Updikes

Exhibit 1.4.21

In Which I Pretend to Live Blog an MRI

0:00 – O, I’ve done this before, nice man who put a warm blanket over me, no worries. Yes, please, strap my head down. I shouldn’t be able to move. I’m not worthy of that responsibility.

0:01 – I hope some kind of Walking Dead scenario isn’t happening outside.

0:03 – Some kind of Walking Dead scenario is definitely happening outside.

0:05 – Think, Adam, you can escape from this tube. There’s got to be more than one exit.

0:06 – I’m going to die.

0:06:30 – Ahhhhhhhhhhh!

0:07 – Eh, screw it. I’m probably not going to die. [starts thinking about fantasy football]

0:10 – “Try not to swallow.”

0:11/12/13/14/15 – [swallows]

0:20 – My favorite magnet cycle is the one that sounds like an old-timey typewriter from a newsreel.

0:21 – “Dateline, this tube. Look out, Mussolini, Uncle Sam’s boys aren’t crying anymore and have their swallowing problem on the run.”

0:30 – I wish Fred Jackson and Matt Forte were still alive. I mean, to me.

0:40 – O, hi, nice man who put a warm blanket over me, just another hour? Why not make it two? Because screw Mussolini.

1:00 – “Baby, when I’m with you, it’s like you’re the MRI machine and I’m the injured high school sports star.” – something John Updike probably thought.

1:01 – Can I tweet that?

1:02 – Na, probably not.

1:03 – But I can blog it. Totally.

1:10 – And emotionally I skipped from bored right past heroic and am back to fear.

1:12 – The zombies would probably just eat my legs but then I’d be a zombie and would totally have dibs on this nice livin’ tube.

1:14 – I hope after this I get to stand in a long coffee line with a bunch of young doctors to remind myself that most of the doctors I know got into it because they really liked Grey’s Anatomy and wanted to drive a Mercedes. I will? Great.

1:20 – Story idea: “Pow, pow, pow, pow, pow, pow, beep.”

1:22 – Sudden urge to fight tube.

1:23 – Is that as hard as you can hit magnets?

1:24 – O, I assumed it’s just take your daughter to work day. Little Olive is doing great.

1:30 – This one again? Great, no, I mean, I wouldn’t want to be a huge one note cliche, but if you want to be Joe Cocker…

1:31 – No, I’m sure you’re very advanced, but there’s no getting around the fact that you’re made by a company that builds electric razors.

1:40 – I don’t know disembodied voice of the nice man who put a warm blanket over me, sometimes I think I have gone crazy.

1:45 – I’m moving! It’s over!

1:46 – Nope, just moved down a little. Now back. Now down. It’s just screwing with me. Shouldn’t have brought up Joe Cocker.

1:50 – MRI machines would be cooler if at the end they just dumped you inside themselves into a portal where you ended up waiting for an Americano next to a high-pitched girl in scrubs telling her friend she never gets to go out anymore. Not because that would be so great but because it would make the experience more like Mario.

2:00 – I think the MRI ended ten minutes ago and I didn’t notice.

2:01 – I should have stolen those socks as a memento.

12:38 – My god, I think, I think I love the tube.

1 Comment / Posted in Medicine, Updikes, Zombie Enclosures

Exhibit 1.2.24

On Editing a Novel #21

IT’S BEEN DONE BEFORE BUT HAS IT BEEN DONE…ON MARS? As we all know from that Al Gore documentary, America’s most limited resource is heartbreaking family dramas that end with a drunken father having an epiphany about what is important while watching the sun set purple into the Western plains. If you must, blame Raymond Carver, LLC for drilling too deeply despite knowing what might poison the aquifer, but I’d rather you consider the possibility of abandoning this world of ruined plots much like our progeny will one day abandon Indiana. Instead, consider changing the setting of your novel to…Mars!

Watch how easy it is:

* A son struggles with telling his father that he doesn’t want to take over the family business…on Mars!

* An alcoholic with a hilarious monkey gallivant around the country…of Mars!

* A series of people navigate interconnected stories of love and loss and…Mars!

* A scrappy group of teenagers have to fight off a foreign invasion. O, and did I mention the teenagers are…Mar!ions? I should have.


(The foreigners are still Soviets).

* A busy careerwoman discovers she has cancer…of the Mars!

* An Irishman locked out of his home wonders around Dublin…, Mars!

* Mars!…of Arabia!

* A touching story of a soldier’s struggles to forget all the horror he saw on…Mars!

(Actually, that one has been done before).

