Posts Tagged 'John Updike'

In the Land of Men

In the Land of Men
Adrienne Miller
HarperCollins 2020

Reviewed by Bob Wake

AdrienneMillerAn instant classic. Adrienne Miller was the fiction editor at Esquire magazine in the late-90s when she was still in her twenties. Crossed paths with Mailer, Updike, Bret Easton Ellis, Dave Eggers, and, the real subject of her book, David Foster Wallace, whom she edited (some of his best short stories appeared in Esquire, including “Adult World (I),” “Adult World (II),” and “Incarnations of Burned Children”), and with whom she shared a romance, off and on, for several years. It’s something of a lurid tell-all (one review is titled “Infinite Jerk”), but offers lots more about the era, its literature, its sexism, and the rise and fall of glossy magazine publishing at a time when the Internet was just taking hold. Miller chose not to talk with D.T. Max for his biography of Wallace, so the material presented here is largely uncharted and eye-opening. Her respect for Wallace as a writer is worshipful. The mind games she endured during their wildly complicated relationship are jaw-dropping. The richest, fullest portrait of David Foster Wallace that has so far appeared in print. Highly recommended.

The Exchange & Other Stories

The Exchange & Other Stories
Yuri Trifonov
Translators: Ellendea Proffer, Helen P. Burlingame,
Jim Somers, and Byron Lindsey 
Northwestern University Press 2002

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Yuri Trifonov (1925-1981) was a mainstream Soviet writer whose work grew increasingly subversive during the 1960s and 70s. Remarkably, a celebrated novella like “The Exchange” walked a surgically fine line that kept him from being banned or censored as a dissident. Trifonov seems to have accomplished this by focusing on the moral dilemmas and frustrations of his characters, whose limitations make them appear less victims of an oppressive state than flawed and sometimes foolish careerists oblivious to the political compromises that define their lives. 

Call it a brilliant authorial head-fake. To understand the insanely deft mechanics of Trifonov’s fiction—and his clever use of third-person intimate narration—is to appreciate why he was a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. “The Exchange” (1969) is a stark depiction of a quarrelsome Moscow family scheming to game the rigid Soviet bureaucracy controlling the housing shortage. (There are as many sinister acronyms in “The Exchange”—OZHK is the General Housing Commission—as a David Foster Wallace story.) A dying relative is used as a pawn to barter for a larger living space, with the idea that the relative will soon die leaving an additional empty room for the downsized family to occupy.

John Updike was particularly fond of Trifonov’s novella “The Long Goodbye” (1971), also included here. The story charts an unconventional marriage between an up and coming Moscow actress and her struggling writer husband. Less overtly political than “The Exchange” (although the residency permits required for government housing reappear as a bureaucratic headache), it nevertheless was met with criticism for its harsh naturalism suggestive of a generational post-revolutionary moral rot in place of idealized socialist realism. Updike admired the story’s complex Chekhovian characters, surprising psychological depth, and Trifonov’s trademark urban melancholy. “Indeed,” writes Updike in his 1978 review of “The Long Goodbye,” “under the iron skies of their governments the Russians have nowhere to look for amusement and mercy but toward one another.” (Updike’s review can be found in his 1983 collection of essays and criticism, Hugging the Shore.)

Rounding out the volume are two brief autobiographical sketches. “Games at Dusk”(1968) recalls Trifonov’s Moscow youth as an eleven-year-old tennis fan obsessed with the players at a public tennis court (shades, once again, of David Foster Wallace). “A Short Stay in the Torture Chamber” (1986) is especially powerful in dealing with the author’s tragic familial history: Trifonov’s father was executed during the Stalinist purges of 1938. Although his father’s reputation was rehabilitated in the 1950s, a former schoolmate of Trifonov’s tried to sabotage the author’s budding literary career by charging he’d lied about his father’s past. The “torture chamber” of the story’s title is actually a tourist site in a Medieval Austrian castle where Trifonov confronts his slanderous ex-friend when they were both visiting the region as sports journalists.

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself
David Lipsky
Broadway Books 2010

Reviewed by Bob Wake

althoughofcourseIn the sad days following the suicide of 46-year-old writer David Foster Wallace in September 2008, when the Internet seemed to spontaneously erupt with eulogies far and wide, novelist Steve Erickson wrote: “There are no statistics to prove it, but the anecdotal evidence is that he may have influenced the upcoming generation of writers more than almost anyone else.” There’s his narrative style, certainly, discursive and intellectual, yet brimming with colloquialisms and concise twelve-stepisms. The dizzying footnotes. The convoluted self-consciousness unfolding like Chinese boxes of innerspace, compulsive, chatty. A humane and witty voice both inviting and wounded. George Saunders’s New Yorker short story from last year, “Victory Lap,” with its hypertext parentheticals is only one of the more recent examples of Wallacean influence.

