Thanks to our friend Edan, who is well-connected in the world of audio books, Mrs. Millions and I had a 6 cd, seven and half hour, unabridged work of literature to keep us company on our recent trip from Chicago to New York, where we’re picking up the dog, and various of our far flung possessions. The Outlaw Sea was a riveting work of non-fiction by an accomplished reporter. Langewiesche is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and has written several books that combine hard reportage with the more ephemeral qualities of a travel writer. In this case, Langewiesche’s goal is to illustrate with bold examples the ungovernability of the sea. For him, this is a law of nature, but it is also a consequence of the inability of the laws of men to deal with sea’s expanses. His case studies, if you will, are many, but he spends the most time on a few memorable stories: the modern day pirate attack on the Alondra Rainbow in 1999; the post-apocalyptic landscape of the world’s most heavily trafficked ship graveyard, the beaches of Alang, India; and the wreck of the ferry Estonia on which at least 852 people died when it went down in a storm in the Baltic Sea in 1994. The subtext in all of these stories is that the tragedies contained within are, at least partly, a result of the inability of modern societies to govern the seas. The greater implication, as Langewiesche makes clear, is that such lawlessness and statelessness make the sea fertile for the operations of lawless, stateless terrorists. The sea is everywhere, but it is nowhere in the eyes of the law. These timely concerns, and Langewiesche’s sturdy prose elevate a book of riveting tales of disasters at sea to a book of more weighty importance.
Midway into Jonathan Dee’s new novel A Thousand Pardons, one begins to imagine a lunchtime scene at a fashionable eatery in Midtown Manhattan. Dee is seated at a linen-topped table with his agent and editor and maybe some publishing executives wanting to hang out with a guy who nearly won a Pulitzer with his last book. Drinks have been served, menus whisked away, and one of the publishing execs has just asked Dee what his new novel is about. If his jacket photo is any guide, Dee is a dapper-looking dude, all upswept silver hair and brainiac black-frame glasses, and one imagines him settling back, waiting for the table to quiet and then unfurling a sly, smirky smile. “This book,” he tells them, “is about an ordinary woman with just one extraordinary talent: she can make powerful men say they’re sorry.”
There is a silence around the table, just long enough for a few quick subterranean glances, and then, as one, they all breathe a great sigh of relief. Okay, cool, their beaming faces seem to say as they dive back into their midday martinis, this one’s in the bag.
I have no idea, of course, if that is how it went down with Dee’s much-anticipated follow-up to his 2010 Pulitzer-finalist novel The Privileges, but A Thousand Pardons certainly reads like a book sold on a really cool twenty-word sentence. The Privileges, one of the best books about haute New York City since Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis vanished down their separate rabbit holes in the 1990s, daringly failed to punish its morally corrupt private equity fund manager hero. The PE guy, Adam Morey, racks up millions in illicit profits through an insider-trading scam, not because he needs the cash, but just because he feels it is his due, and instead of being punished as any villain in a well-behaved modern novel should, he gets away with it. His daughter is a hot mess and his son is seriously weird, but Adam goes on to form a charitable foundation and bask in the glow of his accomplishments.
Dee didn’t seem to know quite what to do with a moral novel that doesn’t punish its morally bankrupt hero – the book sort of peters out at the end – but coming as it did on the heels of the financial crisis, The Privileges, which one begins to slowly realize is in fact an extremely devious and subtle satire, put its finger on how a very small segment of the richest of the rich New Yorkers see themselves as made heroic by the sheer monstrousness of their crimes.
One can’t help thinking that between that book and his new one, someone – maybe one of those publishing execs, maybe Dee himself – quietly suggested that maybe this time he should consider a more traditional, better-behaved dramatic structure. As a result, A Thousand Pardons, though a smart, fun, engaging read, never catches the zeitgeist in the way one might expect from its high-concept premise.
Part of the problem may be that Dee, a gifted stylist equipped with a finely calibrated emotional radar, isn’t particularly well suited to writing high-concept novels. To give his heroine, Helen Armstead, a chance to show off her extraordinary talents, Dee must first subject her to a series of unfortunate events of the kind that only happen in novels and on the front pages of cheap tabloid newspapers. Her husband Ben, catatonically bored with Helen and his life as a partner at a white-shoe law firm, embarks on an entirely one-sided love affair with “a short, blond, gregarious, almost comically well-built” summer intern. He rents a hotel room, whisks her up there, and asks her to take off all her clothes in exchange for not having to have sex with him. She does so, but on their way out of the hotel room Ben is beaten to a pulp by the girl’s boyfriend, who has followed them to the hotel, and Ben, after some drunken misadventures behind the wheel of his car, is charged with attempted sexual assault.
