pong from last week has me thinking of Moore’s descriptive powers. Updike is rightly praised for his indefatigable eye. Moore is praised for her “zingers,” her jokes, her unseen sideswipes into the absurd. And yes, she does have those (and great paragraphs, too!), but she also has great descriptive powers. Her descriptions are not of the pointillist nature of Updike’s, but they are metaphorically richer. Here is an example from A Gate at the Stairs:

I began working in my father’s baby greens field that very week. My job was to run in front of the shaver, a special attachment on the thresher, which he had contrived himself and which he was amused by and drove proudly like a car, though our field was so small that it was hard for him to make the turn-arounds. I ran ahead of it with fake feather and plastic hawk-wing extensions on my arms, whacking at the greens to scare the mice so they would not get into the mix. (If we had to take the greens to the triple-wash facility, it ate into the profit.) My father had actually designed my outfit for this, partially from a kite we had once brought to the Dellacrosse Kites on Ice festival. The costume had an aquiline-beaked mask and long wings I slipped my arms through, dipping them as I ran, brushing near the ground, beating the leaves, to resemble an actual predator and to encourage rodents to run from the shaver: nobody wanted sliced mice in their salads. At least not this decade.

[. . .]

Sometimes in the afternoon, upstairs in my room and still with my hawk outfit on, I would get out Ole Upright Bob, the double bass, dust him off, his bow quiver clipped at the tail beneath the bridge, like a scrotum, and we would rustle up a tune. There was a kind of buoyancy in making these four low strings sing something that was not a dirge. It was a demanding instrument, the stand-up bass — by comparison, my guitar, with its buttery, mushy fingerings, was a toy — and sometimes I just played it with open strings, Miles’s “Nardis,” which was basic, and which spelled starry backwards in Latin, or something, and which I loved, and which didn’t take a lot out of me. I had once, in the state music tryouts, played a solo from a double bass concerto by Sergei Koussevitzky, who in 1930 had been on the cover of Time magazine. That’s about all I knew about him. But either I wasn’t that good or the sight of a girl standing beside this huge wooden creature, grabbing its neck and stroking its gut, pulling the music out of the strings by force, made them ill at ease, and I was not selected. The faces of the panel listening were the very embodiment of skepticism made flesh, as if they were all saying Get a load of this!, and I had never experienced the weaponry of such expressions before. Subsequently, I drifted away from classical entirely, needing to leave behind the memory of that event. It was an aspect of childhood adults forgot to think about when they encouraged their children to try new things.

My mother came to the doorway once, seeing me winged and wrapped around my bass, one hand moving squidlike down the neck of him, the other bouncing the bow in a kind of staccato, and she said, “No wonder I couldn’t sleep. Look at you. What a sight.” There I was, I supposed, a bass-faced bird, embracing the sloped shoulders of another bird whose long-necked wooden crested head, like a knight in chess, hovered over my head as if it were a fellow creature advising me what to do. Still, she smiled. I was playing “Bye Bye Blackbird.” She thought that it was my own arrangement, but it was one I had copied, or tried to copy — if only I’d had beefier hands and more of them — from Christian McBride.

“Your grandmother used to sing that song!” she exclaimed, and then went back to her room to rest.

I’m sure that with a little digging, I could come up with an equally metaphorically interesting string of paragraphs in Updike’s work; it’s not so much that as how Moore gently ladles her absurdities so that they somehow reharmonize into touching evocations of character. I’m mixing my metaphors terribly; my thoughts are all aflux. Moore is able, in her best moments, to be both absurd and terribly sympathetic.

Perhaps another way to cast this would be to think of Updike as a musical virtuoso, and like a virtuoso, he is sometimes unbearable; he never relents from being a virtuoso, in reminding you of his talents, whereas Moore is the type of singer (go with me) who is someone you actually want to listen to.

