Brazil John Updike

Cooper, Rand Richards

BUNGLE IN THE JUNGLE BRAZIL John Updike Knopf, $23, 260 pp Rand Richards Cooper Quick Guess which well known American novelist has set his current book in South America, taking us ...

...BUNGLE IN THE JUNGLE BRAZIL John Updike Knopf, $23, 260 pp Rand Richards Cooper Quick Guess which wellknown American novelist has set his current book in South America, taking us through the hard slums of Rio and into the jungle for mischief with gold-mining desperadoes, mysterious Indio shamans, and murderous bands of pilgrims seeking El Dorado7 Robert Stone, perhaps7 Thomas Pynchon7 Who's that creeping through the underbrush7 Paul Theroux7 Nope, not this time This time the surprise adventurer is none other than John Updike That's right, America's most literate suburbanite has traveled south and returned with Brazil, a sprawling tropical version of an old romantic legend The novel follows the amorous adventures of Tnstao, son of an Afro-Brazilian whore, a petty thief wasting his youth in "a constant scurry and hustle, propelled by his empty stomach " One fine day on the beach, this Tristan spots his Iseult—Isabel, a beautiful white girl of the remote upper classes Poor boy and rich girl commence their ill-starred romance, and Updike sets us off on a bumpy three-decade journey John Updike would seem an unlikely author for Brazil, with its expansive chronological sweep, conspicuous lack of North Americans, and flirtations with the supernatural twists of magical realism To be sure, the novel bears its author's hallmark attention to details, creating a world lavish with the authentic, from the names of Brazilian pop stars to the exact amount of torque exerted on VW brake-plate bolts on the auto assembly line where Tnstao briefly 18 labors But Brazil opens with an uncharacteristic taleteller's flourish—"One day not long after Christmas Day years ago "— and fans of Updike begin the novel with an excited, nervous senseof the authorpushmg new boundaries and challenges Alas, the experiment is a disaster For every two things that succeed in Brazil, five fail, and fail explosively First of all there's the ornate and archaic diction given to the novel's characters The idea seems to have been to suggest translation from another language and culture, but the result is stilted in the extreme Then there's the sex problem Brazil is unremittingly preoccupied with the meanings and procedures of the sexual act Tnstao and Isabel perform with epic intensity—not to mention frequency and variety—and the novel strains to find a language capable of keeping up Redolent of the steamy lyricism with which this author has so often pursued the mysteries of female orgasm (" this flowing outward of love like milk through each pore This giving, this shedding, this vapor of love arising from the lake of herself "), Brazil adds a weird array of sexual metaphors adapted from the mechanical and vegetable worlds Tnstao, daydreaming about Isabel, reflects upon "her white beauty that slipped through the darkened room like a viscid oil, [and] the lubricated two valves that welcomed his aching yam below " This is more like cooking than sex, it's Updike as the Galloping Gourmet of erotic literature Here's Isabel reflecting on male sexuality "The little male drama of rise and fall was touching, despite men's ability to kill you with their hands, if the evil mood took them But hers was the women's power to forestall the evil mood Hers was the power to take all they could give, between her legs " Again and again Updike serves up writing that sounds less like an original effort to imagine how women think about sex than a prefabricated male fantasy of how they think about it, in other words, something like pornography Brazil brims with assertions about the respective natures, and powers, of the sexes Even its geography breaks down into male and female domains the "sunparched, masculine scrub" of the plain vs the "lusher, dimmer, feminine world" of the jungle The differences between men and women have always formed a chief source of Updike's material, and one senses in his fantasy of Brazil a longing to desert our own increasingly gender-flat country for the hillier and (to him) richer one of patriarchal tradition, where such differences continue to be honored, wondered at, lamented, and practiced "Women are dirt and water," his shaman pronounces, "men are air and fire " In its devotion to such elemental gender dichotomies, Brazil makes a backhanded spiritual argument against Western liberalism, with its leveling egalitarianism "The heart," Updike writes, "thrives on contrarieties " Many will read this argument as a simple plea for the good old world of male dominance, and indeed, it's disheartening to find that the novel's ruminations about sexual differences follow bleakly stereotypical lines "Their uncontrollable moods," the narrator remarks, "are the price men pay for women's unearthly beauty and their habitual pain " "The female need to surrender always troubled his warrior spirit" One