Sunday, September 10, 2006

White Flights

Word is that Updike's new novel Terrorist is set in a thinly disguised Paterson and that his research consisted of cruising the city in a taxi cab. (NYT 5.31.06) Even though Williams said "WALK in the world/ (you can't see anything/from a car window, still less/from a plane, or from the moon!? Come/off of it.)" I don't entirely begrudge him his distance. Paterson is difficult, and Updike’s not a documentarian after all (still less a psychogeographer, even though he claims that the Reading, PA of his youth was, in a sense, his map for the Paterson of today). However, if anything, Paterson needs a truer document of itself or maybe just a better map. Since Paterson was the home to the 9-11 plotters--an extremely small minority in a primarily non-white city--sources such as the NYTimes, finding Northern New Jersey to be a “hub for hijackers,” (see Lunberry 653) have undoubtedly given Paterson a new place in public consciousness; it may be that this place with its “72 identifiable nationalities. . . in 8 square miles” (NYT 9.27.01) has become one in which diversity and multiplicity is suspect. Updike details the diversity and plays with the misrecognition of Islamic fundamentalism as an implicit political threat; he’s clearly appreciative of the power and beauty of its philosophy, as if its righteous clarity puts to shame the duffer Protestantism that runs through his oeuvre (the only WASP in this novel is a morbidly obese librarian). As he turns the fear of a black city into fodder for his particular brand of Pennsylvanian realism, however, his view ultimately seems too west of the Delaware and east of the Hudson. I still can’t verbalize completely (at least in the form of the blog) what I felt and why stopped reading when the “plot” kicked in and the money showed up in the ottoman (p. 194). Maybe I’d rather the title have been a conceptual joke (surprise! Just a story about a teenage boy), or maybe I was tired with Updike’s descriptions which started to seem more and more like pronouncements, and lacked, or maybe had too much of, the authority needed to tell a story of political extremism. The novel is a well-fed form, which has had a long-term fascination with the forces of terror and the fictions of fear. But Updike’s mistake is to take these fictions too seriously, no matter how much he travesties Tom Ridge. The best fiction about terrorism challenges the suburban urge to construct the tale in the first place (e.g. Delillo’s The Names or Mao II). In comparison, Updike does not seem to have any qualms about walking the borzoi in this neighborhood. Updike could have taken a productive cue as well from those novels in which the most violent pitch of political action is turned into an opportunity for the comic appreciation of representational and metaphysical abysses (Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday; James’ The Princess Casamassima; R. L. Stevenson’s The Dynamiter). There are of course more “serious” novels of political extremism, but a writer such as Updike, by taking himself too seriously on such a subject risks making a joke of himself. . . . better to delight in the dysfunctions of white privilege or the idea of the terrorist as impossible subject (the ostensible themes of the above novels) than to attempt capture of the real. Rather than be introduced to the heart and soul of the terrorist-manqué (OK, I did read ahead a little), let’s introduce Terrorist to its new companions: Updike’s Couples, Herb Alpert’s Whipped Cream and Other Delights, and the Firestone Christmas Album . . . those perennial darlings of Salvation Army bargain bookshelves everywhere.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Contrary to your non-car assertion, I strongly associate Williams with, in fact, riding in his car--he is, for me, the first poet of the car (as reflected in his early book of poems, "Spring and All"). I suppose in Paterson he may have parked his car and was mostly walking, but otherwise I imagine him driving along slowly, taking note of the world sliding by through windows.

Car poems that come to mind are "The Young Housewife" and the great, "The Last Words of my English Grandmother." While from "Spring and All," the long poem, from "In passing with my mind/on nothing in the world//but the right of way/I enjoy the road by/virtue of the law--/I saw....". And, also from "Spring and All," at the end of the poem that begins "The pure products of America/go crazy--" and ends with, "It is only in isolate flecks that/something/is given off//No one/to witness/and adjust, no one to drive the car."

3:32 AM, September 11, 2006  

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