Thursday, March 19, 2009

in the heartless suburbs


In the heartless suburbs all intrigues are bound-
less, and the wives and wounded children of divorces
are made by therapists and counselors more sound,
disasters generally attributed to sources
that emanate from God or from the stars, but never
to dysfunction of the structure of society,
for which analysis like this is far too clever,
as well as being labeled as an impropriety.
Restless hopeful couplings may degrade
the ennui and the boredom for a while,
but since these themes are endlessly replayed ,
the people artificially can’t smile
as easily as they when they first moved in-
to suburbs that they thought weren’t zoned for sin.

Inspired by a statement by Ian McEwan concerning John Updike in an article in TNR, March 12, 2009 (“On John Updike”):

The three Bech books, which Updike wrote listed with his short stories, have alliterative titles, like the tetralogy of a distinctive comic genius. Henry Bech is a Jewish-American writer whose career rises, fades horribly, and rises again to embrace the Nobel Prize, denied his creator. In one of the final episodes, Bech Noir, Henry takes, rather implausibly, to murdering the critics who have offended him over a lifetime. A poisoned self-addressed envelope and a discreet shove on a crowded subway platform dispose of two with little bother. To reach another, Bech done up in cape and mask, armed with gun and silencer, climbs a fire escape with an accomplice, his current lover in a catsuit, to take the life of Orlando Cohen, an old man with emphysema, whose chaste ambition was to be “the ultimate adjudicator” of American literature and who had “refused to grant Bech a place, even a minor place, in the canon.” They find an emaciated, enfeebled Cohen breathing oxygen through a mask with a volume of Walter Benjamin’s Selected Writings on his lap. This is comedy, high and dark, but it does not prevent the critic, minutes before his death, delivering a sharp dismissal of Bech’s work for its failure to understand America. Its core, Bech had failed to grasp, was essentially Protestant. The first settlers thought that the Holy Ghost had led them to a Promised Land. Fighting for air, Cohen pronounces:

The Holy Ghost….who the hell is that? Some pigeon, that’s all…but that God-awful faith…Bech…when it burns out…it leaves a dead spot. Love it or leave it….a dead spot. That’s where America is…in that dead spot.

Bech had failed to find that spot, but his creator had long made it his subject. The dead spot was the ruined inner city of Roger’s Version, a spoiled landscape through which a divinity professor takes a thirty-page stroll––one of the great set pieces of the entire body of work: the dead spot was the shadowy center of scores of novels and stories, in the freeways, malls, TV-addicted children, junk food, the boundless suburbs and their heartless intrigues and pursuit of ecstasy in restless hopeful couplings, the messy divorces and their wounded children, the racial divide, the rackety politics filtered through TV screens, the national bafflement as manufacturing industries declined and the Japanese moved in with their cheaper cars.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 2/25/09

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