All this takes fewer than twenty pages, and though it is narrated with Dee’s characteristic deftness, it has the feel of a cable TV pilot, not the opening chapter of a literary novel. I even cast it in my mind, and became half-convinced that if I could just get Alison Janney to commit to play Helen, I could have it on HBO in time for the fall season. Meanwhile, I had the rest of a novel to read. Helen, who has been a willing doormat to Ben and their adopted daughter, Sara, through many years of marriage, is forced to look for work, and ends up, as luck and plot contrivance would have it, in the offices of a failing public relations firm, where Helen displays her undiscovered talent for getting arrogant men to apologize.
Perhaps you begin to see the problem here. In her daily life, Helen cannot stand up to anyone, not Ben, not her crabby teenage daughter, not even the transparently incompetent marital therapist she and Ben go to try to save their unsalvageable marriage. Helen is a wilted leaf carried upon the surface of the novel’s plot until all of a sudden there she is telling the angry owner of a Chinese restaurant facing an ugly labor dispute with his fresh-off-the-boat deliverymen that what he needs to do is apologize. “What will I say?” the understandably shocked owner asks.
“You will say that you are sorry, Mr. Chin,” Helen said. “Without getting into specifics, you will apologize, and ask your customers and the people of New York for their forgiveness. And they will give it to you. They want to. People are quick to judge, Mr. Chin, they are quick to condemn, but that’s mostly because their ultimate desire is to forgive.”
Whah? Where was this cocky bulldozer of a woman with x-ray vision into the human psyche for the first 37 pages of this novel? That this may not be the best PR advice – you can see what a quick apology did for Eliot Spitzer, who may be free to run for public office again by, oh, 2413 – is less important than how little it seems to have to do with the character Dee seems to be writing about. Helen, the character, is a panicky, under-confident woman overwhelmed by the emotional mess that life has thrown her way. Helen, the character device, is but a mouthpiece for what appears to be an authorial riff on the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis in which we all wanted someone to call the banking titans to account for driving the economy into a ditch and got instead the prosecution of poor, muddling Bernie Maddoff for his absurdly amateurish Ponzi scheme.
In truth, after a couple more of these speaking-truth-to-power moments, Dee loses interest in his high-concept premise and returns to his more natural turf of low-concept, emotionally resonant literary fiction. Helen is hired by “the sixth largest PR agency in the world” whose chairman, in a charmingly improbable scene, visits Helen’s tiny office to tell her she has “an extraordinary gift.” Anyone expecting a sort of middle-aged mom’s version of Spiderman, in which drab ex-housewife Helen Armstead dons a bespoke suit and browbeats America’s corporate villains into abject apology, will be disappointed to learn that by this point less than halfway through the book Helen has performed her last truly successful act of PR derring-do.
What the reader gets instead, in the interstices of Dee’s increasingly busy plot, are a series of brief but gorgeously rendered snapshots of daily life in New York in the early 2010s. Sara, Helen’s Chinese-born daughter, at sea in the roiling waters of a Manhattan middle school, hooks up with a wealthy, troubled black kid whose identity issues mirror her own. This subplot bears only the most tangential relation to the central one, but these scenes of two misbegotten kids in the process of inventing workable identities for themselves are in their quiet way some of the strongest in the book.
This question of identity – who are we without our stories of ourselves? – seems to be the true theme of not just A Thousand Pardons, but The Privileges as well. In that book, Adam Morey is not at all who he purports to be, but his success in life is not so much that he gets away with a great crime, but that he and his adoring wife manage to convince themselves that the outer lie is the truth. It’s not that they pretend to themselves that Adam has never stolen, but that by their twisted logic, so attuned to the pervasive morality of New York in the 2000s, a great crime if committed for the right reasons is itself virtuous.
In A Thousand Pardons, Dee has tried again to ride the zeitgeist, but unlike in The Privileges where character and theme worked hand-in-glove, Helen Armstead is too human to fit neatly into the plot he seems to have envisioned for her. The book is by no means a failure. While A Thousand Pardons tripped this reader’s bullshit detector more than once, it is also propulsively readable for long stretches at a time. But readers will have to wait for the book that does for New York in the 2010s that The Privileges did for the city in the 2000s.
A critic once wrote of John Updike’s “seeming inability to write badly.” True enough: even when Updike’s prose is at its most trivial, its most self-satisfied, its most pornographic — and his critics will point out that it is often all of these things — it is always, from a technical standpoint, immaculate.
Given how difficult writing is, and given how much Updike produced in a legendarily prolific career that spanned more than half a century, it’s worth pausing to consider the remarkable fact of Updike’s talent. In terms of constructing beautiful sentences, Updike had few peers. Not just in the years after World War II, or in the 20th century, but in literary history. At a time when writing is spoken of with tedious frequency as a “craft,” Updike, in his metronomic virtuosity, is uniquely deserving of the term.
