marcel barang

Posts Tagged ‘John Updike’

Chronicle of a flood foretold – Day Five

In English, Reading matters on 31/10/2011 at 9:27 am


1am: As I smoke a last cigarette in the back room, there’s a sudden row in the dark, ten yards from my feet: a number of hens are protesting. Somebody must be stealing their eggs in the dead of the night, as John Updike would write. Nearby, someone queries someone, ‘What are you doing there?’ Over a hundred yards away, two drunks shout at the top of their lungs coué œil (French transliteration; no translation: this is a family blog) and other niceties, while the hens’ rooster flaps its wings and roars, and so do the others, ad infinitum. The poor creatures sound spooked: for four days now, they’ve been crowing without a pause, day and night. As for the toads, they’ve either grown blasé or drowned: not a croak; no cricket singsong either. I leave the drunks to their quarrel.

4:30am: Woken up by cold, hunger and the need to pee. I drink some UHT milk, but as usual can’t go back to sleep, lie down in the cool night (26°C), who needs air-con?, with funny thoughts about the water bill next month, the odd meals I rustle up these days (putting me in mind of Old Sorn’s menu in Chart Korbjitti’s Time) and absent friends. By 5, two middle-aged male and female voices and a torch waddle the length of the lane.

5:30am: Let’s go down the stairs and fathom. What a pleasant surprise, considering! Under torchlight, I can see the kitchen tiles again. Only 12cm of water! This sudden low corresponds to a huge difference in tides at the Chao Phraya estuary (3.22m around 6pm last night and 0.36m just past midnight). Yet, the worst seems to be behind us here, give or take two or three more high morning tides.
By 6, it’s daylight and I listen to FIP while I type this.

6:05am: The public system is at it again. Incredible: they still want people to go away ‘because the Chao Phraya…’ No respect for the PM. Must be Democrat electoral agents. Democrats run the BMA, which runs the flood shelters…

7am: A squirrel, the first I see around here, is trying out the bark of some of my dead vines and doesn’t like it. The water jar has settled almost against the back door. Still half full, it weighs at least half a ton … and yet was sent floating!

7:50am: Am I the only one awake? The half-dozen townhouse facades in front of mine are still blind and dead, and drenched in sunshine. Khun Yui is the first to appear, a mobile to her ear.

8:30am: 14cm. The tide has turned, will peak (3.88m) around 9am and will be felt here in late morning [the Chao Phraya will peak at 11:30am, according to the Navy quoted by the Post]. Aren’t I turning into the seasoned (and watered) tide scientist!
A neighbour sorting out a disarrayed pile of boards at the back tells me the small community that has colonised the terrain vague over the years is coping without problems. Only five people left the other day to go back home, not Chanthaburi, he says.

11am: Standing with water to half-calf to cook linguine, it feels like I’m wearing socks dipped in acid. I cook the linguine through a combination of gas to bring water to a boil and then hotplate (newly reconnected) to bring them to al dente condition. A chunk of butter and a can of tuna fish and here is lunch. I deliberately make too much for one meal: the leftover, warmed up with olive oil and speckled with herbes de Provence, will go well with a steak for dinner.
A fact of dubious import: the toilet bowl downstairs has emptied itself.

11:45am: 32cm

12:25am: Khun Ngoh, with a backpack, leaves her house for a ‘rented room’ across the river to resume work tomorrow at the Bank of Agriculture. She really must be a hotshot there. Her son and daughter, both adult if unattached, stay behind to watch TV and hassle each other. Water level downstairs:  36cm.

3:20pm: 41 cm. Uh-oh! At this rate, on November 10, I’ll be floating a krathong in my living room.

That low table is about to start floating again. I took a nap, what with the heavy lunch and short night and the local temperature: 33°C. I’m wishing for a quick downpour so I can shampoo my hair without wasting water. Doesn’t look likely at the moment, though.

4:15pm: 40cm.

6:20pm: Wonderful leaders we have! ‘04:25PM: PM: It won’t get any worse’ (Bangkok Post online); 5:38pm: ‘80-90% of Thon Buri likely to be flooded as more water is drained via western floodway, Science, Technology Minister said’ (The Nation online). No, I promise, no more echoing the jackasses; let them bray. I’ll stick to my yardstick downstairs. Right now: 41cm again. My steak is compromised. Another can of tuna fish, then?

8pm: Neighbour Karoon sends me this from the other day. Trouble is, I can’t hear myself here: the laptop can pick up any radio in the world through iTunes but all videos are soundless. One more cross to bear.
And to keep you abreast: 43.5cm just now.

9:10pm: Amazing! They have stopped. Not a single cockcrow in the last two hours. Is this coinciding with the rising water level?
44cm, by the (stair)way.
Opening a new packet of cigarettes, I have to laugh. Its message: Soop Laeo Thao Nao (Smoking rots your feet). Try flooding, it’s faster.
Latest news from the backyard front: the jar has floated back to its corner.
From the front yard front: the bulb above the living room door conked out last night; bought last month, guaranteed 10 000 hours. Now the wooden door won’t lock. The gridiron mosquito door will keep intruders away.
To amateurs of fusion cuisine: try leftover linguine warmed up in coffee-machine-heated water and topped with sardines in tomato sauce.



In English, Reading matters on 05/10/2011 at 12:36 pm


Don’t ask me how it happened, but last week I bought two novels and – John Irving’s still unfinished, mea culpa – gulped one down right away, I who was confessing here the other day I haven’t read English novels in years.

