Rushdie's Storied Tract: The Enchantress of Florence

I was a Rushdie virgin before recently reading The Enchantress of Florence (though Midnight's Chldren remains very high on my to-read list). But the combination of Italy and India--a commerce between East and West--was too much to resist.

You'll have to forgive the cliched pun, but the book really is quite spell-binding. Central to the tale is the power of story, and the book is layered with stories upon stories, as well as some delightful miniatures packed into the story (such as the marvelous tale about the royal painter, Dashwanth). It is also concerned with competing stories and competing story-tellers who constitute the world by their stories (and thus constitute different worlds by different stories). Story-telling is world-making. Rushdie's exploration is concerned with both the power of mythologies but also the power of the artist--the story-telling power of the prophet as well as the world-making power of the novelist.

But he's also exploring the dangers of stories, their enchanting spell, their seductive ability to lure us into illusions. In fact, the book performs this very quickly: one feels swept into a dizzying array of narratives with charms that steal the ground from beneath us--and yet this narratival vertigo is so enchanting, we delight in our disorientation. And yet, this only works to the extent that Rushdie is an enchanter.

I wouldn't have expected that such a ruthless secularist could create such an enchanted, magical world. The prose is blazing without being precious, and as Christopher Hitchens has recently pointed out, Rushdie is a brilliant humorist.

My only gripe is that the book at times devolves to a propaganda-like tract--a move that is death for art. (In this respect it reminded me of a similar tract posing as a novel, Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy). Here we have a descendent of Ghengis Khan with the emerging irenic, democratic sensibilities of, well, Salman Rushdie. We have women from sixteenth-century Hindustan who imagine the world like Susan Sontag. In short, at times the novel is so concerned to be an apologia for a de-religionized, "secular" and liberal world that its anachronism becomes just a bit too much to swallow. Nonetheless, the power of Rushdie's story-telling opens up worlds that repay revisiting.


For Poetry Lovers in Grand Rapids

Literary Life, my favorite bookstore in Grand Rapids, is hosting a special event this Thursday, April 9, 7pm as part of National Poetry Month. It will include a reading by Heather Sellers, poet and professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, MI. Sellers also served as judge for the 1st Annual Literary Life Poetry Contest and the winners of the contest will be announced that night as well. (I had the audacity to submit two poems but have absolutely no illusions about winning a thing.) I am looking forward to hearing Sellers and, I hope, hearing the winning poems as well.

Then on Thursday, April 16, 7pm, Literary Life's Third Thursday event will once again feature Grand Rapids Poet Laureate, Rodney Torreson. Torreson gave a reading last month and was delightful. He is wonderfully unassuming, almost timid, but his poetry sparkles. It is quintessentially "midwest" poetry--accessible, earthy, homespun, sacralizing the mundane. He finished that reading with "Don Larsen's Perfect World Series Game," from his collection, The Ripening of Pinstripes--a fantastic cresendo packed full of allusions. He is also a wonderful encourager of young poets (and even had one of his students, a freshman in high school, read five of her poems). I'm looking forward to introducing my son, Coleson (a gifted and--I hope--aspiring writer), to Torreson.

If you're in the vicinity, I'll hope to see you there!


Updike: A Month of Sundays

While on a trip last week, I took along an old paperback edition of John Updike's mid-70s novel, A Month of Sundays. Penned in the first-person, the story recounts the misadventures of Rev. Tom Marshfield who writes the memoir as part of his rehabilitation while exiled in Arizona, banished from the ministry because of his adulterous habits. A grumpy Barthian (must be a Princeton grad! ;-) with no patience for the soppy humanism of Tillich and his ilk, Marshfield is nonetheless an unabashed, unashamed, and unrepentant worshiper in the temples of lonely, middle-class suburban women. Indeed, one must be struck by the difference between Marshfield and, say, Graham Greene's adulterers: the latter at least seem to think they ought to be penitent; Marshfield doesn't ever seem bothered by such notions.

The novel is a curious little time capsule, a peek into the swirling mores of the early 70s--though generally as viewed from a WASPish distance. It's also classic Updike: page-turning, unctuous prose laced with a strange eroticism that was probably more titillating than it ought to be. In fact, as I was reading it, I was concious of how the power of the story could so quickly create its own plausibility structures, a world in which Marshfield's behavior doesn't seem reprehensible. Perhaps Updike means to make us guilty by association, but I think more likely he means to create a world where there should be no guilt associated with such behavior. It the protagonist is a professing a Barthian, the ethos of a story is nothing other than "express-yourself" liberalism.

(And it should be noted that this is just the sort of novel that is rife with material to substantiate the claim that Updike is a misogynistic objectifier of women. While I know he always bristled at the charge, and though he'd likely offload the blame onto his first-person narrator, it's very hard to come away from the book and not share a sense of taint.)

Finally, it seems to me that Updike is never willing to not be "Updike." That is, Updike is never willing to relinquish the aestheticism that is his defining voice, even when he's writing in the first person of another. So the book--like any first-person work by Updike--is beset with a problem of voice and authenticity; in short, in Updike's hands, everybody sounds like Updike.