Sunday, August 08, 2010

The novel-as-package-tour: John Updike's Brazil

The first-edition cover of John Updike's Brazil. Image found here.

At some point during my just-completed rereading of Brazil (1994), I asked myself, Now, why is it that I'm reading this thing? And then I remembered that it was at the very end of my dissertation defense that one of my committee members said something like, "All this you've been talking about sounds just like John Updike's new novel." At some point afterward, I bought a cheap paperback edition and read it and was underwhelmed; this summer, though, I thought I should re-read it in case I'd missed something that might be useful for the book project, a fleck or two of critical gold in the matrix of Updike's quartz-like prose. Alas, no gold but plenty of pyrite that I'll spare my reader(s) the assaying of here (though pyrite can be pretty to look at on its own terms sometimes); in fact, I found myself more irritated than underwhelmed this time around. As the Mrs. and I discussed it this past week (after I finished it, she read it in about a day and a half--she's a fast reader anyway, but it's a quick read, which is a virtue, I suppose), it occurred to me that to my mind it violates a core principle of literary fiction: it tells more than it shows.

Here's the plot: Tristão and Isabel meet on Rio de Janeiro's famed Copacabana Beach in the late-mid '60s and, within a couple of minutes, feel their mutual destiny lies in being together. Divided by both race and class, they could not be more opposite. Tristão makes his living by thievery, lives in the favelas (slums) on the hillsides overlooking Rio's waterfront and might as well be an orphan; he is about as full-blooded an African as it is possible for a native Brazilian to be. Isabel's family, meanwhile, is the embodiment of the leisure class; she herself is white-skinned, blonde and blue-eyed. They go to Isabel's uncle's nearby apartment, where Isabel lives (her mother is dead; her father is in the foreign ministry in the capital, Brasilia), and they make love for the first of what will be numerous, often explicitly-described times (Updike's well-known lush, erotic language is very much on display here). After a couple of months together, they run away to São Paulo to make a life together; Isabel's father sends some gunmen after them to take her to Brasilia; Tristão goes after her and together they head deeper, ever deeper into the sertão (the Brazilian "outback") and, eventually, the jungle. There, something significant and, frankly, perplexing occurs which I won't divulge here (though the Amazon reviews contain spoilers, so be forewarned), and then they retrace their route, hoping to reconcile with Isabel's father, through a Brazil now experiencing the growth and development of the '80s, back to Rio, where, in the end, things essentially come full circle. It is a simple plot, which Updike notes in his Afterword he's adapted from the medieval romance of Tristan and Iseult. And I have nothing against simple plots or, for that matter, simple plots with lots of sex in them. Too often, though, I get the feeling that Updike's chief goal here is to write a book with a simple plot and lots of sex that happens to be set in Brazil, a Brazil, moreover, that feels less like a genuine setting and more like an exotic backdrop--and that, I do have a problem with.

More below the fold.

The aforementioned Afterword is an odd one, and it also, I think, begins to get at Brazil's weaknesses as a novel. In it, by way of acknowledging some of his sources Updike mentions some specific titles of classic works on and about Brazil, some Lonely Planet guidebooks, the names of prominent Brazilian novelists from whose works he "took courage and local color," and some people at Companhia Das Letras, a Brazilian publishing house in São Paulo, who saved him from "many errors and implausibilities." Although the Afterword's contents do not preclude Updike's actually having visited Brazil and drawn additional inspiration from having been there himself, I get the strange feeling from it that he hasn't been there. Not that he has to have been there to have written a great novel about Brazil or, for that matter, any other place, of course. But often what I find most offputting about this book is that it's, well, bookish. Tristão, we're told two pages in, "had spent enough time in school to learn to read street signs and advertisements and no more," yet his diction is often that of the medieval knight upon whom he's modeled. And more than a few times, we get speeches by people like this one, by Tristão's brother Chiquinho, whom Tristão and Isabel have hoped to meet in São Paulo:

"I am no longer making fuscas [Brazilian slang for Volkswagen Beetles]. I am into a new thing, electronics. But my education is too poor for the work, so I am stuck at the lowliest level, cleaning the factory so there is not a fleck of dirt. In the intricate thing we make, which solves all mathematical problems in a little stroke of directed lightning, a fleck of dust is like a rock in the engine of a car. Under the enlightened capitalist policies which have supplanted the dangerous socialist experiments of Quadros and Goulart, I have been privileged to head the team of cleaners, while taking night courses that educate me in the mysteries of the new technology." (64)

One reads passages like this and feels compelled to say, Who is really the audience for this? Surely not someone like, oh, I don't know, a Brazilian, much less a Brazilian who's new in town and wants his slightly-better-educated brother to help him find work. But it's here, nevertheless, along with many other, similar passages, reading more like a novelized combination history and guidebook than a novel. (This, by the way, is my more charitable explanation for such passages; the less-charitable one is a compulsion to use what one has read so that that reading won't have gone to waste, rather than letting it inform one's writing via shaping the background for that writing. The fact that the latter doesn't happen suggests some insecurity on Updike's part with his setting--insecurity being something that, whatever else one might think of his work, Updike isn't usually thought to suffer from.)

