From shocking to tame in a generation: Roth and Updike

Claudia Roth Pierpont’s “The Book of Laughter: Philip Roth and his friends” is unfortunately hidden behind a paywall, but one section stood out to me: she writes that Philip Roth and John Updike met around 1959, when both were getting their first publishing successes, and, “A decade later, they profitably scandalized the country with ‘Couples’ (1968) and ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ (1969).” Times change: I saw them not as scandalous but as slightly tedious in their obsession with the transgressions of their era. Is the three-way in Portnoy really so shocking?

I thought not. In the context of the novel I understand the Monkey’s fuss, which is primarily a play for power over Portnoy, and one that she sort of wins because he lets her, or doesn’t know any better (the Monkey: “What do I care what happens to her? . . . She’s the whore! And all you really wanted to do was to fuck her! You couldn’t even wait until I was out of the john to do it!”, and then the Monkey threatens to leave. I heard lots of conversations like this in college, when melodrama ran high). Portnoy does have the sense to start disentangling himself: “Then in Athens she threatens to jump from the balcony unless I marry her. So I leave.”

In Portnoy, however, the voice persists even though what seems to have been a shocking scandal has gone away. In Couples I found it merely hard to care about who sleeps with who and why. There were numerous beautiful sentences put to little good use. Updike makes me want to write better sentences but also to construct more interesting plots. I lack his and his characters’s religious sense, which often makes me feel like he’s writing about a foreign culture. Battles over religious feelings are like battles over Communism: important in their day but long-since decided.

Life: Existence edition

“Perhaps there are two kinds of people: those for whom nothingness is no problem, and those for whom it is an insuperable problem, an outrageous cancellation rendering every other concern, from mismatching socks to nuclear holocaust, negligible.”

—John Updike, Self-Consciousness

(By the way: I am closer to the first kind of person, although I started off as the second. I don’t think this kind of temperament is permanent.)

Bech on writers and publishers

When I think of the matings, the moaning, jubilant fornications between between ectomorphic oversexed junior editors and svelte hot-from-Wellesley majored-in-English-minored-in-philosophy female coffee-fetchers and receptionists that have been engineered with the lever of some of my poor scratched-up and pasted-over pages (they arrive in the editorial offices as stiff with Elmer’s glue as a masturbator’s bedsheet; the office boys use them for tea-trays), I could mutilate myself like sainted Origen, I could keen like Jeremiah. Thank Jahweh these bordellos in the sky can soon dispense with the excuse of us entirely; already the contents of a book count as little as the contents of a breakfast cereal box. It is all a mater of the premium, and the shelf site, and the amount of air between the corn flakes.

That’s Henry Bech by way of John Updike, Bech being Updike’s Jewish, childless alter ego, who wrote one major book (Travel Light) and is the responsible party for a number of others, or so I’m told. He can also turn it on when he needs to—the writing thing, I mean, mostly—and is maybe too self-aware, given his propensity for analogizing writing to sex and sometimes vice-versa.

And he has a taste for obscure, at least to me, allusion. Wikipedia on Origen: “Origen, or Origen Adamantius, 184/5–253/4, was an early Christian Alexandrian scholar and theologian, and one of the most distinguished writers of the early Church.”

Wikipedia on “svelte hot-from-Wellesley majored-in-English-minored-in-philosophy female coffee-fetchers:” “The page “Svelte hot-from-Wellesley majored-in-English-minored-in-philosophy female coffee-fetchers” does not exist. You can ask for it to be created, but consider checking the search results below to see whether the topic is already covered.”

