Florence King on John Updike

Florence King on John Updike October 20, 2011

I came across a quote from Christopher Hitchens about John Updike recently and it reminded me of a chapter in the book Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye by Florence King, in which she reviews, in a manner of speaking, Updike’s literary style. If you’ve never read Florence King, I highly recommend her to you.

King is one of the more unusual people you will ever read. She’s a 75 year old lesbian monarchist. Yes, you read that right. She was raised by a British musician father, a profanity-spewing Southern mother and a traditional Southern belle grandmother, all of which you can read about in her alternately hilarious and touching autobiography, Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady. I believe both books are now out of print; I recently reordered them, having lost them somewhere over the years, and had to go to a used book site to do so. They are worth the trouble to track down. You will never have more fun reading someone you will probably disagree with most of the time.

King is, in some ways, a modern version of Dorothy Parker, and this review of Updike will remind you a bit of Parker’s famous book review: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” Here’s her chapter, entitled Phallus in Wonderland, which is a review done through a series of letters between King and her agent.

Mel Berger

William Morris Agency

1350 Avenue of the Americas

New York, New York 10019

Dear Mel:

I got a call from a lady at Lear’s magazine who asked me if I could do a critique of John Updike’s novels. I said yes, but we’ve got a problem. Remember when a reporter asked Gerald Ford what he thought of Solzhenitsyn and Ford said, “I understand he’s superb”?

I’ve never read John Updike. Naturally I didn’t tell the Lear’s lady that, so when you call her to negotiate the nuts and bolts, please invent some reason to ask for a long deadline so I’ll have time to read the major novels.

Florence

 

Dear Florence:

It’s all set. I told the Lear’s lady you needed some time “to refresh your memory” so you’ve got two months. I understand Updike is a genius. Read him in good health.

Mel

 

Dear Mel:

I’ve started Poorhouse Fair. Updike’s style is an exquisite blend of MeIville and Austen: reading him is like cutting through whale blubber with embroidery scissors.

Here’s the sunrise: “Despite the low orange sun, still wet from its dawning, crescents of mist like the webs of tent caterpillars adhered in the crotches of the hills.”

Here’s the sunset: “Opaque air had descended to the horizon, hills beyond the housetops of the town. On one side, the northern, a slab of blue-black, the mantle of purple altered, reared upward; on the other inky rivers tinged with pink fled in one diagonal direction. Between these two masses glowed a long throat, a gap flooded with a lucent yellow whiter than gold, that seemed to mark the place where, trailing blue clouds, a sublime creature had plunged to death …. ”

It goes on like that for a whole page. Somebody also has “wine-dark lips.” Isn’t that from The Odyssey?

He was awfully young when he wrote Poorhouse Fair so I’m going to skip it and start Rabbit, Run. I’m sure I’ll like it better – the critic Milton Rugoff once said it had “all the force and brilliance of a hallucination.”

Florence

 

Dear Mel:

It does. Listen to this: “They pelted the soldiers with remarks like balls of dust and the men sneezed into laughter.” That’s the kind of sentence that makes Magic Markers the biggest-selling item in undergraduate bookstores-it saves writing “How true!” in the margins.

Rabbit, Run is about a sensitive, tormented basketball star who runs away from his wife – a belles- lettres version of Hoosiers with an undescended testicle. Rabbit is searching for “something that wants him to find it.” He spends a lot of time wandering around trying to decide what it is he’s searching for. To discover the object of Rabbit’s quest, 1 consulted one of those slim lit. crit. monographs that English professors like to write. This is what the author, RachaeI Burchard, said:

The author seems to be telling us that “the search is the thing,” that instinct or intuition demands that we search. Or perhaps he is saying that anyone, whether he be intellectual or faithful or immoral and simple can sense the reality of God. Perhaps he is saying that God tries to reach us.

Florence

 

Dear Florence:

Keep them searches and seizures coming.

Mel

 

Dear Mel:

I gave up on Rabbit and started on The Centaur. It opens with a high school teacher named George Caldwell being shot in the ankle with an arrow in the middle of a lecture on the solar system. As he leaves the classroom in search of first aid, he turns into Chiron the Centaur.

The novel is an allegory based on ancient Greek mythology – except when it isn’t.

Turning back into a man, Caldwell goes to Hummel’s Auto Body Shop to get his ankle treated. You heard me: He goes to a mechanic to get the arrow removed from his ankle. Why? Because he has trusted mechanics ever since one told him his car was a heap. He received the news with joy, saying, “You’ve told me what you think is the truth and that’s the greatest favor one man can do for another.”

