Monday, November 12, 2018

Pulitzer Project: A Twofer, Rabbit is Rich and The Color Purple

I figured I might as well lump these two together because I couldn't make it through either one.

Technically John Updike's Rabbit is Rich is more readable than Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Updike could string words together in a way that didn't insult the reader. It's too bad the actual storyline was so repellent.

Rabbit is Rich is part of a series of novels Updike penned about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. In this novel, Harry has hit the dangerous mid-life crisis years -- he's described as having been born in 1933, and it's the Carter administration in the novel so he's got to be somewhere not far past 45 or 46. And he is so skeezy it makes a reader's head spin, the classic misogynistic sexist pig in a polyester suit. A young couple comes in to the Toyota dealership Angstrom owns and Angstrom is more focused on plotting how to get close to the girl (who's probably close to 30 years younger than he is) than he is on actually selling them a car. His college age son brings a young woman friend home and Angstrom is immediately thinking he'd keep her happier in bed than his kid can. He and his wife go to the country club for an afternoon and Angstrom is ogling every woman in the pool and visualizing what they might be like in the sack. Everyone knows that men tend to think about sex a lot more than women usually do, but most writers don't manage to make that obsession seem quite so sleazy and off-putting. Is there a word to describe the opposite of erotica? Smut that turns you off instead of on? If not, there should be.

Maybe if Updike had stuck to Angstrom's fantasies it wouldn't have been so bad, but it did not help at all that Updike managed to write an explicit sex scene -- Angstrom and spouse in bed -- that on the "ewww really gross scale" probably scored an 11. A younger reader could read that sex scene and think, "omigod, if that's what sex is like when you're pushing 50 celibacy is looking good."

It was actually a little bizarre just how badly dated this book is. Were the late 1970s really that horrible? The only thing missing (at least in the section I got through) was members of the Rotary swapping motel room keys. Didn't Updike see "Oh Calcutta"? Anyway, between the racist language and the protagonist's fixation on assessing all the women he sees (except possibly his elderly mother-in-law) in terms of their fuckability a reader finds herself hoping the book really isn't too heavily biographical. I'd hate to think that Updike himself was as much of a pig as his protagonist/ I do know that Updike modeled his mythical town in his novels on his home town in Pennsylvania so maybe he was, but it is a tad depressing to be reminded of just how disgusting middle class middle-aged men can be.

In any case, I gave up about a third of the way into the book. When you start hoping that the "hero" is going to drop dead of a cardiac event on the next page and you've barely hit page 100 in a 400+ page book you know it's time to cut your losses and move on.

Unfortunately, the move on was to The Color Purple. This is ticks all the boxes on my list of things I hate: epistolary writing, overuse of dialect, murky character development. Once again I found myself wondering just why on earth the prize committee felt the need to award the prize to this particular book. It also really had me wondering just why Oprah Winfrey thought the book was so great.

Granted, Oprah was sexually abused by a trusted family when she was young, and The Color Purple starts off with the narrator telling us she's been raped repeatedly by her father, but. . .  the book sucks. It really, truly sucks. The plotline might have made a good screen play (and I'm assuming it did, although I've never seen the movie) but the book reads like something an undergraduate would churn out in a creative writing course. It's clunky, it's riddled with contradictions (the narrator is supposedly the smart kid in the family but she doesn't know how to spell? And she writes her letters in dialect? I might have a Yooper accent, but when I write a letter I'm going to say "them," not "dem" and when I describe going someplace it'll be "We went to Green Bay" not "We go Green Bay."), and it makes it seem like the protagonist exists in a vacuum. There is zero context. Nada. Zip.

Still, I think I got as far as page 50. Then I decided life is too short to waste on bad books.

As for the hype around it, there are two ways to sell books. One is to have a book that is just really, really good, something that grabs the reader and sales take off based on word of mouth. The other is through publicity about how wonderful the book is, how it's this masterpiece by (dramatic pause) an African American woman, and people start thinking they have to buy it. And then if you say, wow, this really sucks, it's like you're wrong, it can't suck, all the critics love it, eventually you just stop saying this book is awful, quietly set it aside, and let it gather dust on the bookcase. I have a strong hunch The Color Purple has slid into the same category as books like Ulysses and Their Eyes Were Watching God. People will claim they've read it, loved it, and will never admit they gave up on The Color Purple right about the time the protagonist's father gives her to a local widower, a dude who's willing to take her as a replacement wife/housekeeper as long as her father tosses in a cow with her to seal the deal.

I totally fail to see why this book got hailed as this amazing piece of African American fiction because it spends most of the book perpetuating every racist stereotype every cracker has ever held about blacks: the men are brutish animals who abuse their women and children, their women aren't particularly smart (after all, they put up with the brutish men), and they're all okay with living in squalor.

For what it's worth, I am perfectly willing to read some remarkably grim material if it's reasonably well written. After all, I read The Road cover to cover, roasted baby on a spit and all.

Recommendations? Skip both of these turkeys. On the usual sliding scale, they're both in the basement.

Up next:  Ironweed by William Kennedy. I know nothing about the book, nothing about the author, so maybe this is a good sign. Maybe I'll actually be able to read it.