Andrea Levy’s Small Island is a post-colonial novel told from four points of view. Queenie and Bernard, separated by war, are a British couple with a tepid relationship and Hortense and Gilbert are Jamaican, married out of convenience and lured to England by opportunity. The book explores British racism in the 1950s. It’s less overtly ugly than its American cousin, but it nonetheless dictates the borders of the lives of Gilbert, Hortense and their fellow immigrants. Britain, long the colonizer, renowned for her Empire, in Small Island has reached a point where it would like to forget about the past and start from scratch. This time all these people of different colors can stay in their own lands. But, of course, this is not an option. Instructed by centuries of colonialism to believe they are British subjects and stirred up by the global tumult of World War II, immigrants from all over the world resettle in their “Mother Country.” Nearly all of the white folks in the book are like Bernard, dismissive and even affronted by the arrival of darker people on their shores. They stare, heckle, slam doors and on occasion take a swing at these people. It matters not that thousands of Jamaicans fought along side the British during the war. It is telling that most of the British folks Gilbert interacts with think that Jamaica is in Africa. Queenie, however, is the anomaly and perhaps even a cliche since so often these novels of race relations have at their center an enlightened white person. But luckily Levy gives her sufficient depth to carry a large chunk of the novel. What sets this book apart, and what probably helped Levy win awards for it – the Orange prize in 2004 and then this year’s Orange “Best of the Best” – was her ability to imbue each of the four narrators with his or her own voice. Gilbert and Hortense speak with the native rhythm of their home island, Bernard’s voice is pinched and fidgety, and Queenie is the voice of hope and happiness. Though the chapter headings indicate who will narrate each chapter, the voices are so distinctive that this touch is unnecessary.
When I encounter readers who’ve read all of David Sedaris’ books and are pining for more, I often point them to Fraud by David Rakoff. I based this recommendation on his frequent and frequently amusing appearances on This American Life, and a general idea that he and Sedaris share a certain world view for whatever reason. Well, now I’ve read the book, and I think it’s fair to say that Rakoff is a reasonable substitute for Sedaris, should no Sedaris be available. But they are not the same writer. Rakoff frequently pens a sort of meta-article in which he talks about the particulars and relative merits of his assignment as he embarks on that assignment. I have no idea if the essays that appear in Fraud were published in the same form in magazines or if for every article he crafted a meta-article with which to entertain himself (and us). Either way, the reader feels invited in for a behind the scenes look at what it is like to be a disaffected, overly-qualified, under-ambitious journalist as he takes on his fluffy assignments. In this way he differs from Sedaris, who writes almost exclusively about himself, with no artifice in between him and the reader. The fluffier the assignment, the more devil-may-care Rakoff becomes. He takes jabs at Steven Segal’s new age retreat, a New Englander who walks up the same “mountain” every day, and, most often, himself. At times the persona wears thin, too much cynicism and self-awareness, as when he writes about portraying Sigmund Freud in the window of Barney’s department store. But he redeems the collection with the final two essays in which he lets the reader see his more human side. In “Tokyo Story,” he returns to the city fifteen years after being forced to leave and start over his life after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Returning, he finds no haunting demons, but instead paints a funny and endearing portrait of a unique city.I have been so relieved to find that the city in and of itself is not enough to unlock the sadness of my younger self. To the contrary, I have been unable to wipe the smile from my face since I arrived, giddy with a sense of survival. It’s not even clear to me that that old misery is still housed in my body anymore. I have been avoiding a monster behind a door for thirteen years, only to find that it had melted away long ago, nothing more than a spun-sugar bogeyman. It’s definitely not the first time in my adulthood I have realized this, but it never fails to cheer me to have it proven yet again that almost any age is better than twenty-two. The final essay, “I Used to Bank Here, but That Was Long, Long Ago” is about Rakoff’s bout with Hodgkin’s. Here he is at is best, and his typically casual vulgarity is more important to the plot, which revolves around a long lost sperm sample from his cancer days. Ultimately, he revisits his illness, long tucked away after he beat it, and we realize that the cynical Rakoff isn’t so cynical when he’s willing to be brave.
John Updike surely had the most enviable career in postwar American letters. He was published early, in the place where he most sought acceptance, and his talent was recognized, remarked, and encouraged at every stage. He seems never to have labored outside his writerly vocation, and almost everything he ever wrote found a home. Self-doubt seems rarely to have visited him. As a writer of prose, his efficiency and durability over more than five decades were almost disconcerting.
He was likewise at ease in the social world, despite a mild stammer. He negotiated the transition from rural Pennsylvania to Harvard with little strain, and from there the Lampoon, The New Yorker, and the Academy of Arts and Letters, vaulting almost carelessly from honor to roseate honor. For a man who jealously guarded his selfhood, he was to a surprising extent an institutional man, one who spent half a century associated with a single magazine (The New Yorker) and, after a false start, a single publisher (Knopf). Tall, attractive, affably wolfish, he also negotiated his way into the beds of many women, and reported back to us on what he found there, the sexual revolution in situ. He was divorced, suffered hostile reviews, endured bouts of psoriasis. But for the most part, John Updike’s life was an embarrassment of riches, as his genial but also slightly smirky public manner attested.
