Category Archives: Fiction

The Children of Babbitt

A hundred years ago – OK, 89, I rounded it off, so sue me – Sinclair Lewis wrote a novel called Babbitt, the first ever about what our wanna-be-aristocrat upper middle class was really like. It was a hugely successful book, not least because it skewered a smug, self-satisfied, arrogant section of our society that even in 1922 was hated and feared by normal folk for its corruption and thievery. And rightfully so, since these bozos were mainly the ones who created the financial mess that would eventually melt down and give us the Great Depression. Continue reading

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Updike’s Ghost

updikeIt was something of a surprise to read last night of John Updike’s death on Tuesday. Updike was a mere 76, practically a youngster these days, and I’d heard no rumors that he was sick. He was though, with cancer. Thirty years ago my high school English teacher (a huge fan of Updike’s, he fought the rural-minded, easily-shocked local school board to let him teach Updike in his advanced class – and won) said that Updike would never really die because he was the type whose ghost would be an unrelenting nag.

That was uncharitable and probably not true. From what I’ve heard (living in Massachusetts, you hear about Updike all the time, it’s in the air, like carbon from outdoor barbecues in the South), he was a charming, funny man, and from what I’ve read he seems to have had an almost comic eye for silliness and the small, savory defeats that make up our smaller, less savory days.

Wherein lies the problem, of course. Updike was a maddening writer. A real wordsmith, it often didn’t seem to matter to him what he was writing about, only that he was writing. “I would write ads for deodorants or labels for catsup bottles, if I had to,” he told The Paris Review in 1967, and it too often seemed that that was precisely what he was doing. His poetry in particular (but his prose was infected with it, too) suffered (imo, of course) from a focus on matters so inconsequential that it was almost as if Updike was challenging himself to find a way to take meaningless trivia and make it sound as if it were of lasting and even global significance. Needless to say, he failed. Odes to storm windows notwithstanding, banality is banality no matter how much you weigh it down with pretty words.

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Tess in the Modern World

At the end of the 19th century when Thomas Hardy was writing novels (Tess of the D’Urbervilles was published in 1891), the Industrial Revolution was already beginning to change milleniums of settled routine, impacting society and culture in ways no one had predicted. Most people were, as usual, slow to catch on but the artists of the turn into the 20th century were struck by the changes as if by a bolt of unwelcome lightning.

In the 18th century, the Age of Reason had already demoted Christianity and other primitive religions to the status of crackpot cults and deified the Mind. Now, with the Industrial Revolution disconnecting humanity from the ancient rhythms of rural life, there came a fervent response to the emotionless rationalists, a worship of “the natural” as opposed to the man-made. Led by Rousseau’s rather silly elevation of the “savage” into a primordial, essential human value, the Naturalists praised the artlessness and honesty of Nature untampered by human hands or social conventions. In its purity, they said, it is a reflection of God Himself and cannot be improved upon.

In retrospect they, too, were silly and terribly naive but they had hold of a genuine and important truth nevertheless – that, contrary to the teachings of Christianity as they’d been dogmatically defined for centuries, the human body was neither sinful nor “dirty” and shouldn’t be suppressed and strenuously restricted but rather loosed from its ludicrous theocratic bonds to be the joyous nexus of life that God had always meant it to be.

Naturally (pun intended) this included sex.

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The Tinny Drum

I recently tried to read what is considered to be one of the classics of modern European fiction, Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum. Originally published over 40 years ago, Grass’ novel is beautifully written, full of insight and wit, and thoroughly unreadable. I first tried to get through it as a senior in high school and managed a couple of hundred pages before I gave up in bewilderment. Now, 40-odd years later, I managed nearly twice that before giving up in frustration.

The Tin Drum‘s primary problem is the near-total unpleasantness and impenetrability of its narrator, a 3-ft dwarf named Oskar who claims to have dedicated himself to the beauties of drumming on a hunk of enameled tin mere minutes after leaving the birth canal. He also insists that at the age of 3 he decided he didn’t like the adult world and promptly forced himself to stop growing so that he could remain a 3-yr-old forever.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Oskar is currently living in a mental institution.

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Re-Evaluating An American Tragedy

Critic Irving Howe observed that “Theodore Dreiser has dropped out of the awareness of cultivated Americans” and he was probably right. Dreiser’s turgid prose is well out of fashion, the cognoscenti having gravitated to the cleaner, simpler Hemingway model, and his social concerns have become – or so we would like to believe – irrelevant since the upheavals of the 60’s and the cultural changes since. In a sense you might say that Dreiser’s not on the reading lists because his side won the battle, one of the ironies of being a writer critical of your society and culture tied to the particular time in which you live.

