Oct 31, 2008

Books - Older writers revisiting their younger selves


They don't have much else in common, but Philip Roth, John Updike and Toni Morrison do resemble one another in at least one respect: their ages. Roth is 75 this year, Updike is 76, and Morrison is 77. (Roth and Updike are separated by exactly a year and a day.) Together these three are the ranking triumvirate of a literary generation that is way too all over the place to have a collective name--they ain't modernists, they ain't postmodernists--but that dominated American fiction for the second half of the 20th century. This year all three have arrived at an extraordinary moment of reflection.
Roth, Updike and Morrison have new novels out this fall, and in each of them they return to a story they first told much earlier in their careers. In The Widows of Eastwick, out Oct. 21, Updike has dreamed up a sequel to his novel of suburban sorcery, The Witches of Eastwick. In Indignation, published in September, Roth retells the story of Portnoy's Complaint, the brilliant, pneumatically obscene book that made him famous. And in A Mercy, due out in November, Morrison--the last American writer to win a Nobel Prize for Literature--tells the story of a mother who loses her daughter to slavery, just as she did in Beloved.
There's nothing unusual about writers recycling material. They're a larcenous bunch; literature is an economy based almost entirely on theft. But when a writer steals from him- or herself, something quite different is going on. This kind of revisiting is a way for older writers to make contact with their younger selves across the abyss of time--to engage themselves in conversation, to argue over what they missed and what they got wrong and, above all, to register the ways that time has altered their understanding of the world--to get, by means of triangulation, some perspective on the years that separate them. By going over old ground, these old masters aren't just looking back. They are annexing new territory.
Life After Sex
It's a cruel irony: in an age when straight talk and authenticity are all anybody wants from writers, Updike is cursed with the unfashionable gift of eloquence. His prose is so effortlessly fluid, it gets him tagged as a lightweight, a silver-tongued devil: all art, no matter. But who has written more intelligently or more ruthlessly about sex and the suburbs than Updike? At least from the admittedly oversubscribed male point of view? Reread Couples--I dare you. Forty years on, it'll still rock you back on your heels. How did people know about that stuff in 1963? They didn't even have the Internet!
In The Widows of Eastwick, Updike revisits the three suburban housewives from Witches: Jane, Sukie and Alexandra. Old now and alone--their husbands have died of natural causes--they reunite and return to Eastwick to make peace with the many ghosts they left behind there: the rival they killed, the children they neglected, the lovers they dumped, their all-but-vanished sexuality and, not the least gruesome specter of the lot, the 1970s.
The Eastwick that the witches remember is gone. The mansion where they held their unholy revels has been cut up into condos. And they have been transformed too: Time has stripped them of the hotness that was once the source of their power. The bodies that gave them such glorious satanic leverage over the world are now dragging them down. One wonders whether anybody has ever described the small physical indignities of the aging process with as much tenderness and good humor as Updike. "Energy," Jane says. "I can't remember what it was like to have any. The thought of opening the microwave sickens me."
The question that Updike the Elder is putting to his younger self in Widows is this: Once the sex is gone, where does the power come from? ("Everybody needs power," Alexandra tells her daughter. "Otherwise the world eats you up.") Updike has spent his entire career writing about characters who are animated almost solely by the engine of Eros. Now the witches' sex lives are over, but their lives aren't, and you sense Updike's twinkly eyes peering cautiously into the darkness, beyond the glow of the merely fleshly, trying to make out what the world beyond might look like. Widows is in that sense an epitaph for the Me generation. For the first time in their lives, the witches must find other things to love and new, more durable ways to love them.
The Death of Portnoy
The first thing to say about Roth's Indignation is that it's a terrible book. The Roth who wrote Portnoy's Complaint in 1969 was a ranting, sulfurously brilliant stylist whose paragraphs were so full of energy and intelligence gone feral with self-loathing that they practically tore themselves apart on the page. This was a writer who showed us his adolescent hero sinning carnally with a hunk of raw liver that his unsuspecting family ate for dinner later that day.
