Sunday 30 March 2014

Couples - John Updike (1968)

The great John Updike died only five years ago. Such was his prolific nature that had he lived during that time he would have no doubt produced many short stories, essays, criticism, some poetry and a few novels just to round things off. He is greatly missed, but he will always be remembered for his brilliant quartet of Rabbit Angstrom novels (plus a novella), The Witches of Eastwick (1984), the Henry Bech trilogy of novels and perhaps also Couples, which was hugely successful when first published. Couples is set during the early 1960’s and explores the relationships between a cluster of couples who party, work and play adulterous games in a fictional town called Tarbox. Updike ended up on the cover of Time due to its success, an honor that is rare for authors.

Couples is a thematic cousin to the Rabbit books, with Updike exploring how a range of characters deal with culturally changing times, most notably the waining of religious influence and the after-affects of the introduction of the pill. There’s a sizable ensemble of characters, with Dutch expat Piet Hanema acting as a focal point. Piet turned to religion after his parents were killed in a tragic car accident. Unlike some of the couples he regularly attends church on Sundays, but this does not stop him from pursuing carnal delights with at least three married women within the circle of couples. Updike applies his richly descriptive and dextrous prose to the sexual act, something that both outraged and enticed the readers of America at the time, although now Updike’s approach does seem almost quaint in comparison to the modern novel’s tendency to go right to the heart of the matter.

The first chapter, ‘Welcome to Tarbox,’ begins with Piet and his wife Angela discussing Ken and Foxy Whitman, the new couple in town. With this first long chapter Updike cleverly places the reader in the shoes of the Whitman’s by introducing many of the cast of characters with little in the way of backstory. Apart from Piet, whose backstory is established early on, you have to cope with Freddy Thorne’s Rabelaisian buffoonery, Janet Appleby’s neurotic personality and Roger Guerin’s ”hostile touch” as if, like the Whitman’s, you were awkwardly meeting them for the first time. Updike’s characters are a self conscious bunch; often neurotic, vain and desperate for distraction from their established lives. They are hermetic, trying desperately to find escape amongst themselves; a tendency that sends some of them to the therapist’s couch and others toward a great deal of trouble. Updike’s characters are well rounded, but their hollow ennui is palpable, making them a rather soulless bunch. By the novel’s end it’s hard to shrug off a feeling of ambivalence when it comes to caring what happens to them all.

Couples is a dense read, not because it is particularly complex, but due to Updike’s erudite and allusive style. The syntactic spell he weaves around the couples libidinous lifestyles is really something to admire. Updike is also brilliant at handling social scenes in which most characters have equal footing. The dialogue sparkles with wit and humour, particularly when rivals Piet and Freddy are sparring. Unfortunately the novel is at least one hundred pages too long and as a result reading Updike’s prose becomes like eating too much rich food, then regretting it later. By the time the novel resolves the central plot and ties up some loose ends, the joy of gorging has become diminished. Despite this problem Couples is an excellent read, although if you are new to Updike I’d begin with the Rabbit novels.

After I completed Couples I had a look around on the web to see what other people thought and my interest was piqued by a reviewer who wondered whether Couples was realistic. It is perhaps hard to say whether Updike’s tight knit group of couples living in a small town who indulge in sometimes witty repartee and adultery is particularly realistic, but ultimately such a question misses the point. All narratives are versions of reality, coloured by both the author’s rendering and the subjective filter of the reader’s own perceptions. To critique Updike for not being realistic is to critique every writer of fiction who has ever lived. In any case I rather admire Updike’s version of reality and will read many more of his novels to find out just what he made of it all.

Monday 10 March 2014

The Menace from Earth - Robert A. Heinlein (1959)

It has been an age since I have read Heinlein, in fact I think that the last one was Starman Jones (1953) and I borrowed it from my high school library way back in the 1980’s. Considering I read so many Arthur C Clarke and Asimov novels in my early years I have no idea why Heinlein was mostly ignored; after all he was considered to be in the same league, a triad known as the “big three” of science fiction writers. Heinlein gets another chance at this point because I thought he would be a great antidote to the grimness of The Watch Tower. The Menace from Earth is a collection of short stories from the 1940’s and 1950’s. Considering many current science fiction writers feel that technology has taken humanity well into the realm of science fiction (and they are right), reading old science fiction is an interesting exercise in terms of how ideas, attitudes and themes are either prescient or dated. 

The first story, The Year of the Jackpot, is all about mathematics, probability curves and the very fate of humanity. A character with the memorable name of Potiphar Breen notices that a number of strange occurrences are clustering and could mean bad news for humanity. It’s an interesting premise that is well executed, but what is of most significance is that it includes the first use of the word geek, which is used to describe a dead Russian scientist. Also it opens with a beautiful woman undressing on a city street who is, of course, rescued by the unusually named protagonist. 

By his Bootstraps is recognized as one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time and that is a fair assumption considering it is a perfect distillation of the chicken or the egg time paradox. It’s brilliantly written and also features nubile scantily clad slave women thirty thousand years in the future who are totally willing to be subservient. Columbus is a four page joke at the expense of humankind’s shortsightedness. There are no scantily clad women in this one, even though it is typical science fiction magazine fodder. The Menace from Earth has a perfect science fiction title, but it turns out to be tale about a teenager’s romantic problems with her love interest who is attracted to a gorgeous woman from Earth. The fact that they all go flying with wings on their backs in a giant underground cavern on the Moon isn’t really enough to hide the fact that it is basically a stock standard teenage love story.

Things get better with Sky Lift, which tells the story of pilots on a mercy dash to the Proserpina space station out near Pluto in their extremely fast torch ships. This is quality hard science fiction told in a compelling way and you’ll never think about G-force in the same way again, or at least I won’t. There are no scantily clad women in this one either, although the main protagonist thinks about them for a while. Goldfish Bowl features two scientist who are investigating two giant pillars of water in the Pacific that seem to be connected to abductions of humans by mysterious balls of energy. This story is well executed, intelligent and though provoking, all without featuring beautiful women, although there are some naked men.

Project Nightmare is, like The Year of the Jackpot, set in the context of cold war tensions that could escalate given the right conditions. Heinlein places a number of characters with psychic powers in just such a situation with chilling results. Stories like this would have been quite frightening in the 1950’s, despite their fantastic elements. The final story, Water is for Washing, would have appealed in a macabre way to people living on America’s west coast, but ultimately it’s hard to define it as a science fiction story. Is a tale of survival during a natural disaster science fiction? Not by todays definitions perhaps.

The Menace from Earth is an interesting collection of short stories, some dated, but with others that still impress. They are all well written and Heinlein certainly knows how write a satisfying ending. He also knows how to take a story forward at the right moment and stimulate the reader’s urge to know what comes next and how it will end. One of the criticisms leveled at Heinlein is his apparent sexism, in particular during his later period. If you view these early stories from that position then yes, you can argue that the manner in which women are portrayed in these stories is problematic. Did the female character in The Year of the Jackpot really need to undress on a crowded street? Of all the things Bob Wilson could have encountered thirty thousand years into the future in By his Bootstraps, did it have to be scantily clad slave women? Perhaps not, but Heinlein would have certainly known his market in the late 1940’s and 1950’s - teenage boys.