Also, I realize that it’s customary for writers to be cranky on their status as cultural figures; publishers would no doubt like to “dispense with the excuse of us entirely,” but, alas, without books those “oversexed junior editors” and Wellesley grads wouldn’t be employed; it’s hard to imagine them on Wall Street, easier to imagine them unemployed and occupying Wall Street, which is probably even worse paid than publishing. And books endure to the extent a society needs them to endure; what strikes me most about a lot of the older novels I read is that their concerns seem like solved problems. Religion, at least as practiced by most people, seems more about conveying status than it does about the supernatural. Sexual strictures that once bound society have disappeared or shifted, leaving novelists without an obvious source of plot tension and the patina of age on many older novelists who used that as the primary driver of their plots.

Given what’s happened to many—but not all—older writers as a source of cultural authority and importance, and how few people read many of them outside of classrooms, we can easily start to understand how worried Bech is about his life’s work being as important as “the contents of a breakfast cereal box.” He’s tongue-in-cheek, but only halfway. In the age of the “Twilight of the Books,” it’s hard to be a word-slinger of the book variety, especially when so many garrulous bloggers like yours truly are willing to give it away for free.

And people aren’t that inclined to pay for what they can get for free. They also might not value it as much, making high culture-types unhappy about their perceived or actual relevance, which gives us a nice space for mocking and upholding their concerns about relevance at once. Enter Bech, in the fallen age of the novel—though the novel always seems to be dying, but readers don’t seem to have been informed. They keep gathering up words like so many corn flakes, and writers keep the factories running.

U and I: A True Story — Nicholson Baker

U and IThere’s something weirdly winsome about U and I, but it’s definitely an acquired taste; much as you wouldn’t recommend a friend who’d never eaten fish start off by trying raw eel, I wouldn’t recommend a friend read U and I unless I already knew they were a) quirky, b) at least moderately well-read and c) interested in the process of writing. U and I is like—I keep resorting to similes because, really, I don’t know what else to do—the best written, longest blog post you’ve ever read.

It’s a meditation on memory that shouldn’t be taken too seriously (sample: Nabokov “detailed his three-by-five method of fictional composition so comprehensively that Gore Vidal said in some essay that he was sick of hearing about it”). And Baker has a sense of the absurd, which I find absurd and love; he gets academia too well: “I count myself fortunate in being able to extract all the pretend-scholarly pleasure I want out of my method without urging it on anyone else.” Actual scholars appear to get real pleasure by inflicting their method on others. “Urging” is too light a word for the things I’ve seen. Baker is very polite to use “urging,” and he’s polite in general, for all his opinions.

If he’s retained that politeness, House of Holes ought to be a rather unusual book given its reputedly pornographic and hallucinatory premise (a copy is sitting on my table, waiting for me to get around to it, while I slog through The Condition of Postmodernity—which is a definitive infliction of an academic system and the kind of book that ought to be paired with Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius so that one will at least come out the other side knowing where many problems in the first book lie. Sorry for the preceding paragraph. U and I makes me more digressive than usual. If you read it, you’ll understand. It’s an acquired taste, as I said, one that sometimes needs a bit more sugar and olive oil, but one I rather liked, though I can’t recommend it except to book obsessives, writers, bibliophiles, or the people foolish enough to want to understand them. Which probably covers a fair number of readers of this blog, but still. The warning is part of being polite.

He must not be an academic at heart: academics love to apply their theories to others, with as much intellectual violence as necessary to make it stick. It turns out that Baker hadn’t read all of Updike’s books, and, with many of them, he’d only read parts, which he doesn’t remember entirely. In fact, the book isn’t really about Updike all that much at all: it’s more about artistic neuroses, learning how to write, and playing with that fickle memory beast. For example: “Once you decide on a profession, you riffle back through your past to find early random indications of a learning toward your chosen interest and you nurture them into a false prominence: so it was naturally very important to me, as a writer on the make, to have this sixth-grade vocabularistic memory in its complete form.” Baker wants us to know that we create a narrative of success and set up retrospective wayposts that make success seem foreordained, when it probably isn’t. Even the less successful among us might think so: I remember my parents being astonished that I was going to major in English. They told me they expected business or econ. Now I better understand why. But in the long run, I’m not sure it matters. There were other possibilities one could’ve guessed based on my past. But I picked one and rolled with it. This is an example of me trying not to do intellectual violence to an idea: instead of saying, “Everyone works this way!” I posit some possibilities and move on from there.