That Roth is gone. This isn't even the lyrical late Roth of American Pastoral. Indignation is the work of the late-late Roth, the Roth of bitter, bitten-off miniatures like Everyman and Exit Ghost: curt, tetchy, unhumorous. But this post-Roth Roth does have something to say to the Roth who wrote Portnoy 40 years ago.
Portnoy (one always wants to type Porn-toy) was born, like Roth, in 1933; Marcus Messner, the hero of Indignation, is a year older. Like Portnoy, Marcus comes from a smotheringly protective Jewish family in Newark, N.J. ("You are a boy with a magnificent future ahead of you," Marcus' father tells him. "How do I know you're not going to places where you can get yourself killed?") Like Portnoy, Marcus escapes to college in Ohio, where he is baffled and inflamed by the attentions of a sexually unfettered shiksa. Unlike Portnoy, Indignation is a weird, flawed little book, full of undigested dialogue and cut-and-paste philosophy (including a 10-page argument about Bertrand Russell that culminates in a fit of vomiting). It's half fantasy and half tantrum.
There is one thing, however, that works in Indignation. Like Updike, Roth could be said to belong to the literary Me generation: writers (Norman Mailer was another) who traffic in thinly veiled alter egos, whose own internal dramas are their primary source of material. David Foster Wallace called them the Great White Narcissists, and it's true: Portnoy's awareness of the world around him more or less stopped at the end of his erect penis.
But for all his faults, the Roth of Indignation is interested in subjects outside himself: war, politics, history, death, things that impinge on the warm bubble of self and family. Whereas Portnoy tells his story from a psychiatrist's couch, Marcus narrates Indignation from beyond the grave (or possibly from a morphine coma). He has been drafted into the Korean War--a draft for which Portnoy was a year too young--and he has fallen on the battlefield. You could read this as Roth's quasi-Oedipal execution of his younger alter ego, but it plays more like a correction: Wake up, Portnoy, there's a harsh world out there, and it doesn't care whether your mother loves you or not. Marcus has learned, in a way that Portnoy never had to, that his parents were right: The world will devour you if you're not careful. And sometimes even if you are.
Morrison's vision has never been much in need of this kind of enlarging. Her work has always been epic in scope. In Beloved, Morrison told the story of Sethe, a woman who murdered her own child rather than see her sold into slavery. Early on in A Mercy, we watch a mother do the opposite--she puts her daughter Florens up for sale: "Please, Senhor. Not me. Take her. Take my daughter." It's a less bloody moment, but in its way it's no less chilling. A Mercy is that daughter's tale.
To tell it, Morrison reaches back in time--way back. Beloved was set in 1873, in the chaos of postbellum America. A Mercy is set in 1680, when America was nothing more than a loose amalgamation of Indians, religious zealots and malodorous trappers and traders wandering a continent over which territorial lines had been only lightly and provisionally sketched.
It is a dirty, dangerous time but also a weirdly innocent one. Slavery exists--a humane farmer named Jacob Vaark accepts Florens as payment for a bad debt--but A Mercy is not precisely a novel about slavery. When Florens enters Jacob's household, she finds not a rigid caste system based on race but a fluid, funky multicultural arrangement that includes not only Florens but also Jacob's wife, a Native American maid, two indentured servants and an orphan foundling. Their relationships with one another are flexible, and race is just one of any number of things that define them.
Morrison is mooting the perversely hopeful possibility that slavery could have existed without racism or at least without racism as we know it. She lavishes some of her best writing in years on this pre-Revolutionary world, making it so luminous and complex that her characters are in danger of dissolving in it. A Mercy shows us America in the moment before race madness ruined it--it is a wounded land, but the wound has not yet turned septic.
If in Widows and Indignation Updike and Roth are gently upbraiding their younger selves for their narrowness of vision, for their lack of interest in the world around them, in A Mercy, Morrison is urging her younger self, the tortured soul who fashioned the infernal vision that is Beloved, to look even further--beyond the veil of pain and anger, however righteous, to hope. There was a time before the present misery, Morrison seems to be telling herself. And therefore, maybe, there will be a time after it.

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