Thursday, May 21, 2009

With apologies to Mr. Chatfield

NOW FINISHED: The Centaur by John Updike

So, it's called The Centaur because the entire book is an allusion to the Greek mythological race of half-horse half-people, which myth I have apparently entirely forgotten. In fact, as I went along reading the book, there were a couple of times when Updike blatantly told a magically real encounter between two characters and I knew this, say, girls' coach/p.e. teacher was supposed to represent a mythological character. It was totally spelled out. Not until the end of the book did I come across an index of mythological characters to whom Updike had merely alluded throughout the book, and the pages on which they appeared -- there were lots. The index contained a list of names about fifty times longer than the list I would have written of mythological characters appearing in the novel.

OK, so now that we know I had absolutely zero idea of what was going on in the subtext, how was the actual text of the book? Not bad. A little weird at first but after getting more comfortable with the characters it's a much better experience. It's essentially three days in the life of this father and son, with lots of small-town drama, hints of Updike's long-simmering love for New York City above all other locales, a keen understanding of what goes through the minds of high-school students and faculty, and plenty of social commentary. But it's also a totally novelly novel, in that early twentieth century way (i.e. when the mindless churned-out crap fiction was still pulp).

Updike, like Forster before him in this A-to-Z blog project of mine, has an uncanny way of writing along, you know, telling the story, lah-di-dah, and then BAM! He hits you with an amazingly well written line and you think, Ahhh, this is why he's a famous and well-renowned writer whose praises are regularly sung.

Next up, V, another author who seems in my head to be of the same ilk as Updike, for whatever reason. I'm currently pausing from the project as I read At the Foot of the Blue Mountains: Stories by Tajik Authors. This is inspired by a trip to Tajikistan in August that I really, really, really want to do with Habitat for Humanity and which I am still pursuing but about which I am losing more hope by the minute. I think Mr. Centaur Biology Teacher would have a thing or two to say to me about that loss of hope, actually.

In summary, The Centaur is sort of like Ulysses meets Breaking Bad.

And I want to become smarter and then read it again. But I totally respect that Updike a)just writes the hell out of it anyway, without stopping to explain every last thing and b)writes such a great simple story, too, that you have to be smarter than a lot of people to even realize that you need to get depressed about everything you're missing.

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