Baker mentions “early Updike, whose boy-heroes are sometimes more sensitive and queasier-stomached than one wants them to be.” But he doesn’t go on to explain. He doesn’t really explain anything. He leaves the explaining to the reader; you get what he’s doing, or you don’t. In this respect, he’s the least academic of all: instead of wanting to elaborate us to death, he wants to let us be. I know what he means about boy-heroes; sometimes you want a giant animal to attack Rabbit and see what he’s made of, or for aliens to invade in Couples, offering Piet an opportunity to do something more than carpentry and cuckoldry. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, precisely, but, well, you hope for a bit more at times. Baker also gives good sentence, but they are often long sentences, like this one:

[. . .] many of the novels that I’ve liked lately (The Beautiful Room is Empty, The Swimming-Pool Library, A Single Man) have been so directly premised on gaiety: you feel their creators’ exultation at having so much that wasn’t sayable finally available for analysis, and you feel that the sudden unrestrained scope given to the truth-telling urge in the Eastern homosphere has lent energy and accuracy to these artists’ nonsexual observations as well [. . .]

Notice the ellipses on either end. Notice too Baker’s use of the funny word “homosphere” with the funnier adjective “Eastern.” Is there a “Western” homosphere? If so, how is it different? More tans, fewer references to ascots? And what is an ascot anyway? I’ve never known it save for the butt of a joke, and the word “butt” should be funny here in the context of the “homosphere.” Kind of, anyway. Like I was saying—Baker does go on. But that’s the pleasure in him. With him. Through him. Whatever. Still, this is enough quote for now.

No, actually, I change my mind. Writing about Updike’s book Of the Farm, Baker says that “A photographer would not so directly use his professional equipment in the metaphors he applied to his immediate surroundings—he would use it sometimes, but not in the first paragraph of the story he told. Film and f-stops are huge real presences to him, and can’t be so easily manipulated as tokens of comparison.” Not necessarily. Consider all the writers who use book and writing metaphors; I think our profession does get into our minds deeply enough that we might reach to professions for our first metaphors. Paul Graham’s writing is full of metaphors involved software and computers. That’s part of what makes it so rich.

It bugs me when I read books about doctors or lawyers or hookers or whatever and find characters who don’t think in the world in terms of their profession. I mean, a hooker probably doesn’t need to see every interaction as like something with a John, and a lawyer doesn’t need to view every interaction as adversarial or use terms like “estoppel” on every page, but once in a while, you know, it’d be nice. It’d work. I haven’t read Of the Farm, however, so I can’t comment on it. The problem with being a reader is that you’ll never have enough time to read everything you should. So you rely on memory, that uncertain beast, more than you should, and you end up be a scholarly pedant or a scatterbrained essayist. A false binary, but roll with it. On average, the latter seem funnier, and, in my own view, when in doubt, go funny.

For all U and I’s weirdness, I’m keeping the book instead of giving it away or reselling it. Maybe in a couple years it’ll say something new to me. I only worry that, instead of seeing it as weird, I’ll see it as normal.

John Updike's "Lifeguard"

John Updike’s “Lifeguard” is too deep a story to be so clever and too clever to be so deep. In it, an unnamed lifeguard and theology student beautifully conflates his two worlds, living in one nine months of the year and the other for that last quarter around the sun, to paraphrase the narrator. In sitting on the chair, he surveys the beach as one might imagine God surveying the Earth, with the power to save lives. The distance of the guard from his patrons and the slightly patronizing air he must assume to protect them from themselves is in part the image of God in the lifeguard, raised up and looking down, just as the narrator’s perspective takes on the heady quality of one above the fray. Maybe he just hasn’t joined it: “Someday my alertness will bear fruit; from near the horizon there will arise, delicious, translucent, like a green bell above the water, the call for help, the call, a call, it saddens me to confess, that I have yet to hear.”

