Tag Archives: fiction

Updike’s Afterlife

I read John Updike’s Pigeon Feathers in high school, along with The Coup and, later, The Centaur in college. Having, recently, wrung myself out on Milton and, in general, having lost my bearings on what matters to me as a reader, I pulled a copy of The Afterlife and Other Stories from the public library. I’m halfway through it now … and halfway through this current life too. That makes me ten to twenty years younger than most of the characters in this collection of stories.

Thus far, halfway in, I do not like them–the characters. They are not likeable people; or, rather, it’s hard to feel sorry for them. Parini writes in his review of the collection that Updike was “unashamedly autobiographical” in his short fiction. Privileged men, momma’s boys, self-absorbed, painfully selfish–if autobiographical, his characters are not his best representatives. Their regrets, their affairs and divorces, their ailing aging bodies, their helpless dissolutions, seem to be worn as prizes, or (at best) as the assumed sacrifices of a life lived in comfort.

If there is a pleasure to be had in reading these stories, it is that of sharing in the joy Updike finds in writing, the joy and the talent. He wrote so much, so well and with such ease. Readers stand on the side as the author’s witnesses. We are not merely passive, but inconsequential. Updike would write (and did write) with or without us. He was a superb talent and to read him is to acknowledge this fact.

Of those that I have read thus far, the title story is the most compelling and challenging. (“Brother Grasshopper” is also memorable, for its portrayal of a friendship between men, and “A Sandstone Farmhouse” as a moving remembrance probably based on the author’s relationship with his mother.) Unlike the others stories, “The Afterlife” extends beyond Updike’s conceptual control. He seems less confident, less sure, less tidy in his conclusion. In the other stories, characters face regret and sentimentality with lonely resignation. Sad, even with their affirmations of sensual existence, the characters have disconnected themselves from their roots. In contrast, in “The Afterlife” they face the storm. Even what might have grounded them (social ties, memory, and experience) is a fool’s game in the storm of “The Afterlife”. Free of silly regrets and pointless sentimentality, “The Afterlife” is, ironically, the most hopeful of the stories.

Reference:
Parini, Jay. 1994. All his wives are mother. The New York Times, November 6. http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/04/06/lifetimes/updike-afterlife.html.

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Cows Errant

Going BovineLibba Bray’s Going Bovine ends better than it begins, but, nonetheless, ends with a journey to nowhere. The lead character, Cameron, discovers his life (like all humans) in the process of losing it. Unlike most humans, however, this discovery is made under the influence of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease–the human version of mad cow disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Prior to the diagnosis, Cameron is an apathetic, sarcastic, suburbanite, teenager. In the first sixty pages or so, readers learn just enough about his “friends”, his musical tastes, his parents, and his early childhood, to sustain another 420 pages of his BSE inspired hallucinations.

With his brain rotting in his skull, “mad” Cameron, is a much nicer guy. Also, he “has” more fun. His hallucinatory journey mirrors the adventures of Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha. Like DQ, Cameron has a guiding muse, a diminutive side kick, an unreliable means of transportation, and demonic adversaries. Unlike DQ, who actually wanders the Spanish countryside, evangelizing for his vision of a chivalric order, Cameron’s body never leaves the hospital bed. Except for the rotting brain and an occasional drip from the IV, his body has no part in the last 400 pages of the book. Although Cameron has a lot of imagined fun and the book ends on a happy note, the wet dreams are dry. In his hallucinations, the once apathetic teenager discovers that living is loving: “to live is to love and to love is to live”. And so, his Sancho becomes a braver soul; the social snobs are undone; he listens to good music, reads better books, and goes on a road trip, and (most importantly) sacrifices his own well-being for the good of his compadres. … Achievements all, but achieved only in the brain burning haze of Cameron’s imagination.