Miraculously, the lapidary Updike style seemed to arrive fully formed, as evidenced in his much-anthologized New Yorker piece about Ted Williams’s final game at Fenway Park, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” published when Updike was 28-years-old: the effortless phrase making (“a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark”); the revelation of beauty nested within the ordinary; the final flourish that enacts the very phenomenon it describes (“So he knew how to do even that, the hardest thing. Quit.”). Like Williams, Updike was something of a remote god, if a largely benevolent one. He would not pretend to find writing, or his own passage through life, arduous. In an interview given shortly before he died, he observed of the fin de siécle salon painter John Singer Sargent (like Updike — and Williams — a prodigy), “We’re drawn to artists who tell us that art is difficult to do, and takes a spiritual effort, because we are still puritan enough to respect a strenuous spiritual effort. We don’t really want to think that the artist is only very skilled, that he has merely devoted his life to perfecting a certain set of intelligible skills. Sargent misses getting top marks because he made it look easy.” These observations are shadowed by our knowledge of Updike’s relationship with his own readers, the sense that some final measure of love was withheld on both sides.
Updike died in 2009, and the public man of interviews and graduation speeches still seems to wait just offstage. This creates a problem of critical distance that is especially acute for Adam Begley, to whom Updike was also vivid in a more personal way, as a family friend. A second generation Harvard man, the son of the Wall Street lawyer-turned-novelist Louis Begley (like Updike, Harvard ’54), Begley knows the social and cultural terrain of Updike’s adult life well, and he renders Updike’s years at Harvard and The New Yorker of the Shawn period with authority. Begley also reconstructs the physical, familial, and psychological terrain of Updike’s Pennsylvania boyhood with subtlety and care, drawing connections between the writer’s family life and earliest aspirations without succumbing to a reductive determinism. Begley provides a clear and sympathetic portrait of Updike’s mother, the dominating presence of his early life and herself an aspiring writer, and he persuasively identifies the pivotal moment when Updike, as a Harvard freshman, began the gentle but decisive separation from her that allowed him to move unfettered toward adulthood. Begley knows that ultimately — as John O’Hara (born Pottsville, Penn., 1905 — and a special Updike favorite) put it — an artist is his own fault.
The biographer who renders a persuasive portrait of the artist’s evolution to age thirty does a good deal — perhaps most of what needs to be done. But Updike loses energy in its second half, as questions both critical and biographical are raised that Begley seems reluctant to take on. Remarkably, he says far too little about Updike’s prose style, assuring us only that it is brilliant. This is a crucial omission. Updike’s style is one of the most singular in postwar American fiction, an instrument both powerful and subtle, and the experience of reading Updike is defined by the contours of that style. If you are going to make major claims for Updike as a writer, as Begley wishes to do, you must show how Updike’s style and his cosmology correspond, and you must give an account of the effects that style produces. Begley has been writing literary journalism for two decades, much of it of high quality. Surely one of the advantages of having a critic of his range do this job rather than a professional biographer would be that the critic is likely to be sensitive to questions of form and possess the vocabulary to talk about them. Begley had the resources and, one would think, the mandate to attempt a significant exploration. His reticence is puzzling, and it has to be counted as a missed opportunity.
There was always a countercurrent of negative critical feeling about Updike, beginning with Orville Prescott’s scolding February 1963 review of The Centaur in The New York Times (“it contains numerous obscenities, no more loathsome than in many recent novels, but entirely unnecessary”) and gathering momentum in recent years as Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and James Wood all published lengthy repudiations. Franzen and Wallace’s criticisms might be written off in part as Bloomian filial agon, but Wood’s sustained attack is a more serious blight on Updike’s reputation, both because Wood is so skilled a critic and because what he values most in fiction — a strong visual sense, figurative vigor, a complex philosophical substructure — are things Updike is generally thought to provide in abundance. Begley largely sidesteps Wood’s increasingly pointed demurrals, perhaps in the name of letting the work speak for itself. It is true that in the long run the best of Updike’s work — the Rabbit novels, In the Beauty of the Lillies, The Collected Stories — will survive, or not, largely without regard to the current critical debate. Still, Begley does not serve Updike or his readers well by wishing that debate away.
Updike was a prolific and talented reviewer and essayist, but his conception of the critic’s work is a modest one; he believed that critical work, his own not excepted, was necessarily for lesser stakes than the work of the artist himself. Begley seems to share his subject’s view that critics, like children, are to be seen but not heard. In his March 2009 review of Cheever, Blake Bailey’s celebrated biography of a writer Updike greatly admired and whose thematic concerns he shared, Begley expresses admiration for Bailey’s research (“impeccable and exhaustive”) and his assessment of Cheever’s writing (“judicious and nuanced”), but he regrets that Bailey gave the more sordid aspects of Cheever’s life — his alcoholism, his sexual confusion, and his self-loathing — such fulsome treatment. Begley’s judgment here seems to have as much to do with manners as with literature; he seems to feel not only that knowing the facts of Cheever’s erotic life does not help us understand Cheever’s work, but that to discuss them is somehow bad form. But Bailey, unlike Begley, is an immodest critic, one who has sought to create works of expressive power and to achieve himself the status of a literary artist. The two views are finally irreconcilable.
