Friday, September 19, 2008

Day 48: John Updike is an ostrich

I lost it.

I lost not only the plot but the book as well.

I lost Self-Consciousness.

This is a work by John Updike that I picked up from the Fort Qu'Appelle library. There was a book sale on, and the librarian very kindly suggested I take a couple books, waiving the nominal charge. I've never read any Updike before but he was one of the few regarded authors left, and seeing this book of memoirs I hoped to find something in it worth stealing.

The first chapter seemed interminable as I got used to Updike's indulgent writing. It concerns some remembrances of his childhood, which he spices up by incorporating into a story of how he waited an hour for his lost luggage to arrive.

I frankly became angry with Updike. "He doesn't respect that the connotations of words have an explanatory power that doesn't need expansion! His constant attempts to display cleveerness leave no room for the reader's own cleverness!" I do not know nowif these criticisms are valid, no longer having the book. Certainly worse could be said of my writing. But the one example I remember is when he related a story of how as a very young child he was hit by a car, and how very apologetic he was to the officer, and how he was worried of spending time in jail. This is a cute story about the foolishness of young children.

But then Updike feels the need to explain it, explicitly saying that when he was older he realized that the cop was more worried about an irresponsible child ipossibly being injured than his culpability. I felt Updike must think I am very stupid not to have understood that, or possibly never been a child myself. My feeling was that most readers of his book have been children, and later adults, and could not possibly need this explanation. My feeling, furthermore, was exasperation.

I turned to a later chapter, hoping it would be an improvement over the lost luggage iof the first. This one took the form of a defense of his stance apparently supporting the Vietnam war, although if it actually contained such a defense, I am none the wiser for it.

I have with me, from the beginning of the trip, the book "Travels with Charlie", by John Steinbeck. In this book, Steinbeck tours the States with his dog, Charlie. It seems he is constantly getting into situations, making essentially the correct judgments, and then criticising himself for getting involved in what are other peoples' problems. And that may be a correct judgment, too. I am constantly impressed as I review the multiple booklets this text has dissolved into on the trip, by Steinbeck's moral courage and honesty.

And that is what I suppose I was expecting from Updike in this chapter. Instead, I saw him voting for Democratic presidents while hoping they lost. The doves were wrong because the ones he knew were just as decadent as him in those days. Sending young men to war to bring back honor for the country is just like sending the butcher to the countryside to bring back meat for the table. While Updike feels some guilt at never having been shot at or threatened with bombing, he has had a lot of dental work done, which is much the same thing. And, impossibly, he makes too many protestations that he is not, literally, an ostrich.

The complete disregard for any moral or ethic whatsoever came as a complete shock to me after Steinbeck. Later, I would discover that reading the chapter in context, he must regard hawkishness as just an embarrassing personal condition like psoriasis or stuttering. I didn't know what to make of it.

But there was that ostrich business...

Is it possible that John Updike, the celebrated American author, is actually and literally an ostrich? At one point he says there is an entire category of things that would fall under the heading of "I am not an ostrich". If this seems far-fetched to you, consider for a moment. I believe it was Aristotle who argued that the primary reason for man's sentience was that he walked upright on two legs, bringing his head closer to the heavens. Surely, the same is true for any ostrich.

Not an ordinary ostrich, surely. A very intelligent ostrich, hunting and pecking at his tiypewriter, having achieved some part of the measure of a man through his literary success. But an ostrich nonetheless. How could he have hid this for so many years? On the bookstands, nobody knows you are an ostrich. And his skin and speaking conditions give him excuses to rarely appear in public, on which occasions he may hire an actor, or merely wear a builkier sportcoat.

In presenting this information I am definitely not trying to demean Updike, his work, or other ostriches. Indeed, some of my best friends are birds. But I am hoping that this fact will help some of his readers better understand his works.

Certainly, when I discovered this, I went back to the beginning of the book, and read it as though written by an ostrich. The result was a far superior book, a kind of avian Notes From Underground. The first scattered reading indicated a poor life, half-lived. He goes nowhere, does nothing, and attends church only to spite his wife. However, I wouldn't expect even an extraordinarily intelligent ostrich to imagine the life of a man with his head out of the sand.

Speaking of which, the psoriasis serves not only as a metaphor for an ostrich's wrinkly skin, but as an excuse for his having spent so much time in desert and sandy conditions, for it appears expsoure to the sun is a treatment to that skin disorder.

It is quite unfortunate that I lost this book, because I had very carefully dog-eared every page which presented some evidence of his ostrichness. For instance, in the introduction Updike claims another was planning a biography, and he felt he had to get there first. Why so, if not to control the story and hide his ostrichness?

Once we can accept that John Updike is an ostrich, other questions arise. Is it possible that Updike, who presents as a conservative Democratic man, is actually a liberal Republican ostrich - but female? I have no clues as to the question of politics, but when it comes to gender I have some idea.

Another book I got from the book fair I believed at first to be the memoirs of a local woman growing up in the depression, only to later discover it was actually a work of fiction written by a man. Because this book is a self-published labor of love, and because I am about to criticize it, I will spare both its name and the author's. In the preface the author claims he wrote it as a challenge to the idea that a man cannot write about the life of a woman. Indeed, the book lends evidence to one or the other side of this argument, allowing me to conclude that John Updike is probably the same gender he tells us he is.

We eventually come to the title of his Vietnam chapter, which was actually "Why I am not a dove", which is clearly a double-entendre. We have Updike, the ugly duckling, growing up not into one of the more beautiful birds but into the ugliest one of all, even uglier than a duck, if that were possible.

And recall that much of Hans Christian Andersen's obsession with physical beauty in his work was the fact that he possessed so little of it, himself. He overcame this handicap by literature, in the same way as Updike would later overcome minor speech and skin disorders, the Vietnam war, and being raised in Pennsylvania. That Andersen's ugliness was the more profound is clear; while Updike spends much of this book in fear of homosexual overtures, Andersen never got a favorable response to his love letters, neither from women nor men. Which may be why people will still know the Ugly Duckling and the Emperor's New Clothes long after Updike again becomes only a humorous name given to minor film characters.

Enough of this, I believe the case is clear, and it is perhaps fortunate that I will never be able to read the last two chapters to bore you with further details. The penultimate one appeared to a hundred page letter to his grandsons, improbably sent by way of mass publication. The last, I'm sure, speculates on the effect on the world of literature if he turns out to be an ostrich, after all.

The time for such speculation is ending; we need merely sit back and watch.

Day 48 ended: 50*34.854N, 103*27.366W


John said...

Hmm, I like the questions that this raises, in our phone discussions where we talked about fictional elements in autobiography and passing in/becoming other roles in text/life. It reminds me of another Kevin, perhaps confined to bed in illness, or imprisoned for being falsely implicated in insider trading (work with me here), writing about a boat journey, trying to carefully craft the sensations of physical effort and weather foibles, writing it down at a first pass, surrounding it further with the thoughts he must of thought as he considered the people, places, and circumstances encountered directly, and encounters with the same, only in this time in a few books brought along.

Needless to say, that Kevin is a much better writer, although it's impossible to say if that Kevin's internal life is any richer...

Kevin Saff said...

A better writer, but surely a worse story. There is plenty of stuff I just could never make up.

John said...

But, isn't that the point: that by being able to make that stuff up, the other Kevin is a better writer.

But, perhaps now that you have had your broadening travels, you will yet become a writer who extends yet beyond this other Kevin: knowing these strange twists of his imagination as plain fact, what realms can now your speculation reach!