David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace is not unlike one of those always fascinating Paris Review author interviews. Supersized, of course, befitting the author of Infinite Jest, the still notorious big fat dystopian novel of twining plots converging on addiction and recovery, cinema and suicide, tennis and terrorism. Lipsky’s book, apart from some graceful introductory material, is essentially a 300-page transcript—from what must have been a mountain of cassette-tape research for a Rolling Stone profile that subsequently wasn’t written—of Lipsky’s conversations with the writer during the last five days of the 1996 book tour for Infinite Jest.

Because Wallace—suddenly and explosively famous—was written about and interviewed extensively during and after this book tour, some topics of conversation will be thematically familiar to fans: the cigarettes and chewing tobacco that often got the better of him (“I’ve got a raging nicotine problem. That like that I really need to quit, at least the chewing tobacco. It makes your fucking jaw fall off. You know?”); John Updike is overrated (“And you just have to wade through so much purple empty writing to get to anything that’s got any kind of heartbeat in it. Plus, I think he’s mentally ill”); Stephen King is underrated (“He’s got an almost Salingerian feel for children”); the influence of filmmaker David Lynch on his writing (“I mean, most of the word surrealism is realism, you know? It’s extra-realism, it’s something on top of realism. It’s the one thing in a Lynch frame that’s off”).

He talks about the too-easy resort to irony and ridicule that he finds in David Letterman and Rush Limbaugh. “I don’t know what’s going to come after it,” he says, “but I think something’s gonna have to.” Lipsky then asks Wallace to speculate—“What do you think it will be?”—and Wallace’s answer is startlingly prescient of an Obama-like appeal to civic virtue and our better instincts:

My guess is that what it will be is, it’s going to be the function of some people who are heroes. Who evince a real type of passion that’s going to look very banal and very retrograde and very … You know, for instance, people who will get on television, and earnestly say, “It’s extraordinarily important, that we, the most undertaxed nation on earth, be willing to pay higher taxes, so that we don’t allow the lower strata of our society to starve to death and freeze to death.” That it will be vitally important that we do that. Not for them, but for us.

Wallace struggled in his teens and early twenties with drug addiction and clinical depression, successfully overcoming the former while keeping at bay if never fully banishing the latter. Lipsky’s resurrected transcripts give us Wallace speaking openly about his past while cautioning that “there’s certain stuff about this that I won’t talk about.” To the extent that he feels remorseful about having pressured Wallace to the point of irritation in hope of some juicy disclosure about a rumored dalliance with heroin (“Why is this of particular interest?” Wallace asks, in a tone described as “annoyed”), Lipsky makes clear that he was himself feeling pressured by his editors to take this tack. All in all, his role as archivist and tour-guide is impeccable and heartfelt. Lipsky, like so many of us, clearly shares a deep sense of loss, as in this bracketed aside in response to Wallace recalling his troubled college years: “Wouldn’t it be great to fall in through this transcript, back to that house, and tell him to live differently, explain to him how it was all going to go? It’s suddenly odd that this isn’t possible.”

Soundings: John Lehman

Recorded exclusively for Coffee Spew, here’s Wisconsin poet John Lehman reading from his work. First, from Acting Lessons (Parallel Press, 2008), a film noir reverie:

Things More Distant Than They Appear / John Lehman

Let’s say that you had just two choices. The first, to leave
Rick’s Club, walk the six blocks down to your girl’s place
and apologize. The second, to stay and finish your drink.
The entranceway—stark, mail on the floor, broken buzzer
and unlocked door—with a little Scotch, takes on a movie
musical glow. A set where you tap dance up the staircase
into the arms of someone who is young and silken-robed.
In fact, the place is shabby. One, two, three stories of fried
onion smell. Then, of course her apartment door is locked
and at this time of night, why would she answer anybody’s
knock? So, it would be back to Rick’s anyway, right? No,
not quite, because you see the door is inexplicably ajar,
though all is dark inside. Now there are two more choices:
to call out “hello”—the only sensible thing to do—or push
the door open and, very quietly step within, the idea being
that you’ll make your way to her room, kneel beside her
bed and whisper your affection in her delicate ear as she
dreamily awakes. In you go, for this is the night of fools,
feeling furniture with your toes stealthily as a cat. Each
step takes days, each day is a week. Your lifetime passes
as you breathe through the doorway to her bed which is
—What did you expect?—empty. All you know for sure,
is that you’re tired and drunk and sad. You want to tumble
on top of that bed for a minute’s rest. You do, and dream
that you are back at Rick’s, and this time she comes in.
She puts her fingers to your lips; there’s no need for you to
speak. “My place or yours,” she smiles and since you already
smell the lavender candles of her room and feel the softness
of her pillows on your cheek, there are no choices, anymore.
But you’re not in her dreams, like she’s in yours. You don’t
need to leave Rick’s to discover that. So you sit and listen
to Chet Baker’s trumpet on the jukebox, to remember and forget.


