By John Updike
Knopf; 288 pp.; $23
John Updike, perhaps America's preeminent man of letters, like his contemporary Philip Roth, has become prolific in the autumn of his career. He, also like Roth, is producing some of his best work still. The high-wire act that is an Updike sentence is very much in evidence in Seek My Face, Updike's 20th novel. These sentences could have come from Rabbit, Run or even Of the Farm, his earliest work -- sentences that seem to accordion-out like intricate origami, sentences that are exhaustively beautiful.
Seek My Face tells the story of Hope Ouderkirk, a semisuccessful, octogenarian painter. She is being interviewed by a brash young New York magazine writer, Kathryn, an occasion which brings about a self-examination for the artist as well as a recitation of her wide-ranging life. While the "action" of the story takes place in a single day, the flashbacks offer a time-capsule reflection on 20th-century art, a subject dear to Updike's heart and one he has written about on numerous occasions but never before in fictional form.
Updike admits to using two texts as reference: Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith and the anthology Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics. It is useful to consider these jumping-off points for the novelist's exploration of the innovative explosion that was modern art.
Hope is a reluctant interviewee at best -- she confesses to having "a wandering, frayed, old mind" -- and the testy, contentious back-and-forth between her and Kathryn gives Hope (and Updike) an opportunity to expound on art, fame, and the creative spark. "Interviewers and critics are the enemies of mystery," Hope muses, sotto voce to the reader, "the indeterminacy that gives art life."
The focus of the discussion is Hope's life with her painter husband, Zack. The parallels to Jackson Pollock and his wife, the painter Lee Krasner, are obvious and give the book a verisimilitude and center it would not otherwise have. There are other thinly veiled portraits of Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns, among others, but it is the fascination surrounding Pollock that's given the primary spotlight. "He began to drip when?" Kathryn asks. "What do you remember of that moment? Did it seem epochal to you and Zack? Did he talk about it as something revolutionary?"
But art is not all Updike wants to talk about, of course. Especially, in his later books, a spiritual dimension has entered in, a concern with religion. In Seek My Face, he makes Hope a Quaker. "Hope had loved herself," he writes, "having been raised in the illusion of a loving God; she had found the facts of her body amazing, as they emerged from beneath the quilts and the Quaker silence concerning such matters." And about an early teacher, Hope says, "The whole world comes to us, as we experience it, through the mystic realm of color. The Real in art never dies, because its nature is predominantly geistlich, spiritual. He had us believing that to make art was the highest and purest of human activities, the closest approach to God, the God who creates Himself in this push and pull of colors."
And, as usual with Updike, he gets all the details right. He may be the most "concrete" writer working, one who can make you see sunshine slanting through the window, hear the raindrops pattering on the skylight. He still cares about setting, what Iris Murdoch once called the "thingy world." He is ... well, painterly. He can make the creation of a cup of coffee seem a holy thing: "For her guest the Taster's Choice undecaffeinated with its red label and friendly waist (the incurved glass sides in her bent fingers remind her of something: what?) ."
In Seek My Face, John Updike kindles a fire for art in the reader -- the art of his painter characters and the art of his novelist gifts. "The Real in art never dies." This is both a statement of purpose and a prayer.
-- Corey Mesler
By Zadie Smith
Random House; 352 pp.; $24.95
If strong opinions make for good criticism -- if reviewers enjoy praising books as much as they enjoy panning them -- then the opposite must also be true: Ambivalence inevitably makes for dull criticism. If an extreme reaction makes it easier to write a thought-provoking review, then a ho-hum reaction makes it infinitely difficult to write dynamically about anything.
Which is why I have been dreading writing this review of Zadie Smith's sophomore novel, The Autograph Man. It is dull and meandering without being unbearably bad and intriguing and insightful without being very good. Furthermore, Smith's much-praised debut, White Teeth, crackled with rare energy and nerve, and I hate to write disparagingly about someone whose previous work is so admirable and vital. But it can't be denied: The Autograph Man's strengths so perfectly balance its weaknesses that the novel achieves a Zen level of mediocrity.
It's appropriate, then, that Buddhism plays a small but significant role in the novel, as does every major religion in London, including Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, several strains of Judaism, in addition to agnosticism. Seeking enlightenment is Alex-Li Tandem, a Chinese-Jewish twentysomething and the titular philographist. He has made a career -- albeit not a terribly lucrative one -- buying, selling, and trading signatures of the very famous, from Hollywood celebrities like Bette Davis and athletes like Joe Frazier to historical figures like Winston Churchill. For Alex, these autographs are relics of the saints who have achieved immortality in the secular religion of fame.
