Tag Archives: John Updike

Books Acquired Recently: Salt Lake City Edition

I am visiting Salt Lake City for the holidays, and over the past few days I’ve visited two of my favorite bookstores in the city, The King’s English, where I bought Lessing’s novel, and Central Book Exchange, where I bought Kosinski’s and Poe’s books.

Kosinski, Jerzy. The Painted Bird. 1965. New York: Bantam, 1972.

I recently read Kosinski’s National Book Award-winning novel Steps, which is quite good and made me want to read more of his work. When I found this copy of The Painted Bird on sale for only $5.00 in good condition, I bought it without hesitation. The colored edging that publishers used to put on the pages of mass market paperbacks (yellow in this case, though blue, green, and red were also frequently used) to preserve the books continues to do its job. I have numerous paperbacks from the 1960s and 1970s that are still in excellent condition as a result of this practice. It is a shame that publishers no longer do this (the most recently published book I recall seeing this edging on is the hardcover of John Updike’s Terrorist). It is sad that publishers build planned obsolescence into their products.

Lessing, Doris. The Golden Notebook. 1962. New York: Perennial, 1999.

I have been meaning to read this novel for years because I’ve enjoyed the other Lessing novels that I have read, and finally decided to buy a copy when I saw it on the “Staff Picks” shelf at The King’s English.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. 1838. Ed. Harold Beaver. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.

I have been on the lookout for a copy of this novel for two reasons: 1. a colleague of mine recently told me that it was one of the most influential books on her life, and 2. I taught some of Poe’s short stories this past semester, and decided that it would be helpful for me to read his only novel in support of this teaching in future courses. I was especially excited to find the Penguin edition because of my love for Penguin paperbacks.

As the photograph of the book shows, this edition was published as a part of The Penguin English Library rather than as a Penguin Classic, but it has the distinctive orange Penguin spine, and the classy embossed Penguin price tag! The book originally sold for $3.95, and I paid $4.00 for it. It is a high-quality edition: there is even a photograph of Poe on the inside of the front cover!

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Nicholson Baker’s U and I

Nicholson Baker’s 1991 long essay U and I on his obsession with John Updike is rife with the smooth, profoundly observational prose which make him one of my favorite fiction writers, though it is also marred by two deficiencies which make it my second-least favorite book of his that I’ve read. (My least favorite is still Room Temperature [which he was completing while writing U and I] because, though the writing is beautiful like his three best works, The Mezzanine, Vox, and The Anthologist in some order, I just don’t care about the premise [a man holding his baby and thinking] because I am not going to have children.)

The first is that Baker claims that women and homosexual men are somehow better suited to writing novels than heterosexual men (and I keep hearing that phrase as “heterosexual white men,” which is hard not to do when thinking of Updike, but to Baker’s credit he doesn’t make that a part of his ridiculous equation). He does admit that he expects to be pilloried for this “sexual determinism,” but mentions it because it is one of the reasons he loves Updike—Updike shows him that heterosexual guys can write fiction, too (137). However, this idea is so, frankly, offensive (1991, everybody!), that it takes away from Baker’s argument that Updike is a genius rather than strengthening it because Baker immediately becomes a less likable persona. The last thing I want to hear as a queer Puerto Rican is how badly heterosexual males have it, especially when the vast majority of authors that have been taught in literature classes (especially when Baker would have been in college) are male.

The second is that it becomes apparent by the end of the book that a significant part of Baker’s motivation for writing it is his own insecurities as a writer. He is haunted by the question of whether he is or will be as good as Updike (for the record, twenty years on I think he’s better than Updike, and I sometimes teach his books while never teaching Updike’s), and while it is legitimate for him to ask this question, it is not one I am interested in reading about because all writers, myself included, have a version of this anxiety. Am I good at all? Is this just a waste of time? Et cetera. Perhaps this element of the book is less onerous to non-writer readers.

Nevertheless, with those two important exceptions, there are some delightful elements of U and I. Here are a few of my favorites:

There is a brief discussion of masturbating to Updike’s sex scenes (19). Baker says that he has not, though he knows people who have. I must admit that one of the elements of Updike’s work which first drew me to him was the eroticism included in his fiction because he happened to be one of the first writers I encountered who wrote openly about sex (the description of the bikinied teenager in his short story “A&P” [which I did, indeed, teach once myself]—so hot when I found it in high school). But fifteen years later his work is laughably vanilla to my jaded tastes.

There are several moments when Baker makes comments about book culture that are delicious. This is my favorite aspect of his writing: it is clear that he loves books as objects as much as I do, and thus pays attention to his interactions with them. For instance, he mentions that in college he would throw the dust jackets of his hardcovers away, wanting them to look like the unjacketed books in college libraries (29). I seriously considered doing this when I was in college, too! But I am now very glad that I never started this practice, and hope that Baker has stopped it. Dust jackets are fun to look at because they vary so widely, and they make finding books on the shelf much easier. Baker also mentions accumulating different editions of books he already has when he encounters them in used bookstores, as I do. Here is his sublime description of the Franklin Library edition of Updike’s Rabbit, Run: “The padded, bright red binding was somewhat more reminiscent of a comfortable corner booth at an all-night, all-vinyl coffee shop” (36). There is also a passage where Baker describes removing the price sticker from books and then putting “it back on because it is a piece of information I will always want to have” (73). Aside from old price stickers on the occasional used book that I acquire, I hate price stickers and always remove them, but I appreciate Baker’s desire to know as much about the object as possible, to remember the individual volume’s history (how much was a copy of Madame Bovary going for in year X?).