Is there any point in summarizing the short story? It’s five pages, and in explicating its beauty I destroy it, like stepping on the flower I mean to pick. “Lifeguard” might answer that “Swimming offers a parable. We struggle and thrash, and drown; we succumb, even in despair, and float, and are saved.” We thrash to describe what we experience, too, and like the student, we’re lost in metaphoric clouds, and yet aware:

You are offended that a divinity student lusts? What prigs the unchurched are! Are not our assaults on the supernatural lascivious, a kind of indecency? If only you knew what de Sadian degradations, what frightful psychological spelunking, our gentle transcendentalist professors set us to, as preparation for our work, which is to shine in darkness.

I feel that my lust makes me glow; I grow cold in my chair, like a torch of ice, as I study beauty. I have studied much of it, wearing all styles of bathing suit and facial expression, and have come to this conclusion:

But to read the conclusion, you’ll have to read the story. It’s not a conclusion that, I suspect, many are likely to agree with, but it’s oddly appropriate, like a recipe mixing cocoa and chili that nonetheless works. And notice the little binaries and paradoxes Updike sets: the lust in the student of God, the “torch of ice,” the shining in darkness not thanks to goodness, but thanks to that lust. Updike would probably chastise me for confusing divinity and theology students, if there is some difference between the two I’m unaware of it. But I am aware of how astonishing this story is, even to me, the person who usually doesn’t like short stories because they end just as I’m finally getting into them.

In another, the eponymous lifeguard thinks that “I wake at odd hours and in the shuddering darkness and silence and feel my death rushing toward me like an express train” It shows a bit of the Northeastern character of the story, since California, Arizona, or Florida, the first two being places I’ve lived, wouldn’t have express trains—they’d have cars, and you’d be crushed by an SUV rather than an express train. “Lifeguard,” published in 1961, came to me by way of the New Yorker’s “Picked-Up Pieces: Moments from a half century of Updike.” In 2006, “My Father’s Tears” was published, and it included this paragraph:

We did not foresee, that moment on the platform as the signal bells a half mile down the tracks warned of my train’s approach, that within a decade passenger service to Philadelphia would stop, and that eventually the station, like stations all across the East, would be padlocked and boarded up. It stood on its empty acre of asphalt parking space like an oversized mausoleum. All the life it had once contained was sealed into silence, and for most of the rest of the century it ignominiously waited, in this city where progress was slow, to be razed.

Perhaps Updike was aware of the anachronistic train metaphor when he used it. Or perhaps he wanted us to place “Lifeguard” in an earlier era, one where religion was more likely to be taken seriously by serious people instead of being usurped by the unbelievers like me or the foolish Sarah Palins of the world. Or Updike recalled his own youth in “Lifeguard,” standing with his father on the soon-to-be-closed platform. Regardless of its temporal meaning, that sentence—“I wake at odd hours and in the shuddering darkness and silence and feel my death rushing toward me like an express train”—could so easily be a cliche, and yet in the context it’s not. “Lifeguard” is a short story that makes me suddenly appreciate the short story and perceive the potential of the form, and it makes me want to read more short stories and more Updike in the search for other works as profound and clever. I’ve not read much Updike—friends keep recommending the Rabbit novels and The Witches of Eastwick, which I keep delaying for no articulated reason beyond the lengthening of my “to read” pile, which grows faster than the time in which those books are to be read. Updike, however, might now have taken a shortcut to the top.