As understandable as the movement away from him might be in the light of late 20th century realities, Dreiser’s real concerns are in fact just as alive today as they were a hundred years ago. Some of the peripherals may have been eliminated but the heart of Dreiser’s critique of American society and the kind of character flaws on which he concentrated are still very much with us. If anything, the kind of characteristics that make Clyde Griffiths, the protagonist of Dreiser’s masterpiece, An American Tragedy, recognizable are even more prevalent today than they were then. Howe again:

In Dreiser’s…novels most of the central characters are harried by a desire for personal affirmation, a desire they can neither articulate nor suppress. They suffer from a need that their lives assume the dignity of dramatic form, and they suffer terribly, not so much because they cannot satisfy this need, but because they do not really understand it.

 We still don’t. Media and entertainment critic Neal Gabler, author of Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Realityexamines the modern descendant and concludes:

It is not any “ism” but entertainment that is arguably the most pervasive, powerful, and ineluctable force of our time–a force so overwhelming that it has finally metastasized into life.

 

In Dreiser’s day Americans had been taught – and believed – that their lives should have the drama of theater and popular novels, that they should seek beautiful spouses and riches and fame. By 1925 when An American Tragedy was published, movies had taken that belief to the next level, a level not far from Gabel’s metastasizing. Back to Howe:

Money, worldly success, sensual gratification are the only ends they [Dreiser’s characters] know or can name, but none of these slakes their restlessness. They grapple desperately for money, lacerate themselves themselves climbing to success, yet they remain sullen and bewildered, always hopeful for some unexpected sign by which to release their bitter craving for a state of grace, or, at least, illumination.

Which is as good an explanation of the American religious renaissance of the last few decades as we’re likely to find. Even more cogently, it helps explain why American religious sects, particularly the evangelical and fundamentalist ones, are so often inextricably bound to “worldly success” – sanctity is often defined or proven by the amount of someone’s wealth. There are now megachurches preaching, essentially, that God wants you to make money, and that the more you make the more pleased he will be. It’s a peculiarly American conceit to equate the two, and Dreiser was among the first to identify and then dissect it. For obvious reasons he isn’t impressed, yet in An American Tragedy he gives Clyde, his Everyman, a poor, chaste background as the child of penniless and itinerant preachers, people who believe that doing God’s work is more important than making man’s money. Partly that’s because Chester Gillette, who is the model for Clyde, was raised that way and because Dreiser wants to contrast the easy, high living of the upstate New York rich with the low-down poverty of Clyde’s early years. There’s nothing like poverty to explain a passion for money. But mostly it’s because Dreiser wants to examine the locus in the American psyche of this need for sanctity and what Howe called “illumination”.

 Dreiser’s characters are romantics who behave as if the Absolute can be found, immaculately preserved, at the very summit of material power.

We still act that way, even more so. We seem to believe in an Manifest Destiny alright but it has less to do with ruling the world than with a sincere conviction that we can buy our way into Heaven if we just have enough gold. Only here has this complete reversal of nearly all religious theosophy taken deep root, so deep that there are whole sectors of the country where to question it is near blasphemous. As Dreiser foresaw, the symbolic richness of the American Dream has materialized into hard currency.

There are few, if any, American writers who understood the part our passion for money plays in Ameican lives the way Dreiser did. Sinclair Lewis perhaps comes closest but even he never really made the connection between wealth and religion that Dreiser nails to the wall, at least in part through the very outdated stylism that is the biggest criticism of his work.

There is something most critics – including Howe – miss about that style: it’s funny. In Book One, Dreiser uses the now-antiquated language of 19th century literature alright, but as much to make fun of it as because he has, as Howe puts it, “a weakness, all too common among the semieducated, for ‘elegant’ diction and antique rhetoric”. He uses it to establish a tone early on of irony and cutting satire as he describes the theology and pitfalls of Clyde’s early life. He is making fun of the Griffiths, has little use for their rigid piety and small minds. For instance, when describing the mission where Clyde and his family live he lists in their entirety the trite Biblical quotations Mrs Griffiths has chosen to adorn this grubby place : “O God, Thou knowest my foolishness, and my sins are not hid from thee. Psalms 69:5”. He dismisses them with a wave of his hand and a nearly audible raspberry.

 These mighty adjurations were as silver and gold plate in a wall of dross.

The irony builds toward a feeling in the reader of the foolishness of all these characters – as their God, s/he can’t be fooled either by their pitiful notions of a “full life” or their sanctimonius “purity of heart” when that heart hides petty jealousies and a pathetic need to be holier than their neighbors. He seems to have an equal disdain for the dull and the charismatic boob. Ordinary insensitivity to the life and beauty around them is a subject of scorn, but it’s a friendly scorn, as if he were saying, “I’ve been there, too friend. I was just as dumb in my day as you’re being now.” This tone ends abruptly with the accident that climaxes the end of the first book. After that, things start to get serious.

But even in the more solemn Book Two, Dreiser is using the florid language of his youth to build a world, modern, yes, but still tied to the era that preceded it by its stuffiness and its immovable class structure. Though the language and grammar are excessively formal throughout the second book, the very opacity of it creates a sort of poetry all its own, the way a terrible, destructive fire is nevertheless beautiful from a safe distance. Though it is a decptive distance – one seems protected from the more flamboyant descriptions at first but in the end, one is drawn into it against one’s will and Clyde’s tragedy becomes ours.

