eurospill part 1

My return from abroad has been met by loud cries: "Praeceptor! Speak of thy exploits and all grotesqueries witnessed!" In my endeavor to give a thrillingly rounded and complete picture (what used to be called "novelistic," now "TV-like") I will break up my memories into installments. This first will concern the topic, "What I Read" (rhymes with "dead").

A trip of 5 weeks is a laughing matter to a young working musician, but to me (a tip of the hat here to S.J. Perelman, and a plea for forgiveness to the reader for this, my third parenthesis in only four sentences) it was about as funny as a cry on the moors. Here's how it laid out: just under a week on the west coast, a few days in England, two weeks in Scotland, 5 days in Norway and 8 in Sweden, for a total, with two travel days added in, of 35 days. Normally I'm a pretty slow reader, but over a month with so much plane and train time, and one in which I'd be on my own for good chunks, I thought I had better stock the old Kindle up to the hilt. So I bought ten books, all of them escapist, or my version of escapism, which mostly means Anglosphere fiction written in contemporary idiom. It goes down easy and serves no useful function so I like to pace myself -- normally I try one or two new novels a year, and normally it's an investment of time I find questionable. But, looking at this trip in advance, its rigors and its length, I thought it might likely contain such dreadul interludes (I was right) that to drown in easeful sentences (and a few of the products for which Scotland is renowned) would be a near-necessary palliative. 

Too Far To Go: The Maples Stories, by John Updike. I wagered that the depressing Swedish rural north would be set off nicely by rereading these incredibly depressing tales of an obnoxious man whose self-centeredness and ceaseless infidelities destroy his marriage. Again -- righto!

My Man Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse. These short stories seemed to have been written before the golden era of Jeeves -- characters and tone a bit unripe -- and I didn't enjoy them as much as I had hoped.

Quantum Physics and Ultimate Reality: Mystical Writings of Great Physicists, anthologized by Michael Green. Not as heady a book as it might sound, and altogether rewarding. And surprising, in the overall props given by the greats of early and mid-20th-c. science -- Planck, Einstein, Schrodinger -- to the other magisterium, religion. Though only in the most general, "Marxism as theorized, not practiced" way: the idea of a personal God, much less one who fertilizes Middle East virgins with sons to be killed at a later date for rather poetic reasons, is curtly dismissed. When you are dealing daily with people who are thoroughly obsessed with train schedules, wars and skirmishes of the 1200s, contractual split points, and the music of Jason Isbell, books like this make a pleasant counterpoint.

A Heart So White, by Javier Marias. Far and away the best of the ten, and the heart and soul of the journey, yet another excursion to the edge of allowable speculation by the Madrid master. And ditto, re the couterpoint remark above.

Blandings Castle, by P.G. Wodehouse. Like I said, easy. Shameless escape.