expects to enII 19 counter such hackneyed, pseudo-mythic commentary on a bridge in Madison County, perhaps, but not in a John Updike novel The same depressing predictability besets Brazil's treatment of racial contraries When, in a nod to Latin American magical realism, Updike subjects his lovers to a supernatural transformation of their racial identities, we find that Isabel, now black, becomes lazy and sensual, while Tnstao, now white, becomes—surprise'—repressed and intellectual Here again, the result seems less like a fresh reinvention of a world charged with otherness than an unseemly trafficking m the tired old prejudices of our own Brazil is billed as a "novel of erotic joy," and its tropical location and extravagant sensuous freedoms suggest Edenic possibilities But Updike's idea of a state of nature has always been deeply ambivalent His oeuvre reveals an anxious fascination with the idea of amorahty, and an insistence on an underlying human brutality against which the friendly lives and humane attitudes of his own suburban characters appear a kind of wishful, prettifying lie A wicked desire to get to the dirty truth of things gives such works as Rabbit Redux or his essay "On Not Being a Dove" their strange air of edgy loathing, their almost vengeful urge to show the liberals— whether depicted as sheltered, idealistic women or as the good-boy-grown-up, dutiful-husband-and-father part of himself or his male protagonists—that the world isn't really such a nice place after all Accordingly, Updike's Brazil is a curious paradise, offering liberation not from the spiritual crampedness of modern corporate or bureaucratic life, or from the anonymity of mass consumerism, or even from the sober trade-offs of monogamy and family, but rather, and much more narrowly, from the burdensome propriety of upper-middle American liberalism, with its bromides about racial harmony, concern for the poor, sexual equality, and so on Where Isak Dinesen's Africa, say, was all about escaping modern mediocrity and retrieving an ancient idea of the noble, Updike's Brazil is about escaping the onerous pretense of being—and sounding—moral, of having to say the right things It is about the freedom to be nasty "Being a white woman fucked by a black man is more delicious, Isabel had sadly to conclude, than a black woman being fucked by a white man " Updike's gross miscalculation lies in thinking that this kind of "honesty" comes off as exhilaration, a breathtaking throwing-off of taboos, when really it's just plain ugly The novel is more than a case of an author's instincts gone awry Rather, its problems betray difficult paradoxes in Updike's aesthetic Weltanschauung His natural style, as early works such as Rabbit, Run or Of the Farm show, is metaphysical and celebratory, his wnterly temperament rapturous and sad Over the years, however, these instincts have become joined to a physical, even animal conception of human nature and an increasingly skeptical view of individual spiritual possibility In a way, Updike is a fundamentally tragic writer who has grown a comic world view and doesn't know what to do with it There's a moment in Brazil when Isabel, havingjourneyed into the jungle to an Indian shaman, finds herself sitting across from the old man on the floor of his smoky hut, and into the description of the scene is inserted the following curious aside "In her position her sarong could not cover her underparts, but then why should underparts be hid7 Do they not give us our most glorious moments and guide us through life to our fates7" Nothing could better illustrate the bind Updike currently finds himself m The scene presents an essentially comic notion—that we are our organs, mere slaves of our desires—and then, instead of playing it for comedy (the naive and willing pilgrim, the goatish old medicine man), gives it a ponderous and wholly inappropriate metaphysical twist Brazil is profound when it should be earthy, and crude when it should be passionate A haze of the grotesque floats off the surface of its missed intentions, a clanging dislocation of tone and meaning Updike's triumph m Rabbit at Rest (1990) lay partly m the harmonizing of opposites which tear Brazil apart—m the supreme mix of humor and seriousness, comic bounce and tragic sorrow, with which the author bade farewell to the hero of his four-decade tetralogy For those who have followed this writer's career with admiration and interest, there's a sadness to Brazil and its remorseless regimen of sexual calisthenics What made Updike's writing from the start, and gave him a tang of blasphemy in the distant '50s, was the constant playing off of the spiritual and the sexual against a backdrop of stunned mortality It was a rich mix of Sex and Death and God But the latter two seem to have died along with Rabbit Angstrom, dissolving Updike's trinity of subjects and leaving him alone with the body, the body, the body And that's not enough ? 20...

Vol. 121 • April 1994 • No. 7

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