But he still has admittedly worldly problems. When Alex was only 13, his father died suddenly and unexpectedly at a wrestling match, and the loss affects him profoundly even so many years later. He's also an alcoholic depressive with a small circle of well-meaning friends who all want to lecture him on how his life is going wrong. And despite all the signatures he buys and trades, Alex obsesses over an obscure actress named Kitty Alexander, a second-tier star of German descent who is as famous for playing the role of The Girl from Peking as she is for never signing autographs. The novel follows Alex as he tries to track her down in New York, as he manages all the demands from his friends and clients, and as he faces down his own mortality.
White Teeth dealt with some of the same issues -- nebulous fear of death, insoluble conflicts between religion and race, collisions of cultures, and the overwhelming need to distinguish ourselves from the masses -- but with more style, wisdom, and control. Smith is without a doubt an intelligent and playful writer, capable of expressing emotions -- in both books -- with grace and subtlety while developing complex and strikingly original ideas. However, despite her obvious skills and her best efforts, The Autograph Man is tedious and occasionally downright boring, its action protracted across more than 350 pages when 250 would have been much more effective. Length isn't the same as scope, and page count does not equal importance. The Autograph Man aims for the epic stature of its predecessor but falls dramatically short.
Smith is still in her mid-20s -- like Alex -- and she recently put her writing career on hiatus to attend Harvard University. The Autograph Man may boast the originality and verve of the truly talented, but it also carries the self-indulgence of the young and untested. Fortunately, she has plenty of time to grow into the former and out of the latter.
-- Stephen Deusner
and the White
By Michel Faber
Harcourt; 833 pp.; $26
The runaway success of Michel Faber's robust novel, Victorian in size and theme, is due in part to financial hardships. Had Faber had the resources to pay a typist to transform his handwritten manuscript -- corrected with "white paint" -- into a form suitable for submission, The Crimson Petal and the White might have appeared years ago, though in a much darker, less appealing version. Following a recent reading from his novel in Oxford, Mississippi, Faber told his audience he would not have been pleased with such a stark book.
Faber, a resident of the Scottish Highlands, was born in Holland and raised in Australia. This inspired, engaging novel has been a part of his life for 20 years, and when his second wife offered to support him and bought him a computer, The Crimson Petal and the White finally arrived. Along with the traditional tenets of a well-crafted novel -- character and plot development, attention to detail and to time period -- Faber creates a delightfully old-fashioned narrator fond of directly addressing the reader. As she or Faber conducts us through this Victorian maze, sharing pithy comments and supplying fanciful asides, the novel's pace accelerates.
All of this is not to suggest that the novel, set in late-19th-century London, is free of woe, despair, child abuse and neglect, abject poverty, and the social ills so vividly rendered by Dickens. It's just that Sugar, Faber's 19-year-old heroine, has a buoyant spirit and amazing fortitude. Initiated into prostitution as a child, Sugar, dutifully if unhappily, works hard for her mother-turned-madam. While never liking her occupation, Sugar excels at it. She becomes one of the most sought-after prostitutes, meriting a superior rating in More Sprees of London -- Hints for Men About Town. There is nothing prudish or squeamish about the author's realism; it is, as Faber told his audience in Oxford, "at times very X-rated."
Besides her beauty -- she's thin, tall, and redheaded -- Sugar commands a sharp and inventive mind: "A pity, really, that Sugar's brain was not born into a man's head, and instead squirms, constricted and crammed, in the dainty skull of a girl." She remembers everything about her customers and soon engages them in conversations far superior to what they might find at home or with their male friends. When she's not "working" or sleeping, she's writing a feminist treatise complete with satisfying episodes of revenge against men. Soon, you are wishing only the best for Sugar and regretting the limitations of her station and gender.
Sugar's oddly benighted and short-lived prince is William Rackham, heir to Rackham Perfumery. One of the most intriguing principals in the novel is his wife, Agnes. A tiny woman whose mental and intellectual development were stalled many years ago, Agnes cries and thinks death is imminent when she menstruates, refuses to acknowledge the birth of her daughter, abhors sex, and uselessly toddles around the Rackham estate. Still, her husband remains awestruck by Agnes, and it is this reverential attitude toward the "proper Victorian woman" that may be the novel's most fascinating offering.