* Pay it forward…to Mars!

* A young man discovers the emptiness of life in the modern corporate world until he discovers…and this is the twist…he’s not on Mars!

Because Mars plots are over. Thanks, Updike.

1 Comment / Posted in Editing, Mars, Updikes

Exhibit 22.10

Rejected Halloween Costume Ideas

I actually don’t really like the costume aspect of Halloween all that much, but I feel like I have to at least try. This year’s rejected possibilities:

* Zombie Updike – I really just wanted to carry around a book that said Brains, Rabbit Brains. Too soon.

* Carcetti – Man, I would be such an awesome Carcetti, but informal polling suggests no one knows who Carcetti is which, frankly, is just sad. The only one of my students who’d heard of The Wire said, You watch BET? and then everyone laughed.

* Snoop – Man, I would be such a terrible Snoop. Still, I would love nothing more than to try to replicate this conversation. It might get a little awkward when children come to the door and I ask them about nail guns.

* Lego Guy – I’m pretty sure this has been my dream costume since I was 8. Unfortunately, I lack several of the necessary elements to make it happen. A red sweatshirt for one.

* One of the Jonas Brothers – This is what my students suggested for me. At the time I thought they just figured all white people looked the same but now it seems clear that I probably could pull off 2.5 out of the 3 which upsets me quite a bit. I don’t even really know who the Jonas Brothers are. I watch BET, damnit.

* The businessman from the cover of Aerobiz – Because at first no one would get it then they’d see me holding a phone and yell, Like the businessman from the cover of Aerobiz! Okay, that would never happen.

3 Comments / Posted in Costumes, Halloween, Updikes

Exhibit 16.13

On Editing a Novel #12

CREATING AN OUTLINE. It’s likely you’d given up on your novel until running into someone you’d given a draft to 18 months ago at a party. It’s even more likely this person avoided eye contact with you until you were finally able to corner her as she reached for her coat. What is certain is that this person told you your novel lacks structure (and adjectives, but we can’t help you there). Even if she got a few key details wrong while describing your novel back to you–or is your novel about an ambitious lawyer who finds his values being tested? you don’t think so, but it might be–your friend is still right.

You need an outline.

(Your friend is not right about giving up on novels and focusing more on your assistant manager job at Zales. Once your novel is published, you should skip ahead to #64 QUITTING YOUR JOB AT ZALES AND TAUNTING OLD FRIENDS).

But formatting outlines is hard so it’s best you don’t try to create one from scratch. Just pick up whatever you have in list or bulleted form and use that. Even published novelists do this. For example, The Great Gatsby was originally a grocery list for eggs, Daisy Brand Sour Cream, carraway seeds, and Hires Root Beer (the novel’s original title).

Any outline will do. If you want a science fiction thriller, choose an outline from an old introduction to biology term paper just like a certain writer whose name rhymes with Michael Crichton does. If you want a love story, that inventory list from your job at Zales will work perfectly. If you want to pursue that lawyer angle, just use the list of charges on that court summons in your pocket. If you want your novel to win the Pulitzer, use a list of John Updike’s published novels.

Watch:

The Poorhouse Fair -> See, you’ve already got a setting. Two of them, really
Rabbit, Run -> Now you know there is a rabbit at the fair
The Centaur -> Um, well, you know, he’s probably friends with the rabbit

And so on. The important part is the final step.

Pulitzer.

Comment / Posted in 12, Editing, Updikes

Exhibit 15.27

A man I jokingly considered my arch nemesis…

A man who has his own tag on this blog…

A man whose story was my favorite thing I read in my first fiction class…

A man whose worst novels were the only ones stocked at the Hays Public Library and whose best novels I hate on a level that must indicate some kind of success…

A man who outlived his main character by nearly 20 years…

A man who looks best in caricature…

John Updike, dead at 76.

Comment / Posted in Hays, Updikes, William Blake: Dead

Exhibit 15.21

Things

* The Omaha-area radio show my brother and his friends do (and that I mentioned here) is now available in podcast form here. Understandably, as it was their first show, it gets off to a rocky start but then they turn my brother’s mic off and everything is okay until they turn it back on again. There’s some great stuff on using public money to build a stadium. Here’s a summary: don’t.

* I don’t think I have yet linked to The Home Video Review of Books. If you find my own book reviews pedestrian and unenlightening, you’ll like it. This review of Craig Santos Perez’s from Unincorporated Territory is my favorite:

I just like how it ends with the camera distracted by the bikers. If I were to review this review, I’d give it thumbs. If I were to review this review of this review, I’d do so in the New York Review of Books next to a caricature of John Updike.