It is true that a literary biographer must maintain some ultimate measure of respect for his subject, if only because the work compels it even if the life does not. A biography that dwelled too long on Updike’s marital infidelities, his weaker books, his occasional prickliness would risk both missing the point of the life entirely and burying the work beneath that life’s contingencies. James Atlas’s unaccountably hostile Bellow, an exemplar of the adversarial school of biography, sometimes does just that (though there is much in Bellow that is good, and Atlas deals with Bellow’s own vivid style at length). But in order to undermine the stronger possible criticisms of Updike, you must at least appear to have given them a fair hearing. Begley pulls his punches too often as to both the writer and his critics, with the unintended effect of draining some measure of interest from the subject. He has achieved a remarkable negative feat; Updike is so discreet and equable that after 500 pages it leaves the world, in terms of Updike’s reputation, just as it found it.
Despite his loving attention to quotidian detail of a specifically American character, John Updike is a quintessentially cool writer. Through his technical mastery, he always wished to move the reader just a bit more than he had been moved himself. Like Ted Williams, he sought self-sufficiency even as he sought public acknowledgement. Like his wayward but ennobled hero Rabbit Angstrom, Updike stands for the irreducible, irrepressible self, that kernel of being that may be bartered only at enormous spiritual cost.
Like Sargent and Williams, Updike has been made to suffer for his self-sufficiency. What will become of his posthumous reputation, whether he will have a community of readers at all in fifty years, or in twenty-five, still feels very much like an open question. Several lovely encomia followed his death: Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker (“one of the greatest of all modern writers, the first American since Henry James to get himself fully expressed”); Julian Barnes in The Guardian (“the Rabbit quartet was the best American novel of the postwar period”); Ian McEwan in the New York Review (“American letters … is a leveled plain.”) Despite these prominent champions, Updike is deeply unfashionable just now. This cultural moment, with its peaking anxieties about gender and privilege, does not belong to him. Adam Begley seems to have hoped to contribute to an Updike revival, but his curiously diffident biography preaches only to the choir.
Journalists have a responsibility to tell the truth. Accordingly, most reporters and editors would like to think, or believe, that they successfully fulfill that duty. In Reckless Disregard, Renata Adler demonstrates that a news organization’s commitment to proving the veracity of a story runs the risk of covering the truth and justifying falsehoods, however.In fall 1982 and summer 1983 two lawsuits filed in the Southern District of New York tested the nerves of both plaintiffs and defendants – in these instances news organizations Time Magazine and CBS. Adler meticulously chronicled the cases of Sharon v. Time and Westmoreland v. CBS for the New Yorker, and then compiled her reporting – with additional passages and a scathing Coda (epilogue) – in Reckless Disregard.The “actual malice” standard, established by Supreme Court ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), is the cornerstone of libel suits against the press/media. A libel plaintiff in the U.S. faces an uphill battle and bears the burden of proof; i.e., the defendant does not have to prove innocence. Instead the plaintiff has to prove with clear and convincing evidence that the published “statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.”Israeli Minister Ariel Sharon, therefore, had to prove that the Time’s article, “The Verdict is Guilty,” which suggested that he was responsible for the massacres carried out by Phalangist soldiers on September 17-19, 1982, in Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, Lebanon, were published despite contrary information available to the magazine’s reporters.General William Westmoreland, the commander in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, carried the burden of showing that CBS had libeled him in the documentary “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception” by knowingly ignoring hours of interviews and extensive information which demonstrated that, unlike the program’s assertion, he had not tempered with the Order of Battle to draw an optimistic view of the war, hence conspire to trick the government and the people.Adler raises important questions in Reckless Disregard: is actual malice, originally intended to protect the press’ First Amendment rights, used to justify publishing falsities? What do Time and CBS’ all-out-litigation-war strategy – conducted by the prestigious, aggressive law firm Cravath – say about the truthfulness of their reporting? Who, really, is the victim in these cases – the media or the plaintiffs?Reckless Disregard presents to the reader, in a matter-of-fact manner, how both cases unfolded, albeit being slightly sympathetic towards the plaintiffs. The record, as presented by Adler, indicates that news organizations can be slanted, that they might have an agenda, or theory, which they believe merits advancing, and that they might drift away from the facts to create more scandalous news/documentaries.This is all sad, of course, especially to an aspiring journalist. But if you are interested in law, reporting and David-vs.-Goliath scenarios you should consider Reckless Disregard. Adler sure succeeds in showing that a supposed victim (Time and CBS and, consequently, the media’s First Amendment rights) might actually be the aggressor (merciless litigation that resulted in Sharon and Westmoreland to lose credible libel cases). Her narrative of the cases was deemed threatening – to the point that CBS and Cravath tried to intimidate the author and Knopf, her publisher, and stop the publication of Reckless Disregard. Adler seems to have hit the right chords after all.