OK. This is getting intense. Everyone in this house has become a political junkie of the worst kind. We start off the morning with a full perusal of the New York Times and the Boston Globe. Then after a day’s worth of work that gets punctuated with periodic flyovers of no less than 14 political websites, we keep the flow of this steady drip going with our favorite TV talking head, the smart, sassy and liberally reassuring Rachel Maddow, topped off with that last hour of deftly sardonic humor by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I’m teetering so far forward I’m off my heels with hyperventilated hope. Yet November 4th feels like it will never come, that this 8 year nightmare will never sputter out and we’ll spin in its madness forever. There’s more residue of resentment and anger in me than I’d like to admit.
So here’s a palliative that has helped quiet my inner madness. A review of John Updike’s latest novel in New York Times, The Widows of Eastwick, thankfully distracted my imagination and my thoughts.
I’m not as worshipful as Sam Tanenhaus, but damn it, Updike IS good. His subject matter often becomes a tad annoying for me—enough with the endless tales of adultery and betrayal, John—but there are many visual artists who apply a spectacularly gifted hand to subject matter that isn’t as compelling as their aesthetic gifts. So I have had to learn to compartmentalize. Besides, Updike is now 76 and he hasn’t lost his groove. As Tanenhaus says in his review, “he still wrings more from a sentence than almost anyone else. His sorcery is startlingly fresh, page upon page.” Defying the cultural bias that assumes that creative output is the domain of the very young is a big theme for me as many of my readers of this blog know.
Here’s an excerpt from the review:
John Updike is the great genial sorcerer of American letters. His output alone (60 books, almost 40 of them novels or story collections) has been supernatural. More wizardly still is the ingenuity of his prose. He has now written tens of thousands of sentences, many of them tiny miracles of transubstantiation whereby some hitherto overlooked datum of the human or natural world — from the anatomical to the zoological, the socio-economic to the spiritual — emerges, as if for the first time, in the complete ness of its actual being.
This isn’t writing. It is magic. And it’s not surprising that the author who practices it should be drawn repeatedly to the other, darker kind, though it is often masked in droll comedy. In the 1960s, surveying the field in the literary rat race, Updike put a hex, collectively, on the Jewish novelists (Bellow, Mailer, Malamud, Roth) then looming as his chief competition. He invented a wickedly funny composite parody, Henry Bech, whom he entraps in a web of debilitating spells, from hydrophobia to sleep-anxiety. At one point Bech squanders the best part of a work morning on the toilet, “leafing sadly through Commentary and Encounter,” journals not often hospitable to Updike’s own fiction. Lest we, or his rivals, miss the drift, Updike afflicts Bech with the cruelest curse of all, writer’s block, which leaves him unable to begin, much less finish, his next novel. “Am I blocked? I’d just thought of myself as a slow typist,” Bech weakly jokes to Bea, his current emasculating Gentile mistress, who has supplanted her even more emasculating sister in Bech’s bed. “What do you do,” Bea sneers in reply, “hit the space bar once a day?”…
The genius inheres in the precise observation, in the equally precise language, but above all in the illusion that the image has been received and processed in real time, when in truth Updike has slowed events to a dreamlike pace and given them a dream’s hyperreality, so that the distinction between the actual and the imagined feels erased. “My first books met the criticism that I wrote all too well but had nothing to say,” he once ruefully noted. “My own style seemed to me a groping and elemental attempt to approximate the complexity of envisioned phenomena, and it surprised me to have it called luxuriant and self-indulgent; self-indulgent, surely, is exactly what it wasn’t —other- indulgent, rather.”
That other, he asserted, added up to nothing less than “the whole mass of middling, hidden, troubled America.” No writer of our time has reached into it so deeply or conjured so many of its mysteries so pulsingly to life.
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