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Posts Tagged ‘John Updike’

The French Fries Had a Plan

August 23, 2016 | by

Is Kanye’s McDonald’s poem a parable of class struggle?

Avoid temptation.

When I wrote in May about the seriocomic implications of a Burger King Spa opening in Helsinki, I thought I’d pegged the most extraordinary fast-food story of the year. Reader, I blew it. In the past month alone, McDonald’s has opened a “McDonald’s of the Future” in Saint Joseph, Missouri, luring customers to their purportedly healthier, Chipotlified restaurant by promising all-you-can-eat fries; BK has debuted the “Whopperito,” a burger-burrito hybrid that fits in your cup holder; and KFC has sold two thousand bottles of fried-chicken-scented SPF 30 sunscreen. For any writer hoping to capture the texture of our greasy-fingered moment, the ineffable Sturm und Drang of life in a world where Denny’s believes the ideal male body is a stack of flapjacks, the outlook is grim. As Philip Roth wrote, American reality “stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents.” And he said that before Chicken Fries were a thing.

But Philip Roth is no Kanye West, and Kanye West won’t just sit there while actuality outdoes his talents—heaven forfend. Instead, Kanye West has published a poem about Mickey D’s in Boys Don’t Cry, a one-off zine from Frank Ocean. It goes like this: Read More »

This Faithful Machine

May 11, 2016 | by

Picturing the literary history of word processing.

Len Deighton at his home office in London.

Len Deighton in his high-tech home office in London. “The first application of the MT/ST in a literary setting was by the British spymaster Len Deighton’s assistant, Ellenor Handley.”

When did individual writers begin to use word processors? As I began work on a literary history of word processing, I found it difficult to establish a time line. Sometimes writers kept a sales record—a word processor or computer would have represented a significant investment, especially back in the day. Other times, as with Stanley Elkin or Isaac Asimov, the arrival of the computer was of such seismic importance as to justify its own literary retellings. But most of the time there were no real records documenting exactly when a writer had gotten his or her first computer, and so I had to rely on anecdote, detective work, and circumstantial evidence.

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Timbuktu’s Massive Book Heist, and Other News

April 25, 2016 | by

Abdel Kader Haidara in Timbuktu, 2009. Photo: Brent Stirton/National Geographic

  • Today in censored statues: in Italy, the fashionable thing to do with one’s nude statues is not to display them but to conceal them with some plywood or maybe a heavy drop-cloth or whatever else you’ve got lying around. The Capitoline Venus, which resides in the hall of the Capitoline Museums, in Rome, was boxed up last month to preserve the delicate sensibilities of the visiting Iranian president, but really this sort of thing happens all the time: “True, some discussions were had. According to one journalist, questions were raised about the conspicuous testicles of Marcus Aurelius’s horse in the equestrian statue which also graces the hall … This kind of artistic censorship is remarkably common in Italy, to the point of being frequently unreported. As journalist Giovanna Vitale has pointed out, for instance, it had been only five months since a nude by Jeff Koons in a Florentine palace included in the itinerary of sheik Mohammed Bin Zayed al Nahyan was concealed … And—in case you think it’s only heads of state of the Muslim faith who are reserved this peculiar treatment—it was eight months since posters of a Tamara de Lempicka exhibition in Turin ... were covered to save the Pope from certain emotional trauma.”
  • A few months ago, I used this space to hawk Saul Bellow’s ten-thousand-dollar desk, which was not, at the time, a hot seller. But things have changed. That desk is gone. As Bellow’s son Daniel explained to Atlas Obscura: “All of a sudden, everyone from famous journalists to doctors from the Mayo Clinic contacted him about purchasing his father’s desk … In the end, though, Bellow’s desk was sold to his son’s niece, who matched the top bid at the auction, and kept the desk in the family … The desk will be put in his niece’s new home in Hudson, New York. As for the money from the auction, Daniel says he is going to use it to build a kiln chimney in his new pottery studio.”
  • Faced with an al-Qaida invasion, librarians in Timbuktu oversaw a massive smuggling operation in which some 300,000 rare books and manuscripts were secreted away to safety: “The first thing we’re going to do is get them out of these big libraries. We’re going to take trunks. We’re going to pack them into trunks at night when the rebels are asleep, and then we’re going to move them in the dead of night by mule cart to these various houses—safe houses scattered around the city. And hopefully they’ll be safe for the duration of this occupation … They’re in about a dozen climate-controlled storage rooms in Bamako, the capital of Mali.”
  • In which Meghan O’Gieblyn decides to give Updike a chance, takes Couples off the shelf, and finds … many things she expected and a few she didn’t: “There was plenty in the book that lived up to Updike’s contemporary reputation: women who think things no woman would think (‘She had wanted to bear Ken a child, to brew his excellence in her warmth’) … There are many passages in which Updike’s prodigious gifts as a prose artist are given over to the effects of gravity on women’s bodies. Nobody can write the female body in decay quite like Updike. So clinical and unrelenting is his gaze, he manages to call attention to signs of aging that even I—someone in possession of a female body—had never considered. ‘Age had touched only the softened line of her jaw and her hands,’ he writes of Piet’s wife, Angela, ‘their stringy backs and reddened fingertips’ … What intrigued me most about Couples, though, was the sense of doom that undercuts the orgy.”
  • Jonas Mekas was the first film critic for the Village Voice, and a new collection of his critical writing reveals “an artistic time capsule of New York at a moment of crucial energy”: “There’s a live-wire spontaneity to Mekas’s writing, an excitement sparked by his sense of beauty, by his sheer pleasure in cinematic imagination, and it’s connected to a soulful sense of inwardness and empathy … What energizes his discussions and exhortations is the impulse behind the films, rather than the films themselves—the lives and dreams of the artists, the harsh demands placed on filmmakers by the effort to create homemade, self-financed, independent films, made by oneself and one’s friends. These are films that repudiate openly the conventions of the commercial cinema, the norms and limits on subject matter and representation, while the filmmakers submit to a horrific range of deprivations and afflictions for the sake of their art. In effect, Mekas offers, both in and as film criticism, extraordinary and enduring sketches of downtown lives.”