Baker observes that “[b]ooks and life interpenetrate” (125), which is exactly correct, and is why reading books is so necessary and enjoyable. They teach us about life and how to live it better. This is why I love Baker’s fiction so much; his ability to observe the minutia of life (including our physical interactions with books) and show its importance is unparalleled.

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Women Readers and the Crisis of the Male Novelist

Elaine Blair has a fantastic article in the current issue of The New York Review of Books (July 12, 2012) about how the fictional trend of oafish male protagonists has evolved from the work of hoary giants such as Philip Roth and John Updike through the work of present-day writers such as Gary Shteyngart and Jonathan Franzen. She points out that, while female readers in the 1960s were willing to read their sexist contemporaries because that’s what one did in order to keep up with the intellectual Joneses, female readers today (who comprise a much larger proportion of fiction readers than they did in the 1960s because all guys want to do now is play video games) are much less willing to put up with men’s misogynist shenanigans, fictional or otherwise. Blair posits that contemporary male authors are aware of this (logical) attitude, and as a result make their male characters so ridiculously pathetic that they are impossible to hate; one just feels sorry for them instead. As a result, maybe female readers will read their books. She shows, though, that this trend is just sexist pandering which leads to a lot of uninteresting novels.

I fully agree with this critique. Blair quotes a David Foster Wallace essay in which he recounts an instance of one of his female friends calling Updike “Just a penis with a thesaurus.” This description is spot on… but damn, that penis sure knows how to get the most out of that thesaurus. I have to admit that I like Updike, and I love Roth (and Wallace, and Franzen). They are my guilty pleasures. I enjoy their writing because I am their intended audience, no matter how much they try to attract female readers. I can’t imagine women enjoying their male characters because I don’t enjoy them either. But I appreciate their truthfulness, and their beautiful use of language.

This raises the question, though, of whether literature that is merely valuable for its formal and/or aesthetic qualities is worthwhile. To read for fun, maybe, but I don’t assign these authors in my classes because they are so off-putting to women. The ideal texts to teach are those which are both aesthetically beautiful and politically engaging–Toni Morrison, Samuel R. Delany, Don DeLillo, and the like.

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Ann Bannon’s The Marriage

I just finished reading Ann Bannon’s 1960 novel The Marriage. It is the only one of her novels that is not a part of the excellent Beebo Brinker series of lesbian pulp fiction. However, two characters from the series, Laura Landon and Jack Mann, play a major role in it, and it takes place just after the events in the series conclude (note that the last book written in the series, Beebo Brinker, was not published until 1962, but portrays the earliest chronological events in the series).

The novel is the story of a heterosexual couple, Page and Sunny, who fall madly in love and get married, only to find out that they are actually brother and sister–Page was given away at birth by their parents and does not find out his true identity until after Sunny is pregnant with their child. The couple are divided about what to do about this incest, as Page believes they should never see each other again and Sunny believes that they should stay together because they love each other and did not intentionally flaunt what she views as an arbitrary taboo. Most of the novel is devoted to their struggle to resolve this conflict, which results in some razor-sharp, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-esque arguments (Page even cuts part of his left pinky off to prove his bravery when Sunny accuses him of cowardice!).

The couple finally agrees to keep their baby and stay together in a neo-Naturalist scene at the end of the novel, which at first seems absured and overwrought, but upon further consideration is a profound argument in favor of the sexual Other. Sunny has gone from New York to California to be away from the stress that Page is causing her because it is endangering the baby. He tracks her down, and they are driving back east along Route 66 when they decide to do some sight-seeing in the Nevada desert and, of course, get lost (side note: Fictional road trips from the pre-interstate era are so fascinating! It would be impossible for the couple to get lost off-road if they were driving now, but back then, as in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, the rural landscape is still barely touched by pavement, and thus defeats them easily.) They spend nearly two days in the desert sun without food or water before they are rescued, and it takes this isolation from society for Page to realize that all sexual mores are mere constructions. He finally understands Sunny’s point that it is only their love that matters, and the book ends happily.

The Marriage is certainly not pro-incest (side note two: It is interesting to compare The Marriage‘s attempt to minimize incest’s scandalousness with the fetishization of incest in contemporary “girl-on-girl” pornography directed at heterosexual males, which often portrays mother-daughter or sister-sister relationships, apparently in order to add an extra level of taboo to the already heteronormatively “illicit” nature of [pseudo-]lesbian sex): it is clear that the only reason Sunny and Page are allowed to stay together is because their incest was accidental, and since they have already had sex it is not as though their mistake will be exacerbated by further relations. The point of the novel is really to advocate for more sexual openness in general. When Page tells Jack about what he and Sunny have discovered, Jack tries to comfort Page by revealing his homosexuality in order to show Page that people whom society designates as sexually Other are not the horrific caricatures society paints them as; they are instead “normal” people. This is why The Marriage is valuable, and is still worth reading in the ridiculously sexually-backward travesty that is contemporary America. While it is not as well-written as most of the Beebo Brinker series, and has been marginalized because of its inclusion of incest (it is only available in a badly-produced Olympia Press edition alongside another pulp novel about incest, Theodora Keogh’s Gemini [I haven’t read Gemini yet because I bought the book for The Marriage since I am a big Bannon fan, but judging from the blurb it apparently is pro-incest. If this is the case, The Marriage‘s value is even further obscured due to this pairing.], whereas the Beebo Brinker books are currently in print in a lovely edition from one of the best/most important queer publishers out there, Cleis Press), it still has lessons to teach, and is worth reading as a part of Bannon’s important oeuvre.

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