Where the contemporary era meets the Victorian era involves the issue of authorship: Most of the novel's characters are writing or have written books. Even Agnes produces a tireless collection of self-absorbed, trite diaries that provide sad evidence of her frayed mental condition. Rackham's good-old-boy-get-drunk friends are writers too, and his brother is a well-read man helplessly in search of spirituality, mired in religiosity.
As events unfold, Sugar ascends from prostitute to nanny. Faber's narrator glides readers along too, making The Crimson Petal and the White a bawdy, if somewhat unlikely, Victorian page-turner. -- Lisa C. Hickman
She Does It
The Life of Kate Reddy,
By Allison Pearson
Knopf; 331 pp.; $23
The laughs begin early in Allison Pearson's debut novel I Don't Know How She Does It. Readers are introduced to the main character through her contemplative first question: "How did I get here?" It's 1:37 a.m. and Kate's next question (asked while manipulating store-bought pies into "homemade" creations with the help of a rolling pin) is "Can someone please tell me that?" Welcome to the world of Kate Reddy, working mother.
Pearson's novel tells the story of a hedge-fund manager with a large brokerage firm, mother of 5-year-old Emily and 1-year-old Ben, and wife of architect Richard. While the story is set in England, Kate's exploits and trying times transcend time and place and make for a universally identifiable heroine.
Time has become a precious commodity. Moments with the children are crammed between late-night preparations for a client presentation and predawn flights to America, while intimacy with her husband has become almost nonexistent. In addition to juggling her professional and personal lives, Kate must also navigate through the male-dominated corridors of her office, where the words "mother" and "wife" equal a useless employee. So she suffers through accusing stares from Richard after a nighttime argument, tantrums from the children who spend more time with the nanny than they do with their mother, and snide comments from the in-laws, who believe a woman's place is still in the home. Work is all Kate knows.
Pearson's novel provides good insight into Kate's childhood, which has influenced her drive and determination. Readers meet Kate's father, a failure in her eyes, her needy younger sister, and her hardened mother. Vowing to have a different life and provide her children with all the things missing from her childhood, Kate ends up on an emotional roller coaster. To help her along the way, fellow employees and friends, some of them in similar situations, lend support, a listening ear, or a raunchy comment on her boss's anatomy.
The obvious solution would be for Kate to quit her job and spend more time with the children and Richard, but at what expense? Even working singles, with bills to pay, errands to run, and a job to handle, will identify. Kate's choices may not be popular, but they are hers to make. I Don't Know How She Does It is a humorous view of the balancing act that has become a way of life for so many.
-- Janel Davis
By Michael Connelly
Little, Brown; 371 pp.; $25.95
This thriller is meant to draw us not to the edge of our seats but into the contours of the couch, where, in a few hours, we are given a glimpse of a shimmering new world made possible by coin-sized supercomputers. Unfortunately, it is still a world driven by greed and the sins of the mothers and (step)fathers.
Henry Pierce is a 34-year-old chemist and entrepreneur on the verge of transforming life as we know it through development of a "molecular delivery system" with potential for medical applications. By "chasing the dime," or pursuing nanotechnology, Pierce has lost his lover and trusted employee, Nicole, moved into a bare apartment, and acquired a phone number, which, it soon becomes evident, formerly belonged to a prostitute named Lilly Quinlan. Worse, the number remains posted on her page at the "L.A. Darlings" Web site, and Pierce is unable to locate Lilly or determine why she has not had her listing changed.
Needing to redress the loss of his own sister in similar circumstances, Pierce conducts an irrational search wherein he not only proves that Lilly has been murdered but also manages to implicate himself in the crime. While guiding his partner and associates through a presentation for the "whale" (investor), whom they need to finance their work for the next few years, Pierce endangers himself and his company by dipping into the underworlds of Internet pornography, the Mob, and the Los Angeles Police Department. He follows the clues to Lilly's mysterious death from the urbanly renewed, one-step-from-seedy businesses on Sunset and Wilshire boulevards; to rental bungalows in trendy Venice; through up-scale but anonymous apartment complexes in Marina del Ray; up the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu, where pony-tailed surfers achieve their tans and hacking badges with equal relish; to a climate-controlled storage unit in Van Nuys.
