Tuesday, May 3, 2011


First novels tend to be derivative, autobiographical, or both. Styron's Lie Down in Darkness, Joyce's Portrait, Mailer's The Naked and the Dead excellently exemplify each of the three tendencies. The Poorhouse Fair, John Updike's first novel--a novella, really--is an exception to this rule. This young man's novel about old people, this Harvard grad's tale of the impoverished, also rather remarkably avoids social realist cliche, but it does so by indulging quite a bit of Cold War-era anti-socialist cant. Updike mocks the kitsch of Fifties America--popular culture, bureaucratic efficiency, commodified nostalgia--while seeming blind to the kitschiness of his own Christian-inflected anti-modern nostalgia. (If the novella doesn't collapse over this contradiction, it's only because there's just enough irony here to keep the cardhouse standing.) Set in a very thinly sketched near-future socialist America, The Poorhouse Fair is, politically, a kind of Updikeanly genteel Animal Farm with an all-human cast. There's even a scene--the book's most surprising--in which the poorhouse inmates revolt and literally stone their paternalistic warden. (This being an Updike novel, the stones are small, and he's not seriously hurt.) So this is a work of Updike the center-rightist, a sort of American Christian Democrat, a writer who has not yet morphed into that very American contradiction, the prurient puritan of his major novels (Couples, Rabbit is Rich, The Witches of Eastwick). The Poorhouse Fair is well-written (Updike was always Mr. Style) and formally innovative in its American context (importing into Fifties fiction the day-in-the-life time frame and floating point of view of Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses), but it's still a minor work, pale but promising.

The idea of mature Updike as a prurient puritan sets me thinking about the essential American-ness of this description. Prurient puritanism, or puritanical perversion, is the dialectical contradiction at the core of Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's recognition, in his interesting biography of Prof. Alfred Kinsey, that the United States is both the most puritanical and the most licentious society in the developed world. (The assertion is, of course, highly arguable. Japanese culture unites traditional conservatism and schoolgirl porn. German culture marries sado-masochistic pornography to the puritanism of Ratzinger... But let's indulge the idea for the length of this paragraph.) These two opposites coexist, as they must, because puritanism requires prurience, it mandates an obsessive, panoptical voyeurism directed toward the self and others--especially sexual selves and others. Puritanism and perversion feed off each other in an ultimate confusion of host and parasite. I'm tempted to say, 'You can't have one without the other,' but this ignores the fact that sexual variation exists outside the puritanical context. Puritanism is a cultural construct. Sex, powered by intertwined cultural and biological circuits, outlives its antagonists.

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