1 Comment / Posted in Radio, Reviews, Updikes

Exhibit 15.14

The Confessions of Max Tivoli

So I had to read one more novel in order to keep up with my company’s book club which, by the way, has dwindled to myself and two other people making it more of a book triumvirate which could be held in the backseat of a Civic. I look forward to the day when someone else quits halfway through whatever Elie Wiesel memoir we’re reading and it becomes a Book Partnership/Beach Volleyball Team.

The novel in question is Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli, an absolutely gigantic selling book from 2004 due to a glowing review from John Updike in the New Yorker and Mitch Albom picking it for the Today Show‘s book club. I won’t hold either of those things against the book, but O how I want to. I also probably shouldn’t say it was a best seller ‘due’ to those things, but I’m sure they didn’t hurt, neither did all of the other blurbs which are suffocating my paperback. Not knowing much about it other than its premise, I was a little unprepared for not just how big the sales for the book were but how, if you believed the praise, you might expect the response to have been even bigger.

Here’s a sample:

“Enchanting”–John Updike, The New Yorker “Devastating, heartbreaking…an astonishment.”–Esquire “****”–People “Quietly dazzling…keenly affecting.”–The New York Times Book Review “This year’s break-out novel.”–Entertainment Weekly “A devastating new writer”-Michael Cunningham “A fable of surpassing gravity and beauty.”–San Francisco Chronicle “One of the most talented writers around.”–Michael Chabon

That’s an impressive cross-section of both mainstream and literary voices coming out in favor of the book, and, I admit, the book deserves everything it got. Mitch Albom excepted. Nobody deserves that.

While I don’t think I liked it as much as anyone quoted above, there’s no reason to be a snob about something so well written. Mr. Updike is right to call it “enchanting” because there is very much a magic to the prose. Greer writes incredibly well, with a Chabonesque delicacy and ornateness which might veer toward cloying but never quite lets the reader catch his or her breath long enough to ask questions. The confessor is, like Mr. Greer’s reviewers, in a state of near constant rapture and no feeling or detail–especially if that feeling be love and that detail be old-timey–is above getting a few long, melodic sentences.

It’s a self-consciously anachronistic style which works nicely with the turn-of-the 20th century setting and the slightly Gothic plot. Like Benjamin Button before him, our Max Tivoli is born an old man and ages backward, along the way loving the same woman three different times (once each as an old man, a middle-aged man, and then as a young boy). So it is a love story, and a rather small one at that, something that costs the book a fair amount of gravitas since the plot seems to call for something epic (Fitzgerald’s story seems to have the same problem, the new Button movie seems to go to far in this direction from what I’ve read). It’s not that love stories are bad, but that the book’s lessons on loves are summed up with its first line, “We are each the love of someone’s life.”

While this is a perfectly acceptable first line, it is also a perfectly dumb thing to say about love. This is a book where love experienced as a teenager is permanent not just for one character but for all characters across genders, sexual orientation, and lifecycles. Greer is good enough that it doesn’t ever come across as damningly sentimental but it also isn’t a particularly complicated way to look at the world. The are other failings, too, mostly in how reluctant the book is to ever be away from its key relationship, as if taking more than two pages to explain the years Max is trying to die in a war will break the spell start asking questions.

Because there are questions (She really wouldn’t recognize him/notice he’s growing younger/believe him when he tells her?), but, in the end, they are all questions answered by the book’s premise. To buy into Max’s birth you have to buy into his life, and Greer makes it easy with a tight structure that forgoes most of the interim years to focus on Max at 5/65, 35/35, and 12/58. It’s such a well-plotted book that I wish Greer would have left behind the revelations he gives at the end of each section since they are neither surprising nor necessary. What drama there is here has been figured out long before Greer gets around to pulling the rug out from under us (especially with a certain character’s “coming out” which is an unnecessary move as Chabonesque in its shoehorning as the novel is in its prose).

In the end, the book works because of its style, simple structure, and even simpler take on its narrator’s predicament. And it does work, problems and all. It’s exactly the sort of a book I was expecting to read in a club like this only with prose to match what I might otherwise choose myself. The book may not last long–it’s not one for the ages–but it’s a good novel, a very good novel even, and so maybe Greer made the right choice to keep a big idea small. So what if the world is larger than this, because it’s rarely as lovely. That’s something, too.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Updikes

Exhibit 12.13

The Moviegoer

It’s a strange feeling to read a novel after having read a host of books it clearly inspired in some way. There’s more than a little of Percy’s hero Jack (Binx) Bolling in a character like Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, more than a little of the nascent awareness of the convergence of reality, technology, and culture that finds itself all grown up in time for DeLillo, and more than a little of Bolling’s ill-defined spiritual “quest” in a great many boring books published since 1961 (and, occasionally, someone does something really interesting with these ennui-plagued journeys like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder which I wrote about here).

