I don’t want to come down too hard on John Updike. Not only haven’t I read the Rabbit Angstrom novels, but the sheer weight of his achievement – novels, collections of poetry, short stories, and essays, plays – defies appraisal. At the university library, his collected oeuvre, like the thick, mucus-green, neglected hardcovers of the collected Meredith and Balzac, intimidates the hell out of me. Here is a vocation, a job beyond well done. Art as edifice.

Marble is cold. I’ve read The Centaur and The Witches of Eastwick and a dozen short stories (the perennials “A&P” and “The Happiest I’ve Been” haven’t lost their ability to provoke discussion). As an Old Master before he was forty, Updike projected a certain complacency. Beyond the exploration of an anxiety that even when it dealt with sex rarely burned with the existential fervor that his contemporaries Bellow and Roth would have taken for granted, his novels were content to elide pain and mystery. His productivity masked a reluctance to probe beneath the surface of a situation; he substituted depth for range. The style for which he was (in)famous caulked over these aesthetic shortcomings, and was often itself a shortcoming. Michiko Kakutani cites a characterization of Jewish protagonist Bech as “recherche but amiable” as an example of Updike’s sumptuousness; to me, it’s a case of ornamentation that verges on decadence, disintegrating upon closer scrutiny. The same goes for a description of a film projector (a “chuckling whirr.” Really — “chuckling”?). Updike is often compared to John Cheever, whose own prose shone with a similar high gloss that defined The New Yorker voice, for better or worse. In the compendium of excerpts and appraisals up on the site, this bit from Cheever’s journal, in which Cheever confesses how much the younger man and his writing mean to him, illuminates the differences between the two writers:

As for John, he was a man I so esteemed as a colleague and so loved as a friend that his loss is indescribable. He was a prince. I think it not difficult to kiss him goodbye—I can think of no other way of parting from him, although he would, in my case, have been embarrassed. I think him peerless as a writer of his generation; and his gift of communicating—to millions of strangers—his most exalted and desperate emotions was, in his case, fortified by immense and uncommon intelligence and erudition. John, quite alone in the field of aesthetics, remained shrewd. Mercifully, there is no consolation in thinking that his extraordinary brilliance presaged a cruel, untimely, and unnatural death. His common sense would have dismissed that as repulsive and vulgar. One misses his brightness—one misses it painfully—but one remembers that his life was dedicated to the description of enduring—and I definitely do not mean immortal—to enduring strains of sensuality and spiritual revelations.

So the call about John’s untimely death was a fraud. I have decided, says my daughter, that it was an overambitious stringer, who saw the name on a police blotter and tried to cash in. This is a wish founded on the desirable simplicity of being charitable; one of her best characteristics. I am distempered, forlorn, and idle.

This is generous, sweet, and precise. Cheever never wrote a novel as architecturally sound as Updike, but he rarely lapsed into glibness or mere word-watercolors.

It’s hard to call his literary journalism as anything but masterful — of a kind. Odd Jobs and Hugging the Shore flaunt an impressively catholic range; he’s a pedantic but observant critic of the visual arts, and did his part to support European up and comers like Kundera and Handke. I give him more credit than Gore Vidal for awakening my interest in the perennially underrated William Dean Howells. But the limits of his expansiveness showed in 1999, when reviewing Alan Holinghurst’s wan The Spell, and I was struck by how such a tireless manufacturer of material could have no clue about homosexuality, or why there are some novelists for whom homosexuality was text not subtext.

So I’ll miss the old man. When Gore Veedal smirks his way to death, the last generation for whom a devotion to literature remained the only constant will have passed into history books. Updike showed how a facility for fleet-fingered filigrees could lead to financial renumeration, maybe for the last time. The world sighs, mildly, leaving no chuckle to whirr.

Having just ended Something, I’m glad there are certain things in the world I can count on, like a cheeky Pet Shop Boys interview on their forthcoming album:

Q: Do the lyrics tell a story?