That novel is Ian McEwan’s latest, Solar: a wonderful romp through the English language at its finest – McEwan writes as succulently well as John Updike did – for a disjointed novel of ideas and satire on the hottest topic of the times, global warming, whose whimsical plot turns find their coherence in the degeneration of its antihero, one of the most despicable I’ve ever come across in modern fiction, a larger-than-life character in the fashion of Henderson the Rain King or Sabbath or Martin Amis’s fictional monsters, but a thousand times more toxic: Nobel Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard who, from 2000 to 2005 to 2009, will go from fat to obese to porcine, from anhedonia to carcinoma, from wives and flings to flings and wife-with-child, from England to the North Pole to New Mexico, from has-been status to fraudulent saviour of mankind, while remaining a monster of overconsumption, greed and hypocrisy, a philanderer, a liar and a thief, self-centered and callous beyond belief: in other words, as a negative replica to Saturday’s brilliant neurosurgeon Henry Perowne; another, here black-on-white embodiment of the times we live in, allowing our author to wax satiric on a huge spectrum of phobias: the Blair government, George W, opportunistic second-rate scientists and academics, modern art circles, feminist viragoes, environmentalists, the mass media – the whole caboodle. Everything here is solidly grounded in scientific research regurgitated in perfectly pitched lectures or sallies that will either worry, bamboozle or bore you; and everything here is highly improbable, starting with being crowned with a Nobel prize in your early thirties; or with the same, fiftyish man in his adipose state being able to attract so many broads; or getting away with disguising as murder an accidental death; or not having his pecker actually frozen off when he pees in –26oC open country; and so on.

Mind you, it’s fun, with satire stretching to farce to gallows humour (“Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change. … Toby, listen. We’re facing a catastrophe. Relax.”). It’s a measure of the author’s storytelling genius that by the end, as dramatic tension builds up to fever pitch, I found myself rooting for such a loathsome character and hoping his artificial photosynthesis experiment would indeed succeed and save the world.

But all in all this novel is too much of an assembly of parts, a collection of stories, too much predicated on dichotomy and paradox, and – like Saturday – too preoccupied with petty contemporary quarrels beyond real planetary concerns to ever rank among the classics or even alongside McEwan’s best, Atonement and Chesil Beach.

The other book I bought is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Getting into this latest novel last night I found myself thrown back to Irving’s prose level – and might as well get on with the last hundred-odd pages of The Cider House Rules, though I must say on reflection I don’t quite like them, apples.

The Widows of Eastwick

In English, Reading matters on 28/11/2009 at 11:44 pm


The Widows of Eastwick was John Updike’s last novel, a sequel to The Witches of Eastwick published a quarter century earlier. Most reviews of both I’ve read find the latter work a let-down compared to the bubbly mischief of the former, which made much of his reputation. Well, I never read the first, and can’t seem to find it either, so I can’t make any comparison but have a strong suspicion those reviews might be right.  

The Widows, it seems to me, is a last, age-warped window on the best and the worst Updike the novelist had to offer.

Of the forty novels he penned, I’ve read perhaps a fifth, and not one of those I read could qualify as an indisputable masterpiece. Updike couldn’t build a decent plot for shit. When he almost succeeded, what he filleted it with anyway was the sexual mores of suburban middle-class America at bedroom carpet texture level, with distracted references to the weather outside and the times that were – an exercise dangerously close to mainstream romance. For breadth and height and duplicitous sophistication on similar concerns, give me prick-gazing Philip Roth any time.

The Widows’ construction is almost couldn’t-care-less amateurish. The first part is a shameless recycling of travel notes, some of which were already of use in his previous miscarriage of a novel, Terrorist, presumably to fill us in on the three witches’ past and give them geriatric credentials. I forced myself to read through those dreary group tour reports ‒ everything I hate ‒ as they weren’t leavened with any pinch of humour, even though humour is present elsewhere in the book. The second part, in Eastwick, is coherent enough in its whimsicality, including its grotesque coda of gore and flabby naked flesh. And the last part, with its compulsory weird sex scene, telegraphed feel-good twists, nonsensical scientific verbiage, and incoherent turnarounds of at least two of the main characters, seems to be catering for public approval with a smorgasbord of authorial pet ploys. The temptation then is to view the whole exercise as a pastiche – a pastiche wrapped all over the mischievous pastiche of paperback romance novels one of the three hags keeps churning out.

And yet, this is a book I have enjoyed reading, as I have enjoyed all other Updike novels and collections of short stories I’ve managed to lay hands on – for one reason only: the incomparable style of this accomplished wordsmith.

Updike was born with a word spoon in his mouth, it seems. A friend of his once said that, even on top of a ladder screwing in a light bulb, he could keep a lecture going and be word-perfect.

I am a sucker for style, and with Updike, my reader’s pouch is filled. Because, for all his clunky plots and spermatic concerns, John Updike is unrivalled in how a line should clink. It isn’t just about the mot juste, but also about acuity of observation and the vibes that inspired phrasing generates. For this I will hunt his other books and read again those I have – rather than those of other magicians of the word like Martin Amis or Salman Rushdie – whenever, grappling with belaboured prose for a living, I need a gasp of perfection to re-oxygenate my brain.

A critic once labelled Updike ‘a minor novelist with a major style’, and I subscribe fully to this view, whether or not the panache of his prose turns minor concerns into major ones, as some have it.