If, therefore, readers are to take Going Bovine seriously, by which I mean, to read it as more than a parlor trick, more than an improv-styled assembly of loosely disguised elements from “popular culture” for teenagers, the book ends not far from where it begins: a selfish character discovers himself in an equally selfish “life” of the mind. In the book’s closing chapter, Cameron, fading from physical life, asks his Dulcinea, “Hey, Dulcie, was any of that real?” She replies: “Who’s to say what’s real or not?” Beyond Cameron’s BSE self, “reality” has only a small part in the novel. We learn very little about the “real” people in his life and Cameron is mostly oblivious to how they carry with him the burden of his illness. Cameron is lost to them; lost in apathy, lost in illness. Who’s to say what’s real? Perhaps, that task should be left to the people who outlive you. Yes, Cameron had a great “ride”, but it was, in the end, nothing more than a self-indulgent, fruitless, adolescent trip.

Reading what I have just written, I see that most will conclude that I did not like the book. This is only partly true. In “reality”, I hope that it finds plenty of young readers. Going Bovine, the winner of the 2010 The Michael L. Printz Award, is more than a clever book. I would put it before Harry Potty, before Twilight and spawn, before (in other words) most of the escapist, corn syrup publishers market to “young adult” readers. Like most books, however, Going Bovine is a long, long, long way from Don Quixote.

Read Don Quixote.

Beyond “Summerland”? A Few Dependants and a Brain-Dead Job?

A slow reader, I do not read fiction often. A few months ago, however, a good friend recommended something outside my usual fare: L.B. Graham’s Beyond the Summerland. The novel is the first in the author’s five part, Christian fantasy series “The Binding the Blade.” Given the personal recommendation and the decades that have past since I last read anything billed as “fantasy,” I decided to give it a try. My expectations were low and the atrociously trite cover art did not help. And then, I barely made it through the melodrama of the dead son in the 26 page prologue. (Unfortunately, the prologue includes some key facts for understanding the conflict that unfolds in the rest of the book; it can’t be skipped.) Later on there are a few unexpected (but useful) shifts in point-of-view. Finally, the characters are fairly simple–the “good guys” are typically likeable; the “bad guys” (including the petulant Judas character) are mostly unlikeable. Halfway through, therefore, I was surprised to find myself enjoying the story.

The novel has a solid narrative structure and a daring conclusion. A journey, a stay in paradise, a stay in hell, a chase, a couple of battles and a betrayal. The surprise at the end is particularly admirable because it is so well foreshadowed. The reader knows it is coming, but suspends judgment and refuses to believe that author has the guts to follow through. Well, in fact, he does have the guts. (I wish I could be more direct about this, but this is the kind of book for which one should not “spoil” the plot.)

Although Beyond the Summerland is admirably constructed, I am having trouble imagining it’s target audience.  The novel’s Christian typography is very tidy and the author is burdened by a large debt to Lewis and Tolkien. But the story lacks the youthfulness of Lewis’s Narnia books. At the same time, it lacks Tolkien’s elaborate adventures. More than Lewis and Tolkien, the book focuses on the relationships of its human character–mostly on late adolescent, male efforts to court (in a very idealized manner) virtuous, young women.

I do not object; as I’ve already indicated: I enjoyed the reading. (Is this a book for middle-aged men with fading memories of Tolkien and Lewis?) But something about it reminds me of “chick-lit.” Like many first novels, and like much young adult literature, this is a coming of age story … but sex with the lights off. Like many young adult books for boys, there are some journeys, adventures, and a few battles, but, in addition to the Christian themes, it’s the love interests that really matter:

“Reflecting on those wet, rainy nights between Dal Harat and Peris Mil, when the grey sogginess eerily reflected his own feelings, he knew he was lucky to have found Wylla. He hadn’t thought he would ever find a reprieve from the sorrow of losing Alina. He hadn’t ever expected to feel his heart soar and sing in the presence of another, and yet he knew with Wylla that he had found the object of his soul’s delight. Her presence wrung from him a deeper passion than he had ever felt. It would be foolishness to turn away. Inexperience in matters of love had cost him his chance for happiness with Alina, but now he knew enough to understand the nature of his own feelings. If he lost Wylla, too, he would have only himself to blame.” (p. 307)

This only the first book in a five part series, so there’s plenty of space for the narrative of The Binding of the Blade to outgrow boy-needs-girl. I’d have to keep reading to find out. Life is short.

Graham, L. B. Beyond the Summerland. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Pub, 2004. WorldCat | Amazon | GoogleBooks