A: Not really, they’re more of a ‘Love Comes Quickly’ / ‘Before’ / ‘You’ve Got To Start Somewhere’-style instance of Neil doing his benefit-of-experience ‘thing’. So it’s written from the outside going “hello, I am Neil Tennant, this is what I have discovered in my life and perhaps you would do well to listen to my top tips on love etc if you are interested in a kiss and a cuddle”.

Q: Do you think it will sell well outside their core fanbase?

A: Combined with the Brits performance it could do. It’s the most Radio One-friendly track they’ve done in a while.

Q: Does it feature an orchestra?

A: No.

Q: Can you dance to it?

A: Not really.

Q: Is it camp?

A: No.

Q: Does it have pathos, drama or euphoria?

A: No.

Q: Does it contain witty observational lyrics?

A: Yes.

Q: Does it have an underlying sadness?

A: No, unless you count the implicit sadness that people are materialistic in their view of love etc.

Looking more swollen and deformed than he did in Sin City, Mickey Rourke reminds us that he’s got a hardscrabble poetry in him — only don’t remind him, please. In The Wrestler, he and Marisa Tomei have a handful of scenes in which he displays the quiet insinuating flirtatiousness that, in Diner so many years ago, convinced the victim of a cruel bet that he’d stuck his pecker through a box of popcorn because she made him “kinda hot.” The Wrestler is not a movie I spent much time thinking about afterward, which is why some of the hosannas hurled its way have mystified me. But it knows exactly what it’s doing. The Nowheresville landscape is rendered with a precision that reminded of William Carlos Williams’ lines in “Spring and All” about a New Jersey “waste of broad, muddy fields brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen.” Darren Aronofksy’s fascination with the kind of transfiguring humiliation you only see in the movies somnambulizes the audience to a conclusion that only those who avoided Marvel Comics as kids won’t see coming; he isn’t resourceful enough as a director to transfigure scenes between Rourke and Evan Rachel Wood that are a total wheeze (Wood is indifferently, cruelly directed).

Whether Rourke can act in less formulaic pictures than The Wrestler is a moot point; he’s so not the man (let alone the actor) he seemed capable of being that flaunting Aronofksy’s stigmatas may be all we can expect. Maybe Jon Favreau, Bryan Singer, or some other sensitive comic book movie auteur can give him another break.

Looking more swollen and deformed than he did in Sin City, Mickey Rourke reminds us that he’s got a hardscrabble poetry in him — only don’t remind him, please. In The Wrestler, he and Marisa Tomei have a handful of scenes in which he displays the quiet insinuating flirtatiousness that, in Diner so many years ago, convinced the victim of a cruel bet that he’d stuck his pecker through a box of popcorn because she made him “kinda hot.” The Wrestler is not a movie I spent much time thinking about afterward, which is why some of the hosannas hurled its way have mystified me. But it knows exactly what it’s doing. The Nowheresville landscape is rendered with a precision that reminded of William Carlos Williams’ lines in “Spring and All” about a New Jersey “waste of broad, muddy fields brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen.” Darren Aronofksy’s fascination with the kind of transfiguring humiliation you only see in the movies somnambulizes the audience to a conclusion that only those who avoided Marvel Comics as kids won’t see coming; he isn’t resourceful enough as a director to transfigure scenes between Rourke and Evan Rachel Wood that are a total wheeze (Wood is indifferently, cruelly directed).

Whether Rourke can act in less formulaic pictures than The Wrestler is a moot point; he’s so not the man (let alone the actor) he seemed capable of being that flaunting Aronofksy’s stigmatas may be all we can expect. Maybe Jon Favreau, Bryan Singer, or some other sensitive comic book movie auteur can give him another break.

Depressed poodle bites Jacques Chirac

I don’t normally post news of the weird type shit, but I couldn’t resist this:

The couple’s white Maltese poodle, called Sumo, has a history of frenzied fits and became increasingly prone to making “vicious, unprovoked attacks” despite receiving treatment with anti-depressants, Chirac’s wife Bernadette said.