Yet another way of saying this is that I have often thought — and this is a point that James Wood has made in a much more substantive way — that part of Updike’s “problem” was his eloquence. He could never not be eloquent, and his irrepressible verbal felicity was a handicap, especially in some (some!) of his fiction. You, as a reader, were never allowed to forget that you were being dazzled by Updike’s brilliant prose. Of course, whether or not this is “good” or “bad” for fiction depends on the kinds of effects one is after, whether you want the reader to forget the author for a while, etc. But, to continue a mental comparison with Nabokov that I’ve got continually running in my head, Nabokov encountered this same problem, and he seemed to tame it somewhat by always conspicuously positioning his narrators or framing them in some way so that their eloquence was a feature of the narrative itself, rather than just there in the air like water vapor.

To put it even another way (aphoristically, reductively), to become a virtuoso is to deny taste.

Review of Adam Begley’s ‘Updike’

I’m happy to announce that I have a review of Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike in the new issue of Open Letters Monthly. The Begley bio recently came out in paperback. My take on the book was . . . oh, I don’t know. It’s complicated. I can’t come up with a pithy re-cap. Just go read the review.

Anyway, as with all reviews, there were scraps of thoughts I couldn’t include. Here are some of them:

Updike as great compartmentalizer
It’s difficult to read a biography of a writer and not come at it with a self-help kit. There is always the banal but necessary question of how did he get the work done? Aside from the talent, from the special blend of circumstance, and the capacity for endless hard work, was there some special “trick” that this writer used?

I feel like this whole line of inquiry is shameful, like I should know better than to read a biography in this vampiric way, but I can’t seem to help it.

Anyway, Updike’s trick, if it can even be called that, was that he had a talent for compartmentalizing his life from his work — this in addition to all of the other myriad talents he possessed. He seemingly could work anywhere, under any circumstance, with no sense of procrastination or doubt.

While writing the review, I was tipped off about this video of Philip Roth, who briefly muses on Updike’s greatness. He says Updike “could find the sentences for anything.” And he’s right, I think. The one thing that’s missing in Updike is any real sense of doubt, or fear, or insecurity, or exhaustion, or mute perplexity, or cosmic paralysis that he was wasting his life amidst a pile of empty signification, that maybe he should have taken up something — anything — else, or any of the other routine gales of doubt that the contemporary writer is heir to. (Not me, not me, naturally.) Whatever doubt he felt, he filed it away and got to work, and this lifelong ruthlessness seems extraordinary.

Lorrie Moore as the anti-John Updike
Or the sequel to John Updike, or the contra-Updike, or Updike from the other side of the marital bed. In the review I muse about the possibility of a biography of Mary Updike, the author’s first wife and seemingly the true hero of his writing career. But in the meantime, while that book (hopefully) gets written, we will have to make do with the stories of Lorrie Moore, who I was re-reading coincidentally while working on the review.

If Nicholson Baker, in his inimitable way, continued the diamond-cutting progress of Updike’s prose, Moore continued the subject of his stories — the ruination of the modern American marriage, especially when its victims are well-educated and employed, that is, on the surface, winners in the lottery of first-world experience. (Call it “The Postwar Ruins of Prosperity and The Pill.”) Except the difference is that Moore creates the opposite protagonists, stories told from the point of view of the wry female who’s been sentenced to the domestic hell of dealing with men who are emotional terrorists.

Moore also, interestingly, even daringly, has not written any autobiography. Though many of her stories smell faintly of veiled memoir, and though she has one brilliant, famous story about a baby diagnosed with cancer that mirrors her own son’s diagnosis with cancer, she has not rushed into the contemporary trend of memoir writing, confessional essay penning, or “autofiction,” to use a term I read about just yesterday. (Why, sweet lord of the library, we must come up with yet more idiotic nonce words to re-decorate the endeavor of literature I’ll never know.) After first reading her latest book of stories, Bark, I toyed with the idea of writing an essay about Moore called “The Lost Memoirs of Lorrie Moore,” because though she had been through various “life material” (to use a crude phrase) that seemed ideal for memoir (a pediatric cancer fight, a subsequent divorce, a long-in-the-making but ultimately great novel), she chose to keep writing fiction, albeit fiction that dealt with some of the biographical ingredients that were easily visible from her author interviews and other bits of promotional flotsam. That is, she kept at the old Updike strategy of re-translating her lived experience into fiction.