John Updike’s “Lifeguard”

John Updike’s “Lifeguard” is too deep a story to be so clever and too clever to be so deep. In it, an unnamed lifeguard and theology student beautifully conflates his two worlds, living in one nine months of the year and the other for that last quarter around the sun, to paraphrase the narrator. In sitting on the chair, he surveys the beach as one might imagine God surveying the Earth, with the power to save lives. The distance of the guard from his patrons and the slightly patronizing air he must assume to protect them from themselves is in part the image of God in the lifeguard, raised up and looking down, just as the narrator’s perspective takes on the heady quality of one above the fray. Maybe he just hasn’t joined it: “Someday my alertness will bear fruit; from near the horizon there will arise, delicious, translucent, like a green bell above the water, the call for help, the call, a call, it saddens me to confess, that I have yet to hear.”

Is there any point in summarizing the short story? It’s five pages, and in explicating its beauty I destroy it, like stepping on the flower I mean to pick. “Lifeguard” might answer that “Swimming offers a parable. We struggle and thrash, and drown; we succumb, even in despair, and float, and are saved.” We thrash to describe what we experience, too, and like the student, we’re lost in metaphoric clouds, and yet aware:

You are offended that a divinity student lusts? What prigs the unchurched are! Are not our assaults on the supernatural lascivious, a kind of indecency? If only you knew what de Sadian degradations, what frightful psychological spelunking, our gentle transcendentalist professors set us to, as preparation for our work, which is to shine in darkness.

I feel that my lust makes me glow; I grow cold in my chair, like a torch of ice, as I study beauty. I have studied much of it, wearing all styles of bathing suit and facial expression, and have come to this conclusion:

But to read the conclusion, you’ll have to read the story. It’s not a conclusion that, I suspect, many are likely to agree with, but it’s oddly appropriate, like a recipe mixing cocoa and chili that nonetheless works. And notice the little binaries and paradoxes Updike sets: the lust in the student of God, the “torch of ice,” the shining in darkness not thanks to goodness, but thanks to that lust. Updike would probably chastise me for confusing divinity and theology students, if there is some difference between the two I’m unaware of it. But I am aware of how astonishing this story is, even to me, the person who usually doesn’t like short stories because they end just as I’m finally getting into them.

In another, the eponymous lifeguard thinks that “I wake at odd hours and in the shuddering darkness and silence and feel my death rushing toward me like an express train” It shows a bit of the Northeastern character of the story, since California, Arizona, or Florida, the first two being places I’ve lived, wouldn’t have express trains—they’d have cars, and you’d be crushed by an SUV rather than an express train. “Lifeguard,” published in 1961, came to me by way of the New Yorker’s “Picked-Up Pieces: Moments from a half century of Updike.” In 2006, “My Father’s Tears” was published, and it included this paragraph:

We did not foresee, that moment on the platform as the signal bells a half mile down the tracks warned of my train’s approach, that within a decade passenger service to Philadelphia would stop, and that eventually the station, like stations all across the East, would be padlocked and boarded up. It stood on its empty acre of asphalt parking space like an oversized mausoleum. All the life it had once contained was sealed into silence, and for most of the rest of the century it ignominiously waited, in this city where progress was slow, to be razed.

Perhaps Updike was aware of the anachronistic train metaphor when he used it. Or perhaps he wanted us to place “Lifeguard” in an earlier era, one where religion was more likely to be taken seriously by serious people instead of being usurped by the unbelievers like me or the foolish Sarah Palins of the world. Or Updike recalled his own youth in “Lifeguard,” standing with his father on the soon-to-be-closed platform. Regardless of its temporal meaning, that sentence—“I wake at odd hours and in the shuddering darkness and silence and feel my death rushing toward me like an express train”—could so easily be a cliche, and yet in the context it’s not. “Lifeguard” is a short story that makes me suddenly appreciate the short story and perceive the potential of the form, and it makes me want to read more short stories and more Updike in the search for other works as profound and clever. I’ve not read much Updike—friends keep recommending the Rabbit novels and The Witches of Eastwick, which I keep delaying for no articulated reason beyond the lengthening of my “to read” pile, which grows faster than the time in which those books are to be read. Updike, however, might now have taken a shortcut to the top.

%d bloggers like this: