Ahh, Updike. He’s the closest thing I’ve got to a favorite living writer, and yet I didn’t bother to read his previous novel Terrorist and I’m not interested in his newest, the sequel Widows of Eastwick. I also don’t care for his so-called “masterpiece”, the Rabbit books, where he places his authorial voice into the body of a furtive and unexceptional suburban car salesman, nor the Bech books, where he parodies Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Joseph Heller by impersonating a famous Jewish-American novelist. John Updike is at his best when he puts the trickery aside and allows his intellect to soar, and his best books are the ones that explore the soul of a well-educated, oversexed WASP male: Couples, Marry Me, the Maples stories collected in Too Far To Go, Of The Farm, Roger’s Version, even Memories of the Ford Administration. When he writes as Rabbit, he hides his light under a bushel. When he tries to find the voice of an Arab student, a neglected ex-wife, a rootless Jew or a Brazilian stud, well, let’s just say that when John Updike is having the most fun, his readers are not.
But The Widows of Eastwick gets cushy spa treatment on the cover of today’s New York Times Book Review, and the critic is NYTBR chief Sam Tanenhaus himself. It’s a dreadfully bad piece, unctuous and overstated:
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 completeness of its actual being.
This isn’t writing. It is magic.
“Magic” is meant both figuratively and literally here. Tanenhaus constructs the piece around the idea that John Updike is Daryll Van Horne, the wicked sorceror of the “Eastwick” books, and he mines the oeuvre for other examples:
The first proto-witch in Updike’s fiction reared her fetching head in “Snowing in Greenwich Village,” published in The New Yorker in January 1956, when Updike was 23, a prodigy just out of Harvard. Slight but piquant, more sketch than finished work, this story introduced the Maples, Richard and Joan, newlyweds whose married life Updike has since revisited many times, steering them through child-raising, estrangements and finally divorce. In their first appearance, the young couple, awkwardly ensconced in an apartment on West 13th Street, are shy hosts to an attractive friend who amuses them with sardonic anecdotes, including one about a recent date (“‘the kind of guy who, when we get out of a taxi and there’s a grate giving out steam, crouches down’ — Rebecca lowered her head and lifted her arms — ‘and pretends he’s the Devil'”).
Updike as sorcerer, the demonic wizard of contemporary literature? This is far, far too small a peg to hang a New York Times Book Review feature piece on. The idea of Updike as sorceror comes from nowhere and mingles badly with the overall sensibility of the author’s career. The article is titled “Mr. Wizard” and the cover illustration is an early photograph of the then-young and bespectacled novelist resembling Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter. The comparison doesn’t let up:
At 76, he still wrings more from a sentence than almost anyone else. His sorcery is startlingly fresh, page upon page.
What gave Sam Tanenhaus the idea that he needed to construct such a high concept in order to review this work? Telling us about the book would have been enough. Does a photo of young Updike resembling Harry Potter really help us understand the work in any way? It’s a superficial likeness.
Let’s let David Kirby show us how to deliver praise without strain or artifice. His appreciation of poet Brenda Shaugnessy’s Human Dark With Sugar opens with an eccentric observation that tells us immediately what makes his subject different:
About three pages into this book, I remembered a joke: “Knock-knock!” “Who’s there?” “Control Freak — now you say, ‘Control Freak who?'” Brenda Shaughnessy’s poems bristle with imperatives: confuse me, spoon-feed me, stop the madness, decide. There are more direct orders in her first few pages than in six weeks of boot camp.
Kirby, himself a popular poet known for a talkative voice, defends Shaughnessy’s unique approach, just in case anybody has a problem with it:
Only Shaughnessy’s kidding. Or she is and she isn’t. If you just want to boss people around, you’re a control freak, but if you can joke about it, then your bossiness is leavened by a yeast that’s all too infrequent in contemporary poetry, that of humor. A wisecrack here and there can give life to a deadly serious agenda; a little wit adds dimension to a topic limited by its own darkness. And there isn’t a single poem in “Human Dark With Sugar” that isn’t funny.
Actually, all you sobersides out there can be that way, if you want; Shaughnessy has enough spritzy, brainy humor to spike the thin milk of your musings and give them body.
I’m not familiar with Brenda Shaughnessy’s work, but by the middle of the short piece I already feel like I understand something about her. Quirky humor aside, Kirby is not afraid to get into the thick of it, as he searches out the poet’s intent:
… she ups the stakes in the last four lines, where she says, in effect, that what we’d all really like to do is destroy ourselves and put a new person in our place who happens to be just like us. This idea of the divided self is not a new one, but Shaughnessy shows there’s life in the old story yet.
Compare and contrast: two rave reviews, one that works and one that doesn’t.
Somebody’s gotta deliver some bad news in this Book Review, and today it’s Erica Wagner, who expertly dismantles Diane Johnson’s Lulu in Marrakesh for various offenses against fiction and believability. It’s a funny piece. I wasn’t likely to read this book in the first place, but if I had planned to, this review might change my mind. Like David Kirby, she has an unusual opener:
There are some names you can’t ignore. When you find them attached to a particular fictional character, you can’t assume that blind coincidence prompted the writer’s choice. Call your girl-heroine Jane and there may be echoes of Jane Eyre, but the association is not forced on you. And a Cathy does not need to meet a Heathcliff. But the name Lulu? Lulu is a different story. Lulu has a pedigree.
Finally, the best thing I’ve read in the New York Times this past week is right here. Well said, you East Coast socialist liberals. We agree on something.