Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Two passages

from James Woods's review of Terrorist:

1.Ahmad "is the product of a red-haired American mother, Irish by extraction, and an Egyptian exchange student whose ancestors had been baked since the time of the Pharaohs in the hot muddy fields of the overflowing Nile." (Ah, those Egyptians. This lofty genealogy is an extraordinary example of airy Orientalism, which, because the sentence combines baking and mud, clumsily manages to imply that the ancestors were somehow baked in mud. Egyptian bog people! Does Updike reread his own prose?)

2.This is preposterous, of course--Jack Levy smells of Jewishness!--but more interesting than its preposterousness is the inept way, again, in that last sentence, that Updike surrenders any pretense that he is capturing Ahmad's own manner of thinking, and just sails off, pleasing himself, wreathed in familiar silks.

Later in the review, Woods quotes some dialogue spoken by the Ahmad, the central character and it's awful. Or at least, I thought it was. Strange speech that's distractingly inhuman. Here, I'll reproduce it:

"I think recently my mother has suffered one of her romantic sorrows, for the other night she produced a flurry of interest in me, as if remembering that I was still there. But this mood of hers will pass. We have never communicated much. My father's absence stood between us, and then my faith, which I adopted before entering my teen years. She is a warm-natured woman, and were I a hospital patient I would gladly entrust myself to her care, but I think she has as little talent for motherhood as a cat. Cats let the kittens suckle for a time and then treat them as enemies. I am not yet quite grown enough to be my mother's enemy, but I am mature enough to be an object of indifference."

The posture of the first passage I quote above is that the clumsiness of Updike's writing here is obvious and indisputable. I don't think that's the case. The rhythms of the sentence are such that its easy to miss the slipperiness of meaning in the conditions in which Ahmad's ancestors were "baked." I suspect that Woods is being deliberately literal-minded here in order to feel superior to a much venerated figure. If a reviewer was generally sympathetic toward a novel, would he or she say, "Well, yes, as lovely as this book is, there are a number of distracting slip ups such as..." I suppose its possible, but I doubt it. We are quick to ignore flaws of little significance in our allies and to emphasize them in our enemies. The orientalism is the better point and it should stand on its own. Of course, Updike is more-than-seventy-year old American, so I, personally, forgive him for succumbing to an imperfect, outmoded, and racist trope when it takes as subtle and understated and literary a form as it does here.

The posture of the second passage is that ineptitude is not a relative designation that has to be elaborated and/or argued for. My feeling is that it does. I mean, I think Woods is right to say that Updike is writing over his character, but I have no trouble living with a non-impressionist translation of Ahmad's thinking. If we grant that my comfort with this technique or manner of writing is universally applicable, it hardly seems fair to characterize this moment in Updike's writing as inept. Even if we don't grant that, I think Woods would be disengenuous if he were to say that he was using the word in a narrow, literal way and withheld judgment with respect to the surrounding text. He must know that in a review, the sentence, especially when it contains a bold and confident and distinct judgment, will stand for the book, and to some extent the man.

I feel better about Woods drawing our attention to the quoted dialogue above. In that passage, someone reading the review will have a much better sense of the feeling we'll have while reading the book. In my mind, I imagine a certain detachment and lack of pizazz, a dry earnestness of purpose.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Can you not be more specific?

To an extent, I call bullshit on Elif Batuman, who, in the pages of N + 1 (I know of no better literary journal by the way), bitches at great length about various stylistic commonalities of contemporary short stories--this seen through the lens of 2005's America's Best Short Stories. Bullshit because he never really gets past a few non extensive examples in support of his generalizatoins. Although I shouldn't say bullshit. I should say something more moderate. But that's what I thought as I was reading.

Anyway, Batuman's--I have no idea who he is, but it's a really good essay, however much I disagree with the points it makes--complaints are that contemporary american short stories are so consistenly full of specificity. I have a problem with this conclusion. The problem is that specificity is, yes, ubiquitous and sort of compulsory, but that doesn't mean its worthless. I can't really speak for anyone but myself, but for whatever miniscule meaning it has, I derive consistent pleasure when a carefully chosen name in a story pricks my imagination into a non-routine mode of narrative consumption. I suppose you can fill a story with unconventional abstractions or generalities, but it would be a different beast from the sorts of short stories--short stories that tell stories--that Batuman praises in the essay. As for conventional abstractions, man, child, sadness, family, doctor, my mind just glides over them, filling in the most conventional images and meanings available in the library of television and newspaper tropes. (It's actually an interesting game to activate one's imagination in response to an abstraction, and flesh out the image on your own; of course, it's more fun when the author meets you half way.)

On the other hand, I acknowledge that the prevelance of the "specificity" technique likely drowns out its effect. Back to the original hand, though, you've got a grotesquely severe baby/bathwater problem when you bring the issue up at length in an essay whose second and third sentences are these:

And yet I think the American short story is dead form, unnaturally perpetuated, as Lukacs once wrote of the chivalric romanc, "by purely formal means, after the transcendental conditions for its existence have already been condemned by the historico-philosophical dialectic." Having exhausted the conditions for its existence, the short story continues to be propogated in America by a purely formal apparatus: by the big magazines, which, if they print fiction at all, sandwich one short story per issue between feature sand reviews; and by workshop-based programs and their attendant lilterary journals.

The essay delves in its second half into the psychology that renders the contemporary literary scene , as Batuman sees it, less good and suggests that a fear that the authentic is uninteresting leads authors to hitch their character's lives in primary, first order ways to history, as opposed, I guess you could say, history seen from television or via a pink slip. I think this is true, but isn't it inconsistent with the claim that stories should contain more of the general and less of the local then is the case?

While I'm not sure that contemporary novelists are as ashamed of their profession as Batuman suggests, I am entirely in agreement with his admonition to authors to "write with dignity, not in guilt."

In fact, its greatly encouraging to read such encouragement. But it pissed me of that the essay starts with a Seinfeldian riff on literary pet peeves that Batuman mistakes for an important part of a real problem.

*I should say also that I'm not sure this little blog post was worth writing. The act of putting together a short assesment like Batuman's pretty much guarantess that someone will have problems with it that are not unlike the problems he has with choosing Nissan over "sedan." Of course, it would be foolish to give up on the conversation for such a reason.