Next, from Dogs Dream of Running (Salmon Run Press, 2001), an affectionate encounter with the late, great author:

John Updike Spills the Beans Riding through New Jersey / John Lehman

It was about this same time of year. We
were driving through a rural New Jersey
night, the wife of a Princeton Italian pro-
fessor, Tom Kennedy and me. She had
organized a day for us to conduct writing
workshops and now after the culminating
event, a lecture by the legendary John
Updike, we were headed to a reception
at the house of a dean. “Wasn’t Updike
something?” we all asked, remembering
the eloquence of his extemporaneous
words as they blended seamlessly with
excerpts which he read, like some vast
swelling on a literary sea, to raise us, not
to truth or beauty, but to a profound, new
level of sleep. Tom admitted to nodding
off several times and I to once awakening
with a start. Even our hostess could not
deny, “with the warmth, the lights, the ‘oh
so busy’ day …” But now how deliciously
refreshed we were, ready over cocktails
and hors d’oeuvres to impress each other,
all over again, with cleverness and wit.

Later, in the Cadillac en route to the motel,
we three were joined by the man himself.
He proved humble in a way the successful
are humble, dismissing their genius, though
mindful the rest of us be sure to disagree.
A lanky man slightly bending an enormous
head, he said, “I couldn’t help but notice
there was one person who … fell asleep.”
Was that the engine or his rising voice that
roared? He continued, “All I could think of
was how I might rouse this poor soul in the
third row from her stuporous dreams.” At this
pronoun Tom and I exhaled, and our driver
let us know, from where she was sitting
in the wings she didn’t see anything. “Well,”
he sighed, “that reminds me of when T.S.
Eliot came to Yale. We had waited hours
in line to hear him speak. Student seats
were high in the balcony and amidst the
rising radiator heat …” And here the courtly
Updike chortled to himself, like a spent
wave tickling the sand on a distant beach.
“Can you imagine,” he said, “I fell asleep.”

John Updike: 1932-2009

updike_01The last John Updike novel I read was 2006’s Terrorist. Creaky at times in its plotting, there was also something admirable and fresh in his striving to step inside and bring to life the consciousness of an eighteen-year-old American Muslim drawn toward committing a terrorist act. Less interesting were the novel’s other characters, particularly the high school guidance counselor, Jack Levy, who seemed too much a retread of those aging middle-class malcontents that Updike perfected long ago and about whom he apparently had nothing new to say. In other words, while I enjoyed the sheen of his trademark polished prose, it wasn’t a novel I recommended to friends or cared to review.

What I’ve read of his over the years, I most admired The Centaur (1963). It’s one of thecentaur richest literary evocations of adolescence. A standout scene has the youthful autobiographical protagonist hesitantly pulling off his shirt and revealing to a girlfriend the stigma of psoriasis on his arms and chest. Updike’s essay “At War with My Skin,” from his 1989 memoir Self-Consciousness, describes in unflinching, painful detail his lifelong struggle with psoriasis. While he sometimes seemed like a writer who hid behind his voluptuous style, at his best and sharpest he could harness his preternatural fluency in the service of hard emotional truth.

Not long ago I pencil-marked a soaring passage in an otherwise pedestrian short story, “Lunch Hour,” from Updike’s collection Licks of Love (2000). It’s about a high school reunion of oldsters. The prose comes alive in describing an autumn joyride in a Studebaker coupe through the Pennsylvania countryside circa 1948:

Little cemeteries of tilted sandstones, mysterious thick groves of planted evergreens, rickety farm stands that would have appeared deserted but for their fresh yellow squashes and orange pumpkins and the bonneted old woman keeping an eye on things from the porch; collapsing stone springhouses, the overgrown ruins of old iron forges, creeks making brown foam with their chuckling small waterfalls; fields of corn, of rye, of tobacco, of cattle, of peach and apple trees in blossom or bent low with fruit—all of this poured around the noontime travelers, who were oblivious to most everything but one another and the sensation of speed.


Recall: A Short Story

Walden West and the Twilight of Transcendentalism

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Caffeine & Other Stories by Bob Wake

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