Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Few Contentious Thoughts about Updike (occasioned by a reading of COUPLES)

How to read Updike: pay close attention to the descriptive and expository passages (and the sex scenes, needless to say) and skim everything else. Updike's novels really come alive only when his characters look at things, ruminate or fuck; those are the moments when the creaky gears of his novelistic machinery shift into high and he takes off as a stylist. The rest of the time, Mr. U is content to cruise along in banality. Banal people saying banal things in banal places--such is the America Updike inexplicably claims to love.

My theory, for what it's worth, is that Updike is too Christian (which in American English usually means 'too conformist') to allow himself to seriously doubt any received opinion. It's as though sometime in his youth he read Flaubert's Dictionnaire des idees recues and took it as his textbook--or his Bible. The most obviously missing element in Updike's fiction is serious radical doubt, intellectually rigorous scepticism of the sort that makes Modernism modern. (And radical doubt is not the exclusive domain of atheists, as witness Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ (especially the 'terrible sonnets'); Thomas Stearns Eliot, COE; and Flannery O'Connor, BMC (bloody-minded Catholic). As far as that goes, witness Mr. Western Mind himself, Rene Descartes, doubting himself into a pretzel and begging God to unbend him.) In fact, with only a few exceptions (all theological), intellectual rigor of any kind is AWOL from Updike's oeuvre. Couples is not "an intellectual Peyton Place" (as one early reviewer called it) because there's nothing intellectual about the novel. Rather, it's an intellectually glib Peyton Place. Glibness is Updike's most irritating quality, masquerading (often successfully) as magisterial effortlessness. All in all, I consider him a highly-talented fraud (which is not necessarily a bad thing for an artist to be; it's greatly preferable to being a minimally talented one), a pasty pasticheur, a jejune intellectual impostor, and perhaps our foremost striving bourgeois gentrifier of Modernism. He is a writer whose depths are always disappointingly shallow. Reading him is like leaping into a swimming pool and feeling your butt slam against the bottom while your head is still in the air. Despite all that, he remains a highly talented prose artist, a great describer who unfortunately didn't build novels very well. (A comparison with William H. Gass is begging to be born here.) Often his style is like elaborate art nouveau ornamentation affixed to a clapboard shack, but the ornament is no less lovely for that.

Despite all of this--and perversely because of some of it--I will keep returning to Updike's novels for the rest of my life. He is nowhere near being an artist of Proustian talent or Joycean inventiveness or Nabokovian wit or Pynchonian daring, but he does sometimes unfurl sentences that give a lovely light.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Three American Books for Election Day

Having just cast my electorally crucial Ohio vote for Barack Obama (and yes, the Electoral College is an absurd 18th-century anachronism [like chinoiserie porcelain and powdered wigs] that should've been constitutionally amended out of existence long before the 2000 election--but that's another blogpost), I've decided to mark Election Day with my reactions to three major books about America:

I'll probably be expelled from the Temple of Highbrow for saying so, but Franzen's Freedom is not a bad novel. In fact, parts of it are pretty good. While by no means the "Great American Novel" its adherents wanted it to be, it's a thoroughly competent, often enjoyable work of standard contemporary American literary fiction. I suspect that the American litworld is so blinded by Franzen's blazing mediocrity, his overwhelming competence, that it has confused these qualities with genius. (Updike, whom Franzen hates, induced a similar blindness by more impressive means, using his lapidary prose to conceal a host of weaknesses.) Reading Freedom is like having mediocre sex: you enjoy it while it lasts, but afterward you can't become terribly excited about it in either a positive or a negative way. It also doesn't last long in memory (at least not for me). It's neither great enough nor awful enough to inspire passion. It's OK, a good enough novel, but certainly nothing to write a rave review about. Like The Corrections, Freedom is good enough to read once. That is all.

Gordon Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution, on the other hand, is a great, essential, provocative work of American history, one of the best books about America and Americans I've ever read. Arguing compellingly that the republican revolution that swept away the bonds of monarchical society could provide no social binding force of comparable power, and thus permitted the cash nexus of capitalism to rush into the vacuum, it's a deeply interesting, contentious, enlightening, challenging book, everything a great work of academic history should be. I understand that Newt Gingrich praised this book upon publication, a fact that suggests Little Newtie didn't read it very closely and certainly skipped at least the last three pages, where Wood recounts the Founding Fathers' late-life hatred of the money-grubbing society their revolution had birthed. They would've really hated Donald Trump's America--and Mitt "corporations are people" Romney's too.

Take the time to read Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. An epic-length, comprehensive history of a period most Americans know too little about, it impressively covers events from the Battle of New Orleans through the Mexican War, with a damning portrait of Andrew Jackson, a deeply admiring one of John Quincy Adams, interesting accounts of the birth and short life of the Whigs, the political vicissitudes of John C. Calhoun, the Texas rebellion, the Indian wars, and much, much more than you'll be able to remember upon finishing the book. The whole is enjoyable and informative, but I do have two major complaints: Howe is insufficiently critical when writing about religion (especially a problem in his treatment of Mormonism, which is virtually devoid of critical thought); the author is also too naive in his distinction between historical narrative and argument; he seems not to appreciate that the former is always, at least implicitly, the latter. Every story about the past is also an argument about the past, every act of narration has an agenda, is ideologically situated. There is no such thing as a neutral ground of narration. When in his closing pages Howe tells us that "[t]his book tells a story; it does not argue a thesis," the reader's response should be to read Howe's book in search of the unacknowledged thesis (or theses) his story implicitly argues.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Draft of Two Proposed Amendments to the Constitution of the United States

The second of these should have been adopted in the wake of the 2000 electoral debacle; the first is necessitated by the brazen, scandalous strategies of vote suppression currently engaged in by Republican state officials across the country (see especially, the actions of the Scott administration in Florida and the Kasich administration in Ohio).

AMENDMENT XXVIII. Neither Congress nor any state legislature shall make any law, nor shall the President of the United States nor the Governor nor the Secretary of State of any state or territory sign any order, hindering the free and convenient exercise of a citizen's right to vote.

AMENDMENT XXIX. The Electoral College of the United States is hereby abolished, effective immediately. Henceforth, the election of the President and Vice-President of the United States will be determined by a summation of the popular vote totals of each state as certified by the Secretary of State of each state.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Who the Hell is Hattie Jackson? (A Political Question)

Because I live in Ohio, I've been subjected to countless political robocalls over the past month, and I've noticed that sometimes the caller ID reads "Hattie Jackson" when the call is actually a recorded message from the RNC. The Republicans are apparently attempting to disguise themselves to trick people into answering their phones, but why did they choose the alias "Hattie Jackson," a name that sounds like a white guy's version of an African-American senior citizen's name, a cross between Hattie McDaniel and Jesse Jackson? Is this a typically lame attempt by Republicans to target their telephonic propaganda to African-Americans? Why is Reince Priebus disguising himself as an elderly black woman?