What Kind of Name Is That?

February 8, 2016 | by

How to name your fictional characters.

Characters in need of names.

To me the most embarrassing part of writing fiction, aside from telling people about it, is naming your characters. Of course, even “real” names are made up, but in life our names are things we can alter only with a great deal of paperwork; in fiction, writers can line up names and identities as they please, dropping or trading them on a whim. Contriving a name for a contrived person seems terribly precious to me, akin to naming a doll. You want your characters to have names that aren’t too convenient but still memorable and meaningful, which isn’t easy. I spent about a year with a manuscript populated by memorable characters like [[ROOMMATE]] and ???????’s dad, swapping dozens of potential monikers in pursuit of the perfectly natural, unforced, graceful name. After rupturing a few blood vessels that way, I tried to figure out what other writers were doing.

The question of what names mean, what they’re for, has been around in the West since at least 500 B.C., when the Pythagoreans developed a few rules of onomancy to divine human traits from things like the number of vowels in one’s name. (Even numbers signaled an imperfection in the left side of the body.) One of the earliest discussions about naming comes from Plato’s dialogue “Cratylus,” in which Socrates oversees a debate about whether a name is “an instrument of teaching and distinguishing natures” or whether it’s just a matter of “convention and agreement.” More recently, psychoanalysts like Wilhelm Stekel and Carl Jung posited that the “compulsion of the name” not only reflects but determines one’s future: that we’re all engaged, from birth, in a nominative determinism. (Anyone quick to dismiss this as Freudian bunk should look at the abundance of Shaquilles now entering professional sports.) Read More »

Updike: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Fan

December 23, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!


“I can’t remember the moment when I fell in love with cartoons, I was so young,” John Updike once recalled in Hogan’s Alley magazine. “I still have a Donald Duck book, on oilclothy paper in big-print format, and remember a smaller, cardboard-covered book based on the animated cartoon Three Little Pigs. It was the intense stylization of those images, with their finely brushed outlines and their rounded and buttony furniture and their faces so curiously amalgamated of human and animal elements, that drew me in, into a world where I, child though I was, loomed as a king, and where my parents and other grownups were strangers.”

This is one of many passages where Updike talks about his childhood love of comics, a theme that recurs not just in essays but also in poems and short stories. What deserves attention in this passage is not only what Updike is saying but the textured and sensual language he’s using when he recalls the “oilclothy paper” and the “buttony furniture.” His tingling prose, where every idea and emotion is rooted in sensory experience, owes much to such modern masters as Joyce, Proust, and Nabokov, but it was also sparked by the cartoon images he saw in childhood, which trained his eyes to see visual forms as aesthetically pleasing. Indeed, the comparison with Nabokov is instructive since the Russian-born author of Lolita was also a cartoon fan. The critic Clarence Brown has coined the term bedesque (roughly translated as “comic strip-influenced”) to describe the cartoony quality of Nabokov’s fiction, including its antic loopiness, its quicksilver movement from scene to scene, and its visual intensity. I think one reason Updike felt an affinity for Nabokov is because they both wrote bedesque prose. Read More >>

False Alarm

May 27, 2015 | by


Cheever, right, with Updike on The Dick Cavett Show in 1981.

From “On the Literary Life,” a series of excerpts from John Cheever’s journals published in our Fall 1993 fortieth-anniversary issue. Cheever, born on this day in 1912, had amassed twenty-eight notebooks by the time he died, in 1982; he wrote the extracts below between 1974 and 1978. “These were workbooks, a place to take notes, to practice and to fume,” Cheever’s son, Benjamin, says in his introduction. “Please remember that this is just one piece of the man. An interesting piece, I think: diverting, instructive, candid, and intimate. But not the whole guy.”

The telephone rings at four. This is CBS. John Updike has been in a fatal automobile accident. Do you care to comment. I am crying. I cannot sleep again. I think of joining Mary in bed but I am afraid she will send me away. I think I am right. When there is a little light I feed the dogs. I hope they don’t expect to be fed this early every morning, she says. I do not point out that John will not die every morning and that in any case it is I who feeds them. The restraint costs me nothing. When I go into the kitchen for another cup of coffee she empties the pot into my cup and says: I was just about to have some myself. When I insist on sharing the coffee I am unsuccessful. I do not say that the pain of death is nothing compared to the pain of sharing a coffee pot with a peevish woman. This costs me nothing. And I see that what she seeks, much more than a cup of coffee—is to gratify a sense of denial and neglect—and that we so often, all of us, put our cranky and our emotional demands so far ahead of our hunger and thirst. Read More »