January 28th, 2009

woods, Elizabeth, camera, April


I was never an Updike fan.  I'd never analyzed my reasons--I just found his work unpalatable though certainly the man could write.  It was what he chose to write about, and the tone of his writing, that put me off.   One commentator/eulogist yesterday evening finally brought it into focus for me, when he said that Updike's genius was expressing  the state of mind of unhappy suburban men of his day. 

At once I remembered other books I was supposed to like and didn't, which fell into the same genre (and it is a genre)--the plight of the unhappily successful, especially the unhappily successful man in an affluent northeastern city or suburb who just isn't satisfied and goes on at length about it (or his writer does.)   I can't remember all the writers who played variations on that theme, but Steinbeck, Roth, and Updike were among them.  Their stories were in the important magazines, too.  I confess, without guilt, that I never finished an Updike book and didn't start more than one....I had been sensitized by earlier writers in the genre and as soon as I recognized the character type and tone...I backed out.   I did read some of his shorter work, and again--the man could write, could express himself clearly and firmly.  But not in a way that made me want to read more.
I had problems with that whole genre (and it was a genre) about unhappy middle-class family men with ample money (mostly) and moral and spiritual blahs.   I kept wanting to smack those characters with some clue-bats.   Instead of wandering around feeling sorry for themselves and having sex with anything that would hold still and then having guilt pangs, they could have grown up and done something interesting.   I found them both boring and annoying.   (FWIW, I found the later spate of books about unhappy suburban housewives to be just as boring and annoying.  A nonfiction book talking about the problem of unhappy housewives is one thing--but all those novels whose sole purpose seemed to be to transfer the Updike/Roth mode from men to women?  Ick.)  

Granted, this reaction comes from having a completely different life and no experience of theirs.   Only child of divorced (and of necessity working) mother, living way the heck off in a far corner of the country, far from the pretty Connecticut suburbs, far from the amenities these guys found boring.   I just could not dredge up any sympathy for a guy with a good job, a nice home, and a wife, just because she wasn't as pretty and fun as she had been, or one of his kids wasn't being the perfect plastic model to prove his perfect father-ness.  I had zero sympathy for adulterers (natural under my circumstances) and (having been forbidden to whine my entire life) zero sympathy for these whiny men who acted like spoiled toddlers if everything in their life didn't make them feel big! important! happy! superior! sexy! desirable! important! masterful! excited! 

Most of the adult men I knew weren't anything  like that.  Of course, they also weren't pulling down fat salaries from gray-flannel-suit firms and living in fancy two-story houses in the nicer suburbs near New York City or Boston.  They were highway department engineers, plumbers, carpenters, telephone linemen, electricians, painters, small businessmen who owned a pet store or a furniture store or a grocery store or a laundry/dry-cleaning plant or a photography business.  Even the ones most resembling the tormented-suburban-male genre "hero" were stabilized to some extent by the sheer practicality of a small town and the fact that most of the other guys were WWII and Korean War vets who did not take kindly to prima donnas in pants.

When I read fiction, I want interesting characters.   They don't have to be rich, important people...but they need to be interesting.   (The perfect "small" character for me is the hero of Nevil Shute's  _Trustee from the Toolroom_.  A nonentity, walking down the street.  Small man, small job.  Big, HUGE possibilities.  No whining.  No drama-queen selfpitying dramatics.  Quiet, passionate, determination to fulfill an obligaion of honor.)    No amount of literary grace  will make up for lack of interesting characters and a story with a point to it..and it's simply not true that those who create interesting characters and stories with a point to them write inferior sentences and paragraphs.  (Some do; some don't.  The last true literary novel I read, a prizewinner, had its share of clunky sentences too.)

So though I'm sorry anyone dies of cancer...not a death  I'd wish on my enemies...I feel able to withstand the loss of Updike with equanimity.