When I was growing up there was much talk about the so-called “Great American Novel” which every fiction writer supposedly burned to create and that Norman Mailer was supposed to be working on every day of his life. Not even Mailer could write a book encompassing as much of the core of American life and beliefs as Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. Its theme are our themes, its characters could come from nowhere else. It is us in almost all our glory, at least the whites. If An American Tragedy isn’t The Great American Novel, the only thing that could be is a work that combined it and Huck Finn. Until that is written, An American Tragedy is the closest we’re going to come.

John Updike and His “Rabbit”: Much Ado About Not Much

I have just finished – for the second time – John Updike’s classic novel (and the one that made him the literary lion he is today) Rabbit, Run. The first time I read it I was a sophomore in high school and, believe it or not, it had been assigned to the class by a young English teacher who apparently didn’t know you weren’t supposed to assign such books to sophomores. There was sex in it, and angst and boredom and adultury -and sex. He got away with it, too, because none of our parents knew what it was about much less what was in it.

At the time I was vitally impressed by the power and breadth of his language. I needed to read it with a thesaurus, a thick dictionary, and a college-level grammar book within easy reach. It was, I thought then, as close as anyone was ever going to get to a perfect blending of prose and poetry. The language and the story together were like grand opera, words and music threaded to the same theme. It almost didn’t matter what the damn thing was about. You read it like you listened to John Coltrane – not with your ears but with your heart, your soul, your “being”, whatever that was.

But now I am an official geezer with years behind me, some of them hard, all of them, as sometimes happens, at the center of the troubles. I have, in other words, learned a few things, and as it turns out Mr Updike suffers as ignorance wanes.

In my 30’s I read some of Updike’s poetry and found that it set my teeth on edge. His forte is making the mundane into the sacred, the everyday into the miraculous. Perhaps my taste for such things isn’t what it once was, but when he began comparing a suburban homeowner’s annual autumn trading of window screens for storm windows in preparation for winter with ancient rituals and the fundamental urge to outrun death, I thought he was going a little too far.

I can see now, reading Rabbit at my age, that Updike has always been about going too far. From the beginning of his career he has been using his verbal gifts to endow moderately interesting-to-downright annoying characters with sensitivities and insights  their counterparts in the real world could never have possessed in a million years.

Imagine, if you will, a high school basketball star – a man committed to life as athletics – so sensitive that he can feel the skin of a fog or compare the shudder inside his car’s steering column to the shudder of a woman’s unspoken fear. On his way to church:

He hates all the people on the street in dirty everyday clothes, advertising their belief that the earth arches over a pit, that death is final, that the wandering thread of his feelings leads nowhere. Correspondingly, he loves the ones dressed for church: the pressed business suits of portly men give substance and respectability to his furtive sensations of the invisible; the flowers in the hats of their wives seem to begin to make it visible; and their daughters are themselves whole flowers, their bodies each a single flower, in gauze and frills, a bloom of faith, so that even the plainest walk in Rabbit’s eyes glowing with beauty, the beauty of belief.

And so on.

Now, Rabbit is at this point in his late 20’s, an undistinguished young father with an undistinguished and undistinguishable job who has run away from his pregnant wife and young son because, well, he felt like it, and spent the last two months with a part-time prostitute he likes because she’s fat and his wife isn’t. Now, back with his family, he experiences, what? The insight of salvation?

Gimme une break.

Without bothering to remark that Rabbit is, in almost every way, not actually like any of the people he’s supposed to represent, let’s concentrate instead on the vicious internal dichotomy, the clashing, clanging discordance that is the dystopia of Rabbit.

To begin with (and end with, as far as I’m concerned) only a fairly selfish, insensitive clod could or would act the way Rabbit acts, say the things he says, or do the things he does. But Updike presents us with the excact psychological opposite, trying to fashion an insensitive character of enormous sensitivity, a selfish character shining with a wish for unselfishness, and a crude boob with the heart and sentiment of a Victorian poetess. To put it mildly, Rabbit makes no sense. He isn’t human. He is a literary construction, a scarecrow to hang words on instead of clothes. Long before the end of the book you are tired, annoyed, and painfully aware that you are reading about, at best, a contradictory cartoon in the guise of great literature.

You get tired, as well, not just of the lack of any fungible reality but of the dense forest of words you have to wade through to get to it. This is one thick forest, full of vines and thorns and concentrations of bush you need a machete to get through. The words are so piled on top of each other that you feel like you’re climbing a pointless mountain for weeks and weeks on rocky, untouched land only to reach the peak and be faced with another just as pointless and even higher. Now the views are pretty and the flowers along the way are breathtaking but, hey, there’s a florist shop around the corner that’s a lot easier to get to.

In short, Updike’s characters are cleverly inflated lies covered in heavy layers of self-consciously ornate language. “A sound and fury signifying…nothing.”