Monday, August 13, 2007

Frank Burns at Rest

Gore Vidal, in "Rabbit's Own Burrow" (The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000) lays upside the narrow head of John Updike a most painful literary bitch-slapping:

There is nothing, sad to say, surprising in Updike's ignorance of history and politics and of people unlike himself; in this, he is a standard American and so a typical citizen of what Vice-President Agnew once called the greatest nation in the country. But Updike has literary ambitions as well as most of the skills of a popular writer, except, finally, the essential one without which nothing can ever come together to any useful end as literature, empathy. He is forever stuck in a psychic Shillington-Ipswich-New York world where everything outside his familiar round is unreal. Because of this lack of imagination, he can't really do much even with the characters that he does have some feeling for because they exist in social, not to mention historic, contexts that he lacks the sympathy--to use the simplest word--to make real.

Rabbit at Rest
is vacuous in the extreme. There are pleasurable moments, mostly moments of nostalgia experienced as characters live through memorable events (as in: oh yeah, I remember the first shuttle disaster), and there are passages of quality writing. When Harry Angstrom and his granddaughter capsize a sunfish sailboat and Harry is having a heart attack while unable to locate her, Updike's prose takes on an uncharacteristic urgency. But such moments are few and far between.

Rabbit is an amoral and ultimately uninteresting knucklehead whose opinions are foolish, whose behavior is boorish, and whose judgments of others come from some mysterious and entirely unwarranted belief in his own exceptionalism. I slogged through these four novels merely to get a portrait of ugly Americanism at its worst? I suppose there's some value in recording for posterity our societal tendency to exhibit inadequate meta-cognitive skills, our ethical oversimplifications and shallow self-justifications, and our patented gift for sloth and self-destructive consumptive behaviors. But fuck these books. Vidal was right; Updike is a hack, and this is basically a novel about Archie Bunker or Frank Burns. Updike should, however, revisit the series to include a final volume: Rabbit is President.

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