BOOK REVIEW / Small helpings of cold Rabbit: Memories of the Ford administration by John Updike, Hamish Hamilton pounds 15.99
Sunday 07 March 1993
The last sentence of the novel reveals the structural jest at its heart: 'The more I think about the Ford Administration, the more it seems I remember nothing.' The narrator, Alfred Clayton, a minor league historian, is supposedly responding to a request for 'Memories and Impressions of the Presidential Administration of Gerald R Ford' for a symposium to be published in the learned journal of the Northern New England Association of American Historians. He interprets this as an occasion to write an account of his erotic adventures during the three years in question, interleaved with lengthy extracts from an unfinished book he was working on at the time about a president almost as undistinguished as the hapless Ford: James Buchanan.
We thus have a Pale Fire project in which a nominally objective subject is a stalking-horse for very different and more personal designs. But while Nabokov calculates his angles of refraction so cunningly that complex delusions and inversions cohere, Updike's package consistently amounts to less than the sum of its parts, rapidly disintegrating into a succession of turns, numbers and stunts. The historical sections, accounting for about half the book, are the least successful of these. Updike's obsession with President Buchanan is well documented: he planned a novel about him, used some of the material in his only play, and has now recycled it yet again as Clayton's 'often-commenced, ever-ramifying and never-
completed book'. This proves to be an uneasy faction in the manner of Simon Schama's Dead Certainties, but considerably less well achieved. If Clayton had finished this tedious and unprofessional work, his tenure would almost certainly have been withdrawn.
But while as a historian Clayton is a purveyor of leaden cliches and fustian dialogue, as an autobiographer he possesses the unparalleled linguistic resources of . . . well, of John Updike. This Clayton, in fact, has two distinct registers. One is an arch master of ceremonies in the manner of Humbert Humbert, given to imperious asides to the editors of the learned journal, internal cross- references and outbursts like 'Genevieve in tennis whites] With a heartbreaking little black hem to her socklets]]'. He even tips the hat to one of Nabokov's most notorious betes noires in damning 'the surging cotton candy of P I Tchaikovsky, the inventor of sound-track music'. The result is a light-hearted guide to American mores of the period (although the presence of a rampant deconstructionist in the English department of a small New England college in the early Seventies surely owes more to a desire to poke fun at Derridean pretensions than to historical accuracy).
Here, too, there is a sense that we have been this way before, and that it was better the first time. Clayton's attempt to leave his wife ('the Queen of Disorder') for the coolly purposeful Genevieve, spouse of the said deconstructionist, only to betray his mistress with a selection of other roving faculty wives, is a half-amused, half- nostalgic memoir of 'those far-off Ford days, (when) it was assumed that any man and woman alone in a room with a lock on the door were duty-bound to fuck'. It says nothing about sex, marriage, adultery or separation which was not said better in Couples and the Rabbit quartet, and - lacking the moral seriousness of those books - it verges at times on a lip-smacking salaciousness which seems to relish four-letter words and split beaver shots for their own sake.
The writing itself remains as dazzling as ever, and those who view Updike as the Ralph Lauren of American letters will not be dismayed. Describe a vagina, inventory the contents of a living room, recreate a Student Center circa 1975 - whatever the assignment, Updike is the star student, performing with an ease and exactitude which leave readers breathless and other writers green with envy (vide Baker, op cit, passim). It is only when the last of the narrative voices switches in that you realise what has been missing. This is a quieter, more vulnerable Clayton, stripped of the glamorous high-profile style, reflecting on the damage his absence is causing his children, on his own and others' mortality, on the speed with which 'we become history, while waiting always to be news'. Such scenes as the visit of Clayton's elderly mother to his broken home have the poise and gravitas of Updike's best work, but for that very reason they are disastrous to the success of the book as a whole, mercilessly exposing its air of complacent self-indulgence.
Nabokov might have brought off such a complex conceit, but Updike's attempts to justify his extravagances by drawing parallels between public and private history never amount to anything more than a notional framework. The sight of an author so immensely pleased with himself is not a pretty one, and in the absence of a properly focused and characterised narrator it grows increasingly difficult to resist the suspicion that the author in question is not Alfred Clayton but John Updike.
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