[Marxism] Ellis Sharp nails John Updike

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 6 08:44:09 MDT 2006

Friday, August 04, 2006
John Updike and Terrorism

Tylenol has a square face the colour of walnut furniture stain while it’s 
still sitting up wet on the wood.

That’s a sentence which immediately arouses animosity in me. Do we need to 
know the shape of a character’s face? If so, why? If so, is “square” good 
enough? (Somewhere I have a copy of a novel in which the narrator 
laconically observes of someone “he had a head-shaped head.” When I find it 
I’ll quote it more precisely.)

Who in hell knows what “the colour of walnut furniture stain while it’s 
still sitting up wet on the wood” looks like? It strikes me as being a 
fussy, silly, desperate-to-be-original metaphor which is unlikely to mean 
much to anyone who isn’t either in the furniture construction trade or a 
demented elderly householder obsessed with keeping up appearances. Nor does 
the author keep up with his own use of language: two paragraphs later we 
get what is surely a careless and unfortunate cliché: “Tylenol’s face 
darkens.” Or is that the walnut stain drying?

But the most serious objection is that this figurative language does not 
seem in any way organic to the narrative. Jorylene, Tylenol, Ahmad – what 
would any of them know about furniture stain? The metaphor surely springs 
from the author’s own life and has been artificially applied to a narrative 
where it doesn’t belong.

The sentence is from John Updike’s new novel Terrorist. In today’s 
Independent Arts & Books Review Matt Thorne gives a rave review of this 
widely panned new novel. He hails Terrorist as a successful thriller, now, 
in Thorne’s opinion, “the most socially responsible genre”, and says Updike 
“captures the temperature of the times”. Thorne thinks it’s not only one of 
the best books Updike has ever written but that, among other titles, it’s 
even better than Saturday. Praise indeed.


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