I guess part of my problem is that I tend to hate insipid, self-important characters like Bascombe, and while I had quite a bit more sympathy for Bolling–he at least had a war–there’s no getting around the fact that his existential crisis is fairly mundane. He’s a young-ish bond trader living in a suburb of New Orleans whose only pleasures are movies, seducing his plump secretaries, and visiting his aunt and clinically depressed cousin. It occurred to me more than once that the cousin’s story might have been a far more interesting one (certainly a more dramatic one), but the book gets the two characters together enough that Kate, the cousin, is able to give some life to both the plot and Binx himself. Of course, this is one of those books where the plot exists only as a coat rack to hang the characters’ jackets rather than a living thing itself. Binx simply doesn’t know what to do with himself. Everyone seems to agree that he’d be good in “research” (one of the few bits of humor in the book), but the concept is as ethereal as his own malaise (although he does imagine that as a physical thing hunting him down).

So he does what he’s always done until his life as a functioning-melancholic collides with one who is decidedly non-functioning. Does it make him realize how shallow his own sadness is? Does it alert him to a greater suffering in the world? Honestly, it doesn’t seem too, but Binx does reclaim a bit of the basic human sympathy he’s lost by the end of the book though Percy seems to make it deliberately unclear if Binx has truly awakened or if he’s only shifted his troubles onto the back of another. It will make me seem like I don’t like this book when I say: Thank God Percy avoided the temptation to explore this character further in later books. Yes, I’m looking at you, Updike.

Because in the end it’s a very thoughtful, sweet book. The language and characters are all very stunning and while its plot may be a pensive, existential one, Percy handles it perfectly. Maybe it’s just because I’m watching Mad Men (which is set in the same year) and the main characters share a few qualities, but this book seemed to really nail the strange period after the Korean War but before the Beatles. Everyone is making money and there’s a strong push back toward a normal pre-war domesticity, but a few, like Binx and Don Draper, have begun to realize how much, and how permanently, everything has changed. Draper deals with it by being at the forefront of the new world he doesn’t like and then feeling guilty while Binx deals with it by doing nothing and then feeling guilty. Updike’s loathsome Rabbit Angstrom (also a member of the class of ’60-’61) deals with it like a less intelligent and principled Draper, but he too feels the worry and the guilt.

Of these I probably prefer Percy’s work the most. Even if not perfect, it’s a compelling version of America’s despair–a pretty funny contrast to the European version, incidentally–and although it’s not actually in the text, I choose to insert my own corrections for the segregated, upper-classness of it all.

And it’s not that one needs to, exactly, but I’ll be the first to admit that Updike and Ford have ruined mundane soul searching for me. Perhaps I’ll go to the park later and think about this and the world’s even greater failures while children run past trying to get their kite to take life. Even on the dying autumn grass the kite is beautiful and not a disappointment because there will always be kites and wind and autumn days in the park. I will wish badly to tell them this, but, even though I will have thought differently a moment earlier, it is I who will start to tear up when the kite again falls limply to the earth. The children will only shrug as children do, having yet to learn to see each failure as connected to every other failure in their short lives.

Oh, Jesus, now I’m doing it.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Updikes

Exhibit 6.14

I’m not sure when The New Yorker got all smutty, but in addition to the topless photograph of Lee Miller in the most current issue, there have also been quite a few Playboy-esque comics featuring topless line drawings and some joke about sex recently. Also, a year or so ago, there was an entirely gratuitous nude picture of a show girl. You may think that have these moments catalogued a little too well, but it’s really just the shock of seeing a drawing that looks like a topless Mrs. Keane from Family Circus wedged into an article about Rudy Giuliani that makes me remember.

I mean, my grandmother subscribes to this magazine for god’s sake. If John Updike were alive, this would never be happening (or, actually, it would be happening a lot more often with much more depressing results).

We’re about six months away from David Remnick launching New Yorker Forum. I’m going to start submitting letters now just in case. I’ll just go ahead and address them to David Denby for now.

Comment / Posted in Davids, Decay, Updikes