“If you only knew! I had a dramatic day yesterday,” she told VSD magazine. “Sumo bit my husband!”

Mrs. Chirac, 74, did not reveal where the former president was bitten, but said, “the dog went for him for no apparent reason.”

Depressed poodle bites Jacques Chirac

I don’t normally post news of the weird type shit, but I couldn’t resist this:

The couple’s white Maltese poodle, called Sumo, has a history of frenzied fits and became increasingly prone to making “vicious, unprovoked attacks” despite receiving treatment with anti-depressants, Chirac’s wife Bernadette said.

“If you only knew! I had a dramatic day yesterday,” she told VSD magazine. “Sumo bit my husband!”

Mrs. Chirac, 74, did not reveal where the former president was bitten, but said, “the dog went for him for no apparent reason.”

I had a few comments published in The Village Voice‘s Pazz and Jop poll. Here are the rejected ones.

My favorite album this year was Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), not least because in a confusing time, I expect artists to be confused themselves. Heady, gnomic, often inscrutable, NAPO is an album on which its creators are figuring out what they want to say in the act of recording. In 1997 Badu, with her turban and high, pinched Lady Day mannerisms, was lauded for how different she sounded from Blige and Whitney, honored as much for not being Blige and Whitney. Although I still find her voice affectless, I see the beginnings of an aesthetic strategy: the voice’s detachment is Badu’s way of mitigating the thud of her more incoherent moments. But incoherence and affectlessness merge into something beautiful and strange in “Me,” which could have been retitled “Dreams From My Afro-American Studies Class.”

***************

Listening to Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels a few weeks ago, it occurred to me: he recorded this album too late to include a song about Vampire Weekend, sung from the point of view of an outraged I Love Music poster.

***************

The distortion of the human voice was this year’s hot trend, especially in R&B and hip-hop, in which Auto-Tune became a kind of sacrificial cross that affirmed its users’ tortured humanity. Kanye West sounded like a Robocop. Lil Wayne sounded like a sex dwarf. The-Dream sounded like Prince imitating Prince. Then there was Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, who completed her transformation from wretch to wraith, and it took only 14 years. Since Portishead’s appeal slipped right past me back when they were supposedly giving Massive Attack and Tricky a jog through the trip-hop haze, I had nothing invested in waiting for Third. But Gibbons’ arid yelp rubs up against the piston beats, yards and yards of ugly guitar, and even uglier synth lines in a much more eloquent manner than the sounds she pries from her larynx, which I’m assuming are lyrics. Lots of reviews have noted how Third could have been released in 1999 as an answer record to Mezzanine or Angels With Dirty Faces. A subtle indictment maybe: rootless melancholia can seem like nostalgia if you don’t concentrate hard enough. But the sequence from “We Carry On” through “Machine Gun” is rootless melancholia of the first degree; the music swells, contracts, swells again, and bursts. From Belgian techno beehive synths to squelched harmonies, it’s the history of rave culture and trip-hop in 13 minutes.

***************

Of course prettiness can signify by itself; but marveling at the details gets boring sooner or later. Fleet Foxes reminded audiences that Crosby, Stills, and Nash had really pretty harmonies. Shrewd, too, that their creators sculpted those voices to enshrine the band’s complacency and self-regard. Fleet Foxes haven’t kicked around as long as CSN, but they veer perilously close to the Land of Goop. Despite a couple of obvious exceptions these tracks are the kind of voice-plus for which T-Pain is still mistakenly

I had a few comments published in The Village Voice‘s Pazz and Jop poll. Here are the rejected ones.

My favorite album this year was Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), not least because in a confusing time, I expect artists to be confused themselves. Heady, gnomic, often inscrutable, NAPO is an album on which its creators are figuring out what they want to say in the act of recording. In 1997 Badu, with her turban and high, pinched Lady Day mannerisms, was lauded for how different she sounded from Blige and Whitney, honored as much for not being Blige and Whitney. Although I still find her voice affectless, I see the beginnings of an aesthetic strategy: the voice’s detachment is Badu’s way of mitigating the thud of her more incoherent moments. But incoherence and affectlessness merge into something beautiful and strange in “Me,” which could have been retitled “Dreams From My Afro-American Studies Class.”