The story is peppered with allusions that appropriately flavor the narrative, and Connelly's prose style is deceptively simple, as is the apparent ease with which the elements of his story are interwoven. This is the world of intelligent, sensitive thirtysomethings in Southern California. The characters are one with their circumstances, with just enough flexibility to keep them interesting. High-tech geek talk is minimal, as are scenes of sex and violence. In fact, anybody with one foot in present-day reality could read Chasing the Dime without being offended.
If the price range on office gifts this Christmas goes as high as $30 these days (never forgetting Tennessee's tax rate), Chasing the Dime would make a decent offering and yield some entertainment on a Sunday afternoon or a snow day. In hindsight, though, with the story told and the culprits revealed, it might not be such a good idea (hint) to get too comfortable on those sofa cushions.
-- Linda Baker
The Selected Writings
of Kathy Acker
Edited by Amy Scholder and
Grove Press; 335 pp.; $15 (paper)
Detective/The Burning Bombing of America
By Kathy Acker
Grove Press; 201 pp.; $14 (paper)
I'm not easily destructible as I allow them their destruction. this begins this dense hardly understandable material. through illusion and fantasies who are reality. necessities. you will have to try to understand.
-- from The Burning Bombing of America
Kathy Acker, to be certain, was not an author who created easy, cover-to-cover reads. If profanity, violence, pornography, poetry, or nontraditional literary forms offend you, then you might want to steer clear of her entirely. But if you enjoy (or can at least tolerate) these things, then a foray into Acker's world can be as rewarding as it is challenging.
That said, Essential Acker and Rip-off Red, Girl Detective and The Burning Bombing of America (two short early novels of Acker's that were recently rediscovered and just now published) are an interesting window onto the career of one of 20th-century America's most brazen female novelists. Though perhaps novelist is not quite the right term. To quote the author in Rip-off Red, Girl Detective: "Narratives are purely for shit. Here's the information go fuck yourself." Whew.
Stylistically, Acker, who died in 1997, is often compared to William S. Burroughs, owing to both her roots in New York City's writing scene and her insistence on pushing the boundaries of, and redefining, form. Sometimes, she was entirely successful in this endeavor. To this end, the draw of Essential Acker, in particular, lies in its career-spanning chronology. Over the course of nearly 30 years, as Acker became more adept at defining her own experiments, the reading experience became clearer, more digestible.
Her themes remained surprisingly consistent. Acker's heroines and heroes are sexual creatures, hopelessly indulgent in the physical realm, yet they never seem to cave in to hopelessness or self-pity. It seems that the author's personal politics, those of a self-empowered, book-hoarding outlaw who at different points in life worked as both a 42nd Street sex-show performer and a college professor, were solidified early on. Herein lies Acker's most powerful exploration: Through her writing, she continually focused on creating a reality in which one could exist comfortably in the male and female realms simultaneously. Her characters run through her meandering prose with the battle cry "[A] (wo)man wants to control his/her life," as crystallized in The Burning Bombing of America.
The trouble with Acker's work is that it's difficult to discern the boundaries between autobiography, fiction, metafiction, and even plagiarism. This last, a self-conscious choice on the part of the author, eventually forced her to make a public apology to Harold Robbins over material "pirated" from his work. But Acker's main obsession was the power of language to change reality, which included borrowing scenes and characters from other works with the goal of redefining them.
It's easy to get disoriented in Acker's universe if you're mired in the conventionalities of literature. Nevertheless, she was ultimately successful in putting the complexities of politics, sex, and identity under the microscope and emerging with something that was uniquely her own. To truly find one's self, I suppose, one must get lost along the way. -- Jennifer Hall
By Arthur Nersesian
Akashic Books; 370 pp.; $25
Yes, this book is trash, but it's sleek, funny, and sometimes sickening trash. In other words, it's pure crap with a small amount of street cred because the book's author, Arthur Nersesian, has written a few edgy New York City novels already (including The Fuck-Up). These are not complaints. The novel's trashy flavor even extends to the way it's being marketed: This is the first book ever bound into a hard-plastic videocassette case. (Note to bookstore retailers: Make room on the shelf for this revolutionary innovation in book design yeah, right.) It gives new meaning to the term hardback.