And yet, almost five years after his death, Updike’s critics often seem to outweigh his admirers, and their main complaint is that same virtuosity. Of course, Updike was subject to charges of favoring style over substance from the moment he was considered a major writer, but it’s the late-Boomer and early Gen-Xer audience that Updike really annoys. In a footnote to his new translation of Karl Kraus’s essays, Jonathan Franzen — the closest contemporary literature comes to a figure of Updikean stature — writes:
Updike was exquisitely preoccupied with his own literary digestive process, and his virtuosity in clocking and rendering the minutiae of daily life was undeniably unparalleled, but his lack of interest in the bigger postwar, postmodern, socio-technological picture marked him, in my mind, as a classic self-absorbed sixties-style narcissist.
Similarly, in a 1998 essay the late David Foster Wallace declared himself “one of the very few actual subforty Updike fans,” and then proceeded to savage Updike, concluding the essay by calling him an “asshole.” And the critic James Wood contended that Updike’s prose “confronts one with the question of whether beauty is enough.”
The Library of America has just released its two-volume edition of Updike’s Collected Stories (nicely edited by Christopher Carduff), and while I doubt it will do much to improve the author’s sagging stock, at nearly 2,000 pages, comprising 186 stories published between 1953 and 2009, it offers ample opportunity for pondering Wood’s question, and the larger problem of John Updike: he was incapable of writing badly, but was he capable of writing, for lack of a better word, importantly?
Having read nearly 200 of Updike’s stories in rapid succession, I’m more sympathetic to the critics’ point of view than I had been. While not willing to go as far as Franzen, who argues that Updike was “wasting” his “tremendous, Nabokov-level talent,” I was surprised by how many of Updike’s stories impressed me while I read them, and how few left an impression. One can open the Collected Stories to almost any page and find a surprising metaphor, a lovely description, or a wry morsel of irony without remembering much of anything about story that contains it. The stories that I’d already read and admired, the ones widely regarded as Updike’s best — “Pigeon Feathers,” “A Sense of Shelter,” “In Football Season,” “The Persistence of Desire,” “The Happiest I’ve Been,” and, of course, “A&P,” for decades a stalwart of high school curricula — now strike me as a largely comprehensive list, in little need of emendation in light of Updike’s larger corpus.
The curious paradox of Updike is that he made art into a craft, but only rarely did he transcend craft to achieve art. In a sense, then, the answer to Wood’s question is that beauty is not enough, at least not the beauty of finely tuned prose and vivid images that was Updike’s specialty. Art requires the wedding of aesthetics and morals, and the case might be made that the morals are more important; few people would call Dostoyevsky a beautiful writer, but even fewer would contest that he was a great artist.
Still, Updike was capable of art, and if it is disheartening to see how much of that art is concentrated in the early years of his career, when his fiction focused on the still-vital memories of his Pennsylvania childhood — the caricature Updike, the one whose writing is full of explicit sex and overwrought descriptions of the female form, doesn’t show up until the early 1970s, and he is indeed trying — those earliest stories still possess a bracing sublimity. (Not that he never produced strong works later in his career; the stories tracing the collapse of the marriage of Richard and Joan Maple — in my opinion, Updike’s greatest work, stronger even than the Rabbit novels — continued well into his later years, but unfortunately, only the first of them appears in the Collected Stories. According to a textual note, the Library of America plans to publish the Maples stories, and the ones about Henry Bech, in a separate collection, an understandable decision that nevertheless weakens the volumes under consideration.)
To my mind, “The Happiest I’ve Been” is the finest of them all. The narrator, John Nordholm, (previously seen in “Friends From Philadelphia”) plans to drive with his high school friend Neil Hovey to Chicago, where he will propose to the girl he loves before returning to school in the east for spring semester. After saying goodbye to John’s parents, Neil reveals that he’d like to go to a New Year’s party in Olinger (the milieu of Updike’s early Pennsylvania stories) before they get underway. They go to the party, and from there to another girl’s house, where they pass the late hours. The night is evocatively drawn, but the crux of the story comes when John and Neil finally leave for Chicago at dawn. On the way to the interstate, they pass John’s house, which they left hours earlier, and Updike captures the oddity of this moment perfectly: “With a .22 I could have had a pane of my parents’ bedroom window, and they were dreaming I was in Indiana.”
They drive on towards Pittsburgh, and here, I’ll defer to Updike:
There were many reasons for my feeling so happy. We were on our way. I had seen a dawn…Ahead, a girl waited who, if I asked, would marry me, but first there was a vast trip: many hours and towns interceded between me and that encounter. There was the quality of the ten a.m. sunlight as it existed in the air ahead of the windshield, filtered by the thin overcast, blessing irresponsibility — you felt you could slice forever through such a cool pure element — and springing, by implying how high these hills had become, a widespreading pride: Pennsylvania, your state — as if you had made your life.
For anyone who has been young in America — for anyone who has been young — this passage needs no explication. It is beautiful, and it is certainly enough.