I consulted the lit. crit. monograph again. Here’s what author Burchard wrote:

The Centaur appears to be a part of Updike’s search for new dimensions in religion which will satisfy the needs of the neoteric individual. As in much of the poetry and in Rabbit, Run, it stresses the confusion of our time, especially for the dedicated seeker after Truth.

So, being a dedicated seeker after Truth, Caldwell gets Honest Hummel to yank the arrow. Afterwards he returns to school. As he passes the girls’ gym he sees Hummel’s wife, Vera, who teaches phys. ed., standing naked in the dressing room, “her amber pudenda whitened by drops of dew.” Says she: “Why should my brother Chiron stand gaping like a satyr? The gods are not strange to him.” The allegory is on again; Caldwell has turned back into a centaur and Vera has become Venus. She continues: “Father Kronos, in the shape of a horse, sired you upon Philyra in the fullness of his health; whereas at my begetting he tossed the severed genitals of Uranus like garbage into the foam.”

After she propositions him (“Come, Chiron, crack my maidenhead, it hampers my walking”), the centaur turns back into Caldwell and returns to his classroom, where the kids throw BBs at him. Three days later, Caldwell-Chiron dies and becomes a constellation right up there with Uranus. The book ends with a quotation in classical Greek.

To find out what it all meant, I consulted another lit. crit. monograph. This is what Joyce Markle said: “Thus, the overt use of myth in this manner allows Updike to control the extent and direction of his ambiguity. “

Isn’t “controlled ambiguity” like “Lebanese government” or “Mexican economy”? I don’t know how much more of this I can stand.

Florence

 

Dear Florence:

Last night at a literary cocktail party I met an Updike scholar who has a theory you might find useful. He said: “Unlike Hemingway and Mailer, Updike doesn’t transpose the military experience to the monads of his imaginary cosmos.”

I didn’t ask him what it meant because I was afraid he might tell me, but it has something to do with the fact that Updike was never in the service. I hope this will inspire you.

Mel

 

Dear Mel:

All right, you parseheads, I wanna see some sensitivity around here. You came here to Camp Jejune as full-blooded readers, but we’re gonna turn you into Sublimes!

I got somethin’ here I want you plot-suckin’ denouements to listen to. It’s from General John “Chesty” Updike’s novel A Month of Sundays: “Dear Tillich, that great amorous jellyfish, whose faith was a recession of beyonds with these two flecks in one or another pane: a sense of the world as ‘theonomous,’ and a sense of something ‘unconditional’ within the mind. Kant’s saving ledge pared finer than a fingernail.”

That oughta show you pudendas what happens when the Sublimes waft ashore and hit the imaginary cosmos. Chesty Updike refracts hell out of those monads and secures Fragmentary Hill quicker than you can say trompe l’oeil. That’s why the Sublime motto is Semper Vortex! Now get uranuses over to the monograph range on the double!

Florence

 

Dear Florence:

While thumbing through my Articles Due file, your Lear’s card reared up before me. In the suddenly opaque air a mantle of fear descended upon me, dappling my flanks with rivulets of sweat as I saw that Time’s winged Chevy is running out on the Updike piece.

Mel

 

Dear Mel:

Call me Ishkabibble.

I’m now reading Couples. It’s about ten couples in a suburb named Tarbox and they’re all searching. Twenty- count ’em – twenty dedicated seekers after Truth, saying things like “Maybe he is because I am, because we are” and “Death excites me. Death is being screwed by God.”

The theme is sex ‘n’ death: the thinking man’s jiggly. The protagonist is named Piet, which is Dutch for Pete. His problem, according to lit. crit. author Burchard, is his inability to separate agape from passion. He ought to watch Julia Child – she can do it with one hand.

Florence

 

Dear Florence:

The Lear’s lady called. She wants to know if you think deadlines are an illusion of reality.

Mel

 

Dear Mel:

I’m sorry to be so slow but I’ve been reading Rabbit Is Rich and all those references to damp-dark-dank secret places between women’s thighs got to me. I have come down with a mysterious bladder infection. The doctor said it’s tant pis.

I’ve also been busy around the house. Having read detailed descriptions of approximately six bushels of pubic hair, nameless forces drove me to go seeking and questing through my kitchen drawer to gather up all the Twisties I’ve saved and arrange them by color.