Obviously, I haven’t worked all of this thought-soup out yet, but the point I’m moonwalking toward is that through this commitment to fiction, and the short story in particular, Moore’s work provides a rebuttal to many of Updike’s stories, not in a point/counterpoint way, but in a way that let’s the Mary Updike–like figures have their say against the blind, reckless, and remorseless force of the male ego-libido.

Postscript: I can’t bring all of this up without linking to this fascinating review she wrote for the New York Review of Books a few years ago.

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

I’m happy to report that Lady Chatterley’s Brother: Why Nicholson Baker Can’t Write About Sex, and Why Javier Marias Can, an ebook I have written with Scott Esposito, is now officially on the cyber shelves. It’s sort of like an electronic pamphlet, long and argumentative yet sprightly and topical, covering how two contemporary authors treat that most hazardous of subjects: s-e-x. The booklet consists of two long essays, each approximately 35 pages in length. Mine is called “I Know It When I See It: Nicholson Baker’s Sex Trilogy” and Scott’s essay is called “Just Do It: Javier Marias’ Sexless Sexuality.”

Cover of Lady Chatterley's Brother

The ebook is the first installment in the TQC Long Essays series, and happily it’s another iteration of the current crop of longish essays and pieces of nonfiction sprouting up to take advantage of ereaders. I am personally really enjoying how ereaders provide an as-yet-unthought-of market for pieces that are too long for traditional magazine space and too long for a regular website/blog posting and yet too brief for an actual book. It’s like a pamphlet without the staple binding.

As for the topic, it grew out of conversations Scott and I were having about Baker. I’ve written about Baker several times. I kind of have a thing for Baker, but when word came that his newest novel House of Holes was going to be another sex novel, I wanted to run for the hills. Instead, Scott forced me to articulate why I disliked these novels and why I felt they were an aberration on an otherwise wonderfully rewarding and idiosyncratic career. And he coupled all of my criticisms of Baker with his analysis of Marias. The result was, as they say, a learning experience.

Finally, it simply feels rewarding to write this kind of long, impassioned literary criticism. It’s not academic scholarship (obviously), but it’s also not your typical lite journalistic fare–either the too-brief newspaper book reviews, or the reviews that use books to make undercooked socio-political observations rather than actually analyzing the writing on the table. The hope is that essays like these debate books at full volume while also recognizing the personal grain of the actual writer, book reviews birthed within a writer’s sole sensibility. Or to put this much more simply: bookish essays that are fun to read in and of themselves, in addition to the commentary they provide.

For excerpts of these essays, please visit here. It’s available for sale in these formats: ePub, MOBI, Amazon Kindle, and PDF. You can buy it directly from Scott’s website via PayPal, from B&N.com, or from Amazon.

(Now that this project is complete, my personal plan is to buy the book on my Kindle and then enable the text-to-speech feature and listen to my own sentences come back at me with that pauseless, speak-n-spell voice they have rigged up in that little machine–like bedtime reading conducted by the Terminator.)

From Updike to Baker to Wallace

Hello.

I am happy to report that my essay about the cross-pollinations between John Updike, Nicholson Baker, and David Foster Wallace is up at the Quarterly Conversation. It’s part of the newest fall issue, which also includes essays and reviews covering Stefan Zweig, David Shields, that new “alternative history of the novel” by Steven Moore, and, as Nabokov might say, much, much more.

In the essay I argue that Baker is a kind of stylistic midpoint between Updike and Wallace, and that all three writers can be understood as stylistic sequels to one another. Finishing up the essay got me thinking about writer-on-writer influence in general and stylistic overlap in particular. At the same time I was teaching some of Henry James’s stories, and it was while reading “The Jolly Corner”–that long, digressive, thickened, dark night of the self–that I thought of Wallace’s prose, especially the prose in Oblivion, his last story collection. Does Late James have something in common with Late Wallace? There’s a more substantive, quotation-filled post there. But, as Hemingway might say, I’ll fish that swamp tomorrow.