Indeed, our lovers, though native Brazilians themselves, are unfamiliar with their own nation beyond Rio; so, while they are not tourists, they encounter these landscapes--or, rather, they are presented as encountering them--much as tourists would: wide-eyed, a bit disoriented, attuned to the unfamiliar. But neither do Tristão and Isabel seem especially responsive to any of the worlds in which they find themselves. Before they met, one gets the feeling that they had existed only for themselves. Now that they are together, they exist only for each other. Meanwhile, Brazil's multitudinous settings end up getting only enough attention as the novel's servicing of the plot will allow. Brazil-as-place is certainly colorful, to be sure, but by the novel's end I don't feel as though I know very much about Brazil, or even very much about its main characters. Not enough to genuinely care about them, at any rate, I'm sorry to say. But we can at least say we've seen some local color.

Maybe the saddest question to ask of a novel is why its author felt compelled to write it. To ask that question reveals that the reader hasn't been moved by its subject(s) either emotionally or intellectually, even to the point that one suspects the writer hasn't been moved by his/her work, either. Yet, even "money" doesn't seem to work as an explanation for Updike's motive here. In terms of his output, it would seem to be a mistake to say that in Brazil Updike is just playing out the string--he would go on to write ten more novels, not to mention short stories, poems and criticism, before his death in 2009, 15 years after Brazil's publication. Perhaps Updike wanted a change of scenery in which to set some familiar themes. Nothing at all wrong with that in the abstract, but it has not resulted in work that advances Updike's reputation. Rather, it makes me want to read some Brazilian novels, to linger in that world for a while rather than breeze through it.


R. Sherman said...

. . . I have nothing against simple plots or, for that matter, simple plots with lots of sex in them.

And car chases.

And gun fights.

And gratuitous nudity, if we're talking about a movie adaptation.

As for the novel, I realize I'm old-fashioned, but I think the question, "what's the point" is a valid one. It sounds to me that Updike just needed some cash and decided to slap together a love story involving two kids with a "you and me against the world, babe" sort of attitude, then grabbed an atlas and picked a spot on a map for a setting.

Sorry. It's still the stuff of teenage romance pulp stuff you find at Wal-Mart.


John B. said...

Well, yes. As I was writing the post, I thought, you know, if this were less Updike-ian in its language, this would be soft-core porn. (Though some might say, well, isn't that true of a whole lot of Updike?) There's just not a whole lot here to cause the experience of having read the novel to linger in the mind, except in the unintentional, unfortunate ways I summed up in the post's conclusion.

Ah, well. The post gave me a chance to think about the novel even as I vented a bit, and that 9the thinking) was helpful even if reading the novel wasn't.

Thanks for dropping by, Randall. I know you're busy, so I appreciate your time here.

Kári said...

To ask that question reveals that the reader hasn't been moved by its subject(s) either emotionally or intellectually, even to the point that one suspects the writer hasn't been moved by his/her work, either.

I don't want you to get the impression that I'm obsessed with Treme (any more than I would want you to think that I was obsessed with My Little Pony), but this post reminded me, inversely, of what we were discussing over on my side of the fence about Treme's failure to move me "emotionally or intellectually", as you so eloquently put it.
I say inversely because the problem seems to be equal and opposite to Updike's Brazilian journey, namely that in both cases the place (the setting) is meant to play an important role, perhaps, as some reviews of Treme claim, to the point of being a sort of "character" in its own right. Yet neither Updike nor Simon seem to get the place-as-character thing quite right, notwithstanding the fact that the former most likely has never been there and the latter has clearly spent a great deal of time there.
I'm not quite sure where I'm going with this, really, but take someone like Karl May, for instance, who wrote literally hundreds of "Westerns" without ever having set foot in America. He was able to conjure some vivid notion of the Wild West in the imagination of generations of German children and young adults. So it's not like you actually have to have been to the place you're describing. But there has to be a point to that description. The evocation of the setting must serve some narrative purpose, which is not to say that lots actually has to, you know, happen. Places can be made to speak for themselves. But neither Updike nor Simon seem able to do that, at least not in these two examples.

Kári said...

...which, lest we forget, are both named after the places where they are supposedly set. What's at stake in naming your work after a place?

Terry Gilliam did it. What's his Brazil about?

John B. said...

Thanks for the comments.

Last first: Most of James A. Michener's novels are also named after the places where they're set. I read (and liked) Hawaii; the excerpts from Texas that I've read are mirth-inducing. Ah, well: in exchange for giving him an office in which to write that book, the U. of Texas got his pretty-nice art collection and a nice endowment to get their writing program started. But Michener's strategy in all his books is to evokde their respective places' sense of drama--but over the course of centuries (millions of years, really, since he begins with the geology of each place). The result isn't great art, but it does work. (I ended up wanting to viait Hawaii.) Gilliam, by the way, named his film Brazil because of the recurring song of the same name (thanks, Wikipedia)--in other words, it's named for a place its characters, I suspect, would rather be.

As for your first comment, it's pretty clear that Updike could have set his narrative anywhere and not affected it appreciably, with the possible exception of the scenes set in the jungle--those involve Indian tribes that Updike describes as being quite primitive. Brazil, in Brazil, is scenery; it does nothing to shape the narrative's action, and Tristão and Isabel are too absorbed in themselves and their fear of Isabel's family to make much note of it, beyond Isabel's saying at one point that Brazil is vast as the sky.

Now that I think about it, maybe it is Updike's titling the book that harms it. It sets up an implicit expectation (in me, at least) that the novel doesn't ever meet. If he'd named it after his main characters, it'd still be a weak novel, but at least it wouldn't be laboring under the burden of not satisfying in ways that, perhaps, it never set out to satisfy in the first place.

ECE mini projects said...

Brazil is economically rich and it is quite interesting place.