Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ceremonies in Old White Men I

I was struck a few months ago by a Liz Henry lj entry (unlinked 'cause I don't know if she wants her real name associated with the lj in question) expressing apathy on the occasion of John Updike's death, saying something like "Which one was Updike? I get him confused with Irving and Roth." I don't: Updike, to me, is by far the most worthless of the three. From the imbecilic wife in Rabbit Run to the black characters in Rabbit Redux and The Coup, from his defense of the Vietnam War on Lutheran grounds to his argument that Desmond Morris was a more persuasive essayist than Carl Sagan, Updike exemplified --and in some ways invented-- the novelist for which the most important issue in the world is the inner life of a solipsistic lower-middle-class or professional white guy who meanders through the world thinking that he is thinking. Even Dan Green, averse as he is to political judgments of literature, has noted here and there that readers sensitive to misogyny might have problems with Updike. The guy wrote some lovely and acute descriptive passages, particularly of small town life, but he really missed the cluetrain. More frustrating to me than the man's values, however, are those of his worshippers: Chip McGrath has some interesting praise for Updike's strengths, but doesn't seem to grasp what could possibly have prompted Wallace to call him a "phallocrat"; similarly, McEwan is very informative; but his piece includes a scummy little attack on Updike's feminist detractors and a celebration of the man's famously mawkish descriptions of sex (vide, for a refreshing counterpoint, Francine Prose's "Scent of a Woman's Ink."). Bellow was his only peer, says McEwan? Thank God!

My beef with Philip Roth rests almost entirely on his outsized symbolic capital: that is, I think he's a talented writer of limited scope who is vastly overrated; and again, I'm really suspicious of his most zealous fans. They tend either to be phallocrats themselves or misandric women who say, "But all men really are like that!" Roth himself knows that his talents lie in the presentation of a certain kind of gynophobic male pov character (his attempts to write a woman's inner world in The Counterlife are so flat that I expect a lack of self-confidence is a factor in their failure). It's easiest to deal with that theme, for me, when the character in question is an inexperienced youth: hence I have no reservations about holding The Ghost Writer in high regard, and I was able to bracket most of the shortcomings of Goodbye, Columbus. If he had only been able to translate his insights on Jewish-American identity to address the experiences of other once-stigmatized groups seeking mainstream legitimation, The Human Stain could have been more than an entertaining conservative melodrama that really should have been published in Mass Market Paperback by Otto Penzler.

This is Part I of a diptych that, I hope, will go on to address John Irving and Donald Westlake.


Timmi Duchamp said...

Wow, Josh. I can't wait to read Part II!

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Me, too. Though you're nicer about Roth than I would have been.