Suicide Casanova is also a paean to Times Square's squalid hardcore past when the area was festooned with porn theaters and massage parlors. The author makes no attempt to veil his contempt for the Disneyfied family fun zone it has become in recent years. He even dedicates the book to "The Real Times Square." It's a porn nostalgia novel, if you will, a weepy nod to the sleaze pond that once was. Anyone who ever spent quarters in a porn-theater booth or purchased a film from Swedish Erotica should find something to identify with here.
The novel's protagonist is Leslie Cauldwell, a self-confessed stalker who accidentally killed his dominatrix wife in a campy, bondage three-way. He deals with his grief by looking up/stalking a former porn star, Sky Pacifica, whom he lived with in the late '70s/early '80s. Sky is now a social worker on suburban Long Island, a wife and mother of two. Cauldwell's increasingly desperate and bizarre efforts to reestablish contact with Sky are what drive the plot, that along with flashbacks to the time when he lived with her. Cauldwell is a wealthy and (up until his wife's untimely demise at his hands) a high-powered corporate attorney. He is also a peeping tom, a bondage freak of sorts, a binge drinker, a swallower of a smorgasbord of pills, and a crazed middle-aged man intent on destroying what is left of his professional and personal world. His journey through dark sewers, past and present, to oblivion is this novel. You know how Cauldwell is going to end up, but you keep reading to find out how he is going to dispatch himself.
Cauldwell is also as skanky and unsettling a lead character as you're likely to find in literature. Just about everyone he comes into contact with soon loathes him, and he hates himself with equal gusto and justified passion. Nersesian never makes him a sympathetic character; Cauldwell stays a dangerous, squirmy dweeb from beginning to end. That Nersesian keeps up our interest in this worm over the course of 370 pages is quite a feat. For porn nostalgists of all ages. -- Ross Johnson
By Mary Robison
Counterpoint; 277 pp.; $14 (paper)
Let me get right to it. If you are not in the habit of reading the short stories that populate the big bad "literary" school of contemporary writing, then Mary Robison's latest greatest-hits collection, Tell Me: 30 Stories, is probably not the book you'll want to start with. But if you are one of the voracious readers (and/or writers) of this genre -- that is, if you think about things like "craft" or often wonder how to subvert the dramatic action in a story or are utterly sick of the golden rule "Show don't tell" but still find it haunting your thoughts (and you know who you are) -- then you will probably want to ask Santa for this one.
Chosen from three long-unavailable collections (most of the stories were first published in The New Yorker), together with three new stories, Tell Me is a sweeping review of Robison's career, dating back to the mid-'70s, as a relentless, uncompromising writer.
Laura Miller, writing recently in The New York Times, referred to this collection as "stories of quiet desperation," a phrase taken from Thoreau, who wrote, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, but it is characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things." In reaction to Robison, I would rewrite Thoreau to read, "Most of Robison's stories lead lives of quiet desperation, and it is characteristic of her stories not to do desperate things."
For these stories are peopled with characters who are, for one reason or another, suffering some deep unarticulated crisis but refuse to reach their breaking point. The crisis, be it a divorce, a death, or some unknown, unquantifiable dark action from the past, is successfully subverted by Robison's unwillingness to line her characters up along a cliff with their engines idling, which makes for a story that reads, strangely enough, given the commonness of the lives and situations, like a psychological thriller. The reader is pulled along through the ultra-ordinary rooms of these suburban lives expecting some horrible secret incarnate to lurch out of a closet or possibly sprout as a character's second head. But, in fact, nothing happens. Life goes on.
Reading these stories, I found myself flipping back to make sure I didn't miss something important -- a word, a comma, or (God forbid) a telltale double-space -- anything to give me some clue to what happened or why. For the stories end as quietly as they begin, with no moral drawn or great discovery made, leaving the reader befuddled.
If the art of short-story-telling is to eliminate every extraneous detail, then Robison, who teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi, is the leader in her field. Her stories do not consist of Melville-like sentences that can be pulled out of their surroundings and dangled like a clue into the meaning of life. Instead, they are constructed of small, quiet sentences delicately placed one on top of another like a fragile house of cards.
"Robison writes like an avenging angel and I think she may be a genius," said one writer of her work, and I am inclined to agree. The alienation I felt reading these stories was certainly deliberate, the work of a master, and yet, they left me unsatisfied. On purpose?
-- Lesha Hurliman