***************

Listening to Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels a few weeks ago, it occurred to me: he recorded this album too late to include a song about Vampire Weekend, sung from the point of view of an outraged I Love Music poster.

***************

The distortion of the human voice was this year’s hot trend, especially in R&B and hip-hop, in which Auto-Tune became a kind of sacrificial cross that affirmed its users’ tortured humanity. Kanye West sounded like a Robocop. Lil Wayne sounded like a sex dwarf. The-Dream sounded like Prince imitating Prince. Then there was Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, who completed her transformation from wretch to wraith, and it took only 14 years. Since Portishead’s appeal slipped right past me back when they were supposedly giving Massive Attack and Tricky a jog through the trip-hop haze, I had nothing invested in waiting for Third. But Gibbons’ arid yelp rubs up against the piston beats, yards and yards of ugly guitar, and even uglier synth lines in a much more eloquent manner than the sounds she pries from her larynx, which I’m assuming are lyrics. Lots of reviews have noted how Third could have been released in 1999 as an answer record to Mezzanine or Angels With Dirty Faces. A subtle indictment maybe: rootless melancholia can seem like nostalgia if you don’t concentrate hard enough. But the sequence from “We Carry On” through “Machine Gun” is rootless melancholia of the first degree; the music swells, contracts, swells again, and bursts. From Belgian techno beehive synths to squelched harmonies, it’s the history of rave culture and trip-hop in 13 minutes.

***************

Of course prettiness can signify by itself; but marveling at the details gets boring sooner or later. Fleet Foxes reminded audiences that Crosby, Stills, and Nash had really pretty harmonies. Shrewd, too, that their creators sculpted those voices to enshrine the band’s complacency and self-regard. Fleet Foxes haven’t kicked around as long as CSN, but they veer perilously close to the Land of Goop. Despite a couple of obvious exceptions these tracks are the kind of voice-plus for which T-Pain is still mistakenly

I’ve never seen such a crowd in the student union building today as I did an hour before Barack Obama’s inauguration. The euphoria is over; let the work begin.

Glenn Greenwald:

I can understand someone being moved by the events of today, even though pageantry, ceremony and ritual of this sort doesn’t move me personally (if anything, political spectacles of this magnitude, that are engineered with such massive and adept stagecraft, make me slightly uncomfortable, but I can definitely see how other reasonable people would find it uplifting).

Whatever one’s views are on what came before the Bush/Cheney darkness and whatever one’s guesses are about what is likely to come now, it’s simply the case that seeing that duo and all of their rotted appendages disappear is a positive event. Add to that the fact that the election of an African-American as President is something many (most) people thought they’d never see, and add on to that the throngs of millions of very engaged citizens who are genuinely convinced (rightly or wrongly) that something momentous and important is now going to happen, and it’s understandable that even people generally inured to these sorts of highly engineered events are swept up with the sentiments of the day.

Mike’s essay on Animal Collective for Village Voice Media is likely the most tantalizing thing I’m likely to read about a band I don’t like, and, really, I disagree with most of his conclusions; he should have been more careful about statements like “They’ve exposed the young white world to dub, South American, and African styles.” Subsequent conversations revealed that he, to his embarrassment, meant the Pitchfork generation(the Internet version has since purged this sentence). But the thought stands.

As for yours truly, the obscurity of the lyrics doesn’t jive with the moves towards greater openness and focus in the music and singing. Something is being signified, but what? The words half-articulate a joy the band hasn’t deeply considered; marriage is a state, the band argues, that reduces late twentysomethings into apostles blessed with Pentecostal fire, without the attendant clarity of expression. It’s like holy love turned its supplicants into graceless fools. If lyrics like “I’m really lost in your curls” sung by a twentysomething male is your idea of an endearment, have at it. Plenty of eighteen-year-olds are happily married.