Everyone remembers what they were doing when John Kennedy was killed, but no one even asks what you were doing when Gerald Ford was President. The wonderfully comic, deviously historical premise of John Updike’s new novel is that someone asks. The someone is the plausible-sounding Northern New England Association of American Historians, and the person asked is one Alfred L. Clayton, a randy spiritual relative of J. Alfred Prufrock, and one of Updike’s basic, repeatable (and repeated) heroes: faithless, clever, well-intentioned, willing to apologise if only he can figure out what he’s done wrong.
Where did it go, Alf wonders: the adulteries, the excitements, the entanglements, the old and new histories, public and private? ‘Can it be ... true that Genevieve and I made love that left us both gasping, a melding so absolute we thought it expedient to stage a revolution, to overthrow our existing marriages and marry? Little trace of out attempt remains – a false start or two in several lawyers’ files, some love letters lost in an attic or turned to ash, a few displaced calcium molecules in my deteriorating memory cells.’ All gone under the hill; like Ford’s Presidency, an image of a too forgettable time. The first thing that Alf remembers about Ford is Nixon’s resignation in August 1974: the last thing Carter’s Inauguration in January 1977. It’s not just that history has buried Ford: Foul has become a figure for everything history buries, the man whose name only conjures up other names. ‘The more I think about the Ford Administration,’ Alf says, ‘the more it seems I remember nothing.’
Alf, who teaches history at the aptly-named Wayward College in New Hampshire, a girls’ college in the Ford years, was doing (mainly) two things during that unmemorable age: screwing colleagues’ wives and a student or two (and one student’s mother), and trying to write a book on James Buchanan, the 15th President of the United States, a Pennsylvanian who sought at (almost) all costs to keep the South in the Union. But then Alf was doing these things before and (presumably) after the Ford years too; what happened only in the Ford years, and what gives his memories their narrative shape, was Alf’s attempt to leave his long-standing marriage and to start a life with the above-mentioned Genevieve. Alf in his writing constantly calls Genevieve The Perfect Wife (as opposed to his actual wife Norma, whom he calls The Queen of Disorder), but his problem was that he couldn’t be faithful even to his infidelity: his short fling with the student’s mother was too much for Genevieve. She goes back to her husband, Alf returns to Norma, to a worn but safe emotional ground he cautiously describes as ‘not, really, ever not there’. What Alf likes about Buchanan is ‘a certain vaporous largeness, the largeness of ambivalence’. Buchanan’s last words are supposed to have been ‘Oh Lord, God Almighty, as Thou wilt.’ Alf sharply comments, ‘An accommodator to the end,’ but he means it as an intricate compliment.
Asked for a memoir, Alf produces a long novel, and part of the grander comedy here is the extravagance and exuberance of his response. Nixon’s resignation on television, for instance, leads to a virtuoso description of the room in which Alf and his children were watching it: ‘its furniture, a child-abused hodgepodge of airfoam slab sofas and butterfly chairs with canvas slings and wobbly Danish end tables and chrome-legged low easy chairs draped on their threadbare arms with paisley bandanas and tasselled shawls ... the tattered Japanese-paper balls that did here and there for lampshades, all of it in our wedded style, my wife’s and mine, a unisex style whose foundation was lightly laid in late-Fifties academia and then ornamented and weathered in the heats and sweats of Sixties fringe radicalism.’ Alf apologises to the NNEAAH for ‘all the decor’. ‘Decor is part of life,’ he says, but we don’t need his apology or his explanation. Alf also suggests that ‘at some point history becomes like topography: there is no why to it, only a here and a there.’ ‘How circumstantial reality is,’ Updike wrote in Self-Consciousness, his book of memoirs. ‘Truth is anecdotes, narrative, the snug opaque quotidian.’ Snug for Updike and his male heroes, we need to add.
Alf’s writing, as the inventory above may begin to suggest, is full of delight in the evoked absurdity of things: not their transience, but their likeable (and sometimes not so likeable) battiness. Here is Alf on the Student Centre at the College where he works: ‘On the second floor, reachable by several broad, neo-fascist flights of outdoor steps as well as by interior stairways and elevators, was the college dining-hall, offering three square cafeteria meals a day and on the third floor – the hot centre of student nightlife – a combination lounge and amusement gallery, a central array of already exhausted and seam-split sofas and chairs surrounded, at a distance in the barren open space, by recreational resources – a darkened gallery of chirping video games, a coffee-and-snack shop that stayed open until midnight, a row of sleepless junk-food vending machines, and a room holding abused ping-pong and billiard tables, both perennially short of balls. Our girls gathered here, not all six hundred at once but many, some with male dates but not many: even on Saturday nights the lounge was what my father’s jocosely male-chauvinist generation would have called a hen party – a gynous concentration, in torn jeans, sloganned T-shirts, and grubby salt-and-slush-soaked sneakers, emitting a high-pitched babble and subliminal scent that bombarded my pheromone receptors with as much radiation as if I were a Ukrainian peasant on the day Chernobyl let loose.’ It’s as if Humbert, fancy prose style, self-absorption, fine eye and all, were let loose again in the American academy.
