In the Dark

If you strain your eyes for a moment and look beyond the smokescreen of hyperbole, mawkishness, and more or less euphonious drivel to be found in the pages of the publishers' catalogs, it is plain to see that in the oversaturated and underfed marketplace of literature, business is going on very much as usual: Philip Roth has written another novel about what it's like to be a novelist in American; John Updike has decided that the time has once again come to garner the fruits of his journalistic endeavors into a stout block of prose; J.M. Coetzee continues his attempts to wrestle the materially comfortable portion of mankind out of its complacency; and so on.

Beneath it all, however, one senses a dark current tugging at the contemporary imagination. Indeed, as unregulated American capitalism continues to rape the earth and infantilize the minds of millions, and the doltish brinkmanship of the administration inches the world ever closer to the end of days, it is no surprise to find that rage, disgust, and terror should register not infrequently on the sensitivity radars of our foremost authors. From Roth's The Ghost Writer we can expect such fulminations as: "The despising without remission that constitutes being a conscientious citizen in the reign of George W. Bush was not for one who had developed a strong interest in surviving as reasonably serene—and so I began to annihilate the abiding wish to find out."

Or again, here is Coetzee, in a remarkable sentence-long epic, summarizing the career of Tony Blair, and providing a needful antidote to the fawning valedictions that have marked the end of his premiership: "An ordinary little middle-class boy with all the correct attitudes (the rich should subsidize the poor, the military should be kept on a tight rein, civil rights should be defended against the inroads of the state), but with no philosophical grounding and little capacity for introspection, and with no inner compass save personal ambition, embarks on the voyage of politics, with all its warping forces, and ends up an enthusiast for entrepreneurial greed and the sedulous monkey of masters in Washington, turning a dutifully blind eye (see no evil, hear no evil) while their shadowy agents assassinate, torture and 'disappear' opponents at will."

But things cannot be as bleak as they seem so long as there are books and a little leisure time in which to read them. Emerson put it rather well: "Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire."


Due Considerations
By John Updike
Alfred A. Knopf, 736 pp., $40

It seems almost impolite not to include Updike's new collection, since this grand old man of American letters would appear to have written 3,000-word reviews of just about every book published in the last 10 years with the sole exception of those authored by himself. Scattering his stylistic seed with unstinted generosity, even the most occasional of pieces is wrought with a care, nuance, and scruple one would be hard-pressed to find in a whole year of Sunday book reviews. His praise for the English critic Frank Kermode serves equally well as a description of the current volume: "Decent devotion to literary merit and a humble and tenacious will to understand and explicate the best examples of it would not seem to be unattainable virtues, but this babbling, dumbed-down age makes them harder to attain than formerly, and their exponents rarer, with a touch now of the embattled heroic."

Exit Ghost
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 304 pp., $26

Whether committing the sin of Onan to the mental image of a woman who may or may not be Anne Frank, or immolating his libido on the altar of art, Philip Roth's most tenacious invention, Nathan Zuckerman, has enlivened American literature since his debut 28 years ago in The Ghost Writer. Now in his seventies, galvanized by the possibility of "exerting somewhat more control over my urine flow than an infant," the aged and physically decaying novelist returns to New York, theater of erstwhile debasements, in order to receive the latest in urological treatment, which Roth naturally takes great pleasure in limning for our benefit: "By going in through a catheter inserted in the urethra to inject a gelatinous form of collagen where the neck of the bladder meets the urethra, [the Mount Sinai doctor in question] was getting significant improvement in about fifty percent of his patients." Before he can return to his aerie in the Berkshires, however, some old friends make an appearance, with alternately hilarious and unedifying consequences.

Diary of a Bad Year
By J.M. Coetzee
Viking, 231 pp., $24.95

Coetzee is up to his old tricks in this brief, furious novel of ideas—or perhaps, more accurately, novelistic essay—the majority of which is taken up by the discursive musings of one "Senor C.," whose publisher has asked him to write down his thoughts on the current state of world affairs. These include the suggestion that someone should write a ballet entitled Guantanamo, Guantanamo: "A corps of prisoners, their ankles shackled together, thick felt mufflers on their hands, muffs over their ears, black hoods over their heads, do the dances of the persecuted and the desperate. Around them, guards in olive-green uniforms prance with demonic energy and glee, cattle prods and billy-clubs at the ready. They touch the prisoners with the prods and the prisoners leap; they wrestle prisoners to the ground and shove the clubs up their anuses and the prisoners go into spasms."

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