The Arsonist, by Sue Miller. When the notion of "guilty pleasure" is floated I always claim disbelief, but the books of Sue Miller do approach a g.p., only because I have the feeling that if someone, say an Oxford don seated across from me on a train, were to catch me behind one of their covers, he would right away think me a middlebrow tenderfoot. Or perhaps an extremely tall lady, even. This is not to endorse "middlebrow," a term for which I have as little fondness as "guilty pleasure," only to admit to a small snobbish anxiety lurking in my mental makeup. The cover art of Sue Miller books, as well as the thumbnail plot descriptions ("she had everything a woman could desire, but...return of a tantalizing figure from her youth...explosive consequences ... identity ... conscience ... illusory ... heartrending ... past"), the jacket photo of our gentle-yet-steely author, the very name "Sue Miller," which sounds like a character in a teleplay about an invalid being pursued by a madman, these common ingredients add up to an all-too-vividly-imaginable in-transit fiasco. The marketing tactics, I fear, are too upfront. Skilled marketing is an excellent way of ruining an otherwise nifty product. Think of Ray Charles, whose music seems unruinable, but pipe him into a Starbucks and surround him with the softly grooving tracks of other pop artists whose music has been decided by committee vote to sound exactly like coffee smells, and ruined it is, just a little. Ray Charles is suddenly on the same footing with Better Than Ezra, and you're out of patience with them both, for being so snappy and golden-throated while you, fresh out of pajamas, have stood in a themepark-quality line for four-dollar coffee. A day that has dawned without the least suggestion of doubt on its horizon about Ray Charles's talent, and an hour later, there it is, fudging the sweet sun's majesty. And you aren't even sure you like coffee anymore. If I'm not utterly lost in my muddled storytelling -- and I've put better children than you off to sleep with it -- then this is a universal story and you are now saying "Aha!" Now, about me and this Sue Miller. A man who proudly self-identifies as a non-reader of picture books about the Hamptons, a non-customer of Williams-Sonoma, and an incurious investigator into the secret desires of womanhood, which had best remain securely under wraps, this admirable man must stand queasily at the turnstiles as the tastefully outfitted conductor calls "All aboard for the Sue Miller Express!" There are books by Christina Stead, and there are books by Cynthia Freeman (these have titles like Come Pour The WineAlways And ForeverIllusions of Love, and Beyond These Tears, and a free canned ham to the bright reader who can guess the one fictive addition to that appalling list), and we know on which side of that fanciful lady-author spectrum Sue Miller books sit. Or do we? Before I relieve all these Sue Miller insults with Sue Miller praise, let me recall a brief meeting with Cynthia Freeman, whose name you may have thought I introduced as an uncreative semi-symmetry on "Christina," but which I actually introduced as an uncreative wedge into an unrevealing and unecessary anecdote. In 1983, while I was laboring as a jack-of-all-trades for a shabby publishing concern in New York City, I was summoned to the hotel room of Miss Freeman, which was on Lexington Avenue near Grand Central Station. In order to compose her next lady-thrilling masterpiece with more Hitlerian efficiency, she had bought a Dictaphone, which I believe even in 1983 wasn't what you'd call new technology. But she was vexed at its operations, so out went the call for expert help, and into her plush chambers strode the future composer of "Waitin' On These New Things To Go," like a fucking knight. Cynthia was recumbent in her huge bed and had, unless memory tricks me, a gauzy purplish shawl wrapped several times around her neck. It could have been a romantic scene but for the distracting MacGuffin of the Dictaphone and the massive difference in our ages. "Thank goodness you've arrived," she breathed with sincere appreciation. "I'm hopeless against these silly thingamajigs -- I can't make head nor tail!" I read the five buttons, marked "Pause," "Record," "Play," "Rewind," and "Fast Forward." These were very familiar terms to those of us born in the aftermath of the Second World War; she had been brought into the light as the First was just getting off the drawing-board. I un-depressed the "Pause" control and sat down alongside her, proceeding to explain the functions of the five buttons in layman's language. This evidently had enough overlap with lady-romance-potboiler language that the peaks of understanding were swiftly attained. Miss Freeman pressed ten dollars into my hand and told me I was a dear and a very shrewd boy (and, at 20, as I was, she was not far off the mark -- you should have known me!). But back to Sue Miller. I read a positive notice about one of her old books many years ago in the Hudson Review. "If that crowd of mustyheads can laugh off Dwight MacDonald's ghost and whip up enthusiasm for this lady writer," I thought, with my trademark witty panache, "then I can certainly get over myself and give it a try." So I picked up The Distinguished Guest and read it. "Unobtrusively well-written, and an engaging read," I thought, with my usual blurb-ready mental vocabulary, as I closed it. "But -- Sue Miller?!" The old snobbery would not let go, I guess is what it came down to. There I left l'affaire Miller for 12 years; but in our lives, almost nothing seems to go away for good. "That Gaby, that Lily," I thought one day all of a sudden while slicing some cabbage. These two were characters from The Distinguished Guest, whom I remembered clearly after these dozen action-packed years, as clearly as if they had moved in with me for a month. In fact, more clearly -- not the way you remember living visitors, people you schedule optional appointments to avoid and hard drinks in private to forget, but the way you remember Charles Dickens characters, characters who, like Sue Miller's, are very well-named. How many characters -- their names and physiques; I thought I could recall Gaby's hair and hips and height, and how she might have looked in bed or working in the garden -- are so easily retrieved from reading experiences so long distant? At this moment I resolved, finally, to let go of the attitude and call myself what I was, A Sue Miller Fan. I went to the bookstore and bought her then-latest, a thing called The Lake Shore Limited. Guess what? It was fantastic. It was literature. Whoever wrote this -- the shawl was off. Go get it now. The Arsonist, however, I'd be slower to recommend. Top-notch characters, yes, but slightly shy of spellbinding.

In Love, by Alfred Hayes. Heartfelt and smartly done, but it hasn't aged too well, and, as short as it was, it felt like a duty to return to after the third chapter or so.

The Flame Throwers, by Rachel Kushner. This wasn't my cup of tea, and was the only book I purchased that I didn't finish. In fact I set it down hard, at the 14% mark, right after this sentence: "I sensed he would only keep meandering away, like something you are trying to catch that continually evades your grasp." However, Ms. K. gets a point for dropping a Wanda Jackson title into her book, and ten points for that title being -- not "Fujiyama Mama" or "Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad" or even "The Box It Came In" -- "Tears At The Grand Ole Opry"! 

Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan. I read this on the flight from LAX to Heathrow. It helped the hours move by faster, but it was no Atonement.

The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud. This has more of those lady problems, about which let's try to think of Faye Dunaway cooing meaningfully to Dustin Hoffman in the bathtub in Little Big Man: "I shall avert my eyes." It features a socially secure but internally roiling schoolteacher who is catalyzed into a spasm of artistic self-discovery by a lady artist from India who makes videos for her performance-art pieces and ends up using some footage of the teacher lady masturbating in one of them. Oh, spoiler alert! Anyway, it was a fairly engaging book written with much intelligence and splashes of style -- but, alas, that's a category like "grass that's green."

A week or so before the end of my trip, I realized with some surprise (mostly because of the Kushner disposal) that my ten books would not last as long as my trip. There are a lot of years that ten books would take me a whole half of to finish, but this particular month was just like that, a lot of years. Is that sentence just as bad as the Rachel Kushner one? You may throw your PC at the wall in dismay. There was a book I was really trying and hoping not to buy, Adam Begley's bio of John Updike, but at this point in my journey, far from loved ones and drunkenly stuck in the pointless Swedish countryside, I relented to one more easy pleasure, which I knew I would quaff with unseemly gusto.

When I was a lad, the Updike name was like gold; since his death and the years of declining literary potency that preceded it, the reputation has flagged. I've read maybe half of his output, which is a hell of a lot of reading of one person's voice. Yet C., my playwright friend, read and retained more of J.U., and this despite the fact that his estimation of Updike is lower than mine. I met the playwright in 2009, when he started appearing at the Barbes, the Park Slope club where I frequently played. He invited me to see one of his shows, in the Village. It was about torture, personal power relations, and U.S. warmaking, among other things, and was highly verbal and verbally graphic -- the man had a consuming passion for words, which I don't think is quite true of all playwrights. So, at the bar afterward, he and I had some back-and-forth on -- some conflicting opinions on -- Updike, one of the most clearly, and dazzlingly, logophilic fiction artists. To compress and vulgarize C.'s thesis -- and it really was a thesis, with support drawn from multiple scenes and characters, whose details and names he remembered with silly clarity -- the great man of letters was cunt-crazy, his urge to find solace in the babymaking machinery of mother, lovers, and wives overwhelming and severely hampering his ability to do his professed primary work, that of perceiving and getting accurately down the beautiful minutiae of our God-given lives. How about that?

Well, I walked away from this meeting a little put off by this C. (I don't include real names of many people in my online stories because people tend not to like it when their private words and thoughts appear suddenly on my website, as they didn't like it when they appeared in John Updike's stories -- oh, spoiler alert again, that's where this paragraph is ultimately headed -- and I strongly dislike name-dropping anyway.) It's a reader's duty not to conflate author and narrator -- everyone knows that, J.U. himself said it, many times, in regard to both his and others' writing -- and I thought the playwright was cutting corners unfairly, even boorishly, in his literary analysis. During our conversation, I made some feeble replies in Updike's behalf, or rather on behalf of Updike as conscious creator of make-believe, as detached and painstaking observer of multiple lives, multiple and widely varying experiential prisms, but C. had his citations memorized and his argument, it seemed, well-rehearsed -- as a matter of fact, he was on a tear and it was fun to watch. If I had thought that reading the Begley book would buttress his side of the exchange, I might have thought it one more reason to shirk the tome -- the others being that a) thick literary biographies, chronicles of the lives of sedentary bookish men, are a waste of time, and b) finding out what people you admire really did day to day, and how they appeared to those who knew them intimately, can only knock one more of life's little joys off its flimsy plinth. But, as I say, I had a strong feeling that, once I'd opened it, I'd be on this book like a Benedictine at vespers, and so it was.

Once I had done with it, I texted C. -- I hadn't had contact with him for many moons -- promptly. "You were right," I wrote sheepishly. "The bad behavior was all Updike's own. He lived the scenes then went off straightaway to write them. The vagina was, as you said, his mystic portal." Befriend me, take me to your plays, and you too will receive texts like this. I still value John Updike's books very highly -- more specifically, the literary essays, the Rabbit tetralogy, Roger's Version, and 50 or so short stories -- but I am very sorry ever to have read, in non-fiction form, the details of all that was thrown into the furnace to make them. Am I being too priggish, do you think? (Postcript: C., quite characteristically, in response to my concession text, referred me to a late story of J.U.'s, an accomplished, subtly remorseful, and underrated piece, that took some of the sting off. Judges are always on the lookout for a little remorse.)