I found myself haunted by inexorable visions of all the motes, fragments, mists, films, filigrees, and blackish embryos of cumulus I’ve been reading about, so I cleaned and scrubbed like a Dutch good- wife. I even covered toothpicks with gauze to get the dirt out of those narrow places between Scylla and Charybdis. It took me four days, but now you could eat off my floor. My apartment is a shining city on a hill and I am a potted plant.

Can’t you imagine what Updike could do with Elvis Memorial Day? “The long underbelly of the line reared up with deathly life and a silt of caring fell from worshipper to worshipper as they filtered past the crotch-high statue of a hound dog made of roses. Teenage girls holding soaked yearning between their thighs turn the incipient blisters of their pouty lips toward the crypt as the air fills with the smell of between-breasts gummy with cheap powder …. ”

Florence

 

Dear Florence:

The Lear’s lady called again. Can’t you please write something, anything? I persuaded her to extend the deadline for two weeks. Can you manage something of intrinsic significance? Please advise.

Mel

 

Dear Mel:

BERGER, BUT

BY FLORENCE KING

Berger stared at the bruise and dung colors of his office. Voices mossy-thick as a tree where it comes out of the grass scrabbled at him through a hollow blur. There was a boom box stuck on his shoulder. Some street kid had thrown it at him, and now it was embedded in his flesh, locked forever on a hard rock station, turning him into a dedicated seeker after truth who couldn’t hear himself seek.

He opened the drawer of his crotch-high file cabinet. The hang files on their tracks reminded him of claws on the guard-rails of transcendence suspended over a primordial pit. Withdrawing a letter, he took it to Father Xerox and pressed the print button. The technological monster transluced into life with a chuffling sound of dolorous vigor like children rollerskating in hell.

The events of Berger’s life arranged themselves gummily in his mind like the shoe polish caught in the drilled eyes of his wingtips. He saw himself as a baby, lying in his scabrous crib and playing with his toy contract while Flatus, that great bubbler, sent resounding fanfaronades into the damp, dark, dank depths of his diaper.

He was Berger, but he was someone else. Suddenly he knows. His stomach slides and a wave of certainty scoops at his chest. He was Bergerion, condemned by Zeus to balance a lyre on his shoulder until Venus got her maidenhead back.

He was a prisoner in the thin-stretched shadows of earthly wilderness now, but someday he would be a constellation in the sky, right up there next to Your Anus.

Florence

 

Dear Florence:

The Lear’s lady said she knows exactly what she’s seeking after: your Updike piece. Please advise.

Mel

 

Dear Mel:

When Samuel Johnson was asked to comment on the plot of Cymbeline he refused, saying, “It is impossible to criticize unresisting imbecility.”

I am at brain-death’s door. I can’t finish any of Updike’s books. I keep putting one down and going on to another, thinking it’ll be better, but it never is. His last one, Roger’s Version, is about a divinity professor and a computer expert who team up to prove the existence of God. Part of it is written in computerese and part in medieval Latin. The lit. crit. crowd called it “a novel of ideas.” How can they tell?

For the past month I’ve been hoping that Lear’s would self-destruct so I wouldn’t have to read John Updike. Last week while deep-frying softshell crabs I got the oil too hot and the pan ignited. It was a Freudian slip – I was trying to burn the house down so I wouldn’t have to read John Updike.

I’d rather be a human mine sweeper in the Strait of Hormuz than read John Updike. I’d rather run away and join the ladies auxiliary of the French Foreign Legion than read John Updike. Tell the Lear’s lady I’m dead – it’s more or less true. I’ve been throwing up, grinding my teeth, and twisting a strand of hair like Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit.

Florence

 

Dear Florence:

I’ve tried to call you several times but there was no answer. I’ve persuaded the Lear’s lady to accept a substitute for the Updike piece. Do you happen to have something suitable in the primordial depths of your screeching hang files? Please advise.

Mel

 

Mel Berger

William Morris Agency

 

Dear Mr. Berger:

You don’t know me, but I’m Florence King’s neighbor here in Virginia.

Now don’t you worry, everything’s all right. The good news is that Florence will be back home real soon. There’s nothing wrong with her mind, she was just a little run down.

The bad news is that she doesn’t have a “piece” (I don’t know what that means but she said you would), so while we were waiting for the men to come, she asked me to tell you to “send the Lear’s lady the letters.” I don’t know what that means either. I don’t know what any of this is all about, except that it has something to do with dikes. That’s not my cup of tea, but live and let live, I always say.

If you’re ever down this way, come see me.

Yours sincerely,

Mary Lou Carmichael Monroe

(Mrs. Stuart Madison Monroe III)

"Anyone who would believe all of the lies from CNN and MSNBC are dummies."

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