Alf appears to have borrowed his narrative method not only from Lolita but from Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, both fictions in which an untellable story is spelled out with a profusion of detail that no one has asked for. Alf pauses on a scene in the sack with a faculty wife, for example – already, we suspect, not quite the thing the NNEAAH had in mind for their journal. ‘I wormed my body down toward her as, straddling my chest, her thrusting muff the no-colour of pewter, she waddled on her knees upward on the swaying complaining bed.’ Her thrusting muff – this is beginning to sound like Playboy, only the bed keeps us in Updike country. But then the bed is the thing. Alf describes its style and provenance (‘my first marital bed, an ascelically simple steel frame and box spring and foam mattress purchased at a warehouse store in Keene’), another bed, various chairs, and the division of the books when he moved out of his marriage. The books lead onto an account of the book Alf is writing (but not finishing) on Buchanan, and he gives us some fifteen pages of his manuscript, on Buchanan’s courtship of Ann Coleman. We never hear of this particular thrusting muff again, though there are others.
Once he’s found his method, and decided to abuse his captive (if future) audience, there’s no stopping Alf. He intersperses an account of his private life during the Ford years with fragments of his work on Buchanan, sometimes fully developed sections, sometimes in the form of notes. Alf learns that Genevieve has told her husband about their affair; Buchanan’s engagement is in trouble. Alf and Genevieve make acrobatic love; Buchanan’s fiancée dies, perhaps of a broken heart and too much pride, possibly from an overdose of laudanum and too much Byron. Alf has his one-night stand with the student’s mother; Buchanan gets entangled in party politics, becomes American envoy to Russia. Alf’s romance collapses, he returns to his marriage; Buchanan seeks vainly to stave off the Civil War.
There probably ought to be a moratorium on novels with narratives set in two historical periods, one commenting ironically on the other, and the Buchanan material here drags a bit, too elaborate and circumstantial to be pastiche, too whimsical to get us very close to 19th-century history. One of the things Updike was doing just before the Ford years was writing a play called Buchanan Dying, published in 1974. Even so, we can be glad the moratorium hasn’t started just yet. There is a real interest in the story of the elusive Buchanan – he was and was not the Gerald Ford of his day – and if the history doesn’t get written, some of the problems of history writing are eloquently, not to say floridly addressed: ‘all that comparing of subtly disparate secondary versions of the facts, and seeking out of old newspapers and primary documents, and sinking deeper and deeper into an exfoliating quiddity that offers no deliverance from itself, only a final vibrant indeterminacy, infinitely detailed and vet ambiguous – as unsettled, these dead facts, as if alive.’ Is the novelist crowing over the historian, celebrating licence as the only truth we have? Crowing on behalf of the past, perhaps. ‘How quickly we become history,’ Alf says, ‘while wanting always to be news.’
Updike’s territory is what he calls, in Self Consciousness, a ‘middling, hidden, troubled America’. He distrusts orthodoxies, he says, ‘especially orthodoxies of dissent’. The trouble is that such distrust can itself be an orthodoxy, and only Updike’s style, the sheer verve and exhilaration of his attention to the world, keeps him from sinking into it. His hidden America is all many people see. There is an analogy here to Larkin’s crusty defiance of what he saw as fashion: stuffiness is always in fashion, and in the majority. Memories of the Ford Administration doesn’t escape these old limitations, but does seem more conscious of them, more willing to look at them closely, than any earlier Updike work. The ironies are sharper. When Alf says of Buchanan that ‘he ended, as many do, by begging mercy of those whom he had dared to love,’ he is thinking of himself and Genevieve too. There is real understanding here, but also a continuing blindness. Alf is making himself a forlorn hero instead of a reckless consumer of sexual goodies. He can’t help it, is his line. He can’t even see what’s wrong.
‘The United States of the Ford era,’ Alf also says, ‘had absorbed the punch of widespread fornication and found itself walking and talking, disappointingly enough.’ There is a faint nostalgia for some kind of conscience here, a flickering Puritan proposition about the absence of God. ‘Modern fiction,’ Alf says a little too conveniently, ‘thrives only in showing what is not there: God is not there, nor damnation and redemption, nor solemn vows and the sense of one’s life as a matter to be judged and refigured in a later accounting, a trial held on the brightest, furthest quasar.’ But, of course, Alf doesn’t want these missing things, he only wants, now and again, to miss them. We reach one of the limits not only of Alf’s world but of Updike’s, at least as he shows it in his fiction. Even guilt, in the end, is relatively snug; nothing is excused but nothing is judged either; only refigured.
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