Tuesday, October 25, 2005

In which Ms. P beats up on John Updike.

Thanks to Bookslut, I recently read an interview with John Updike from the Sun-Times in which he said:

"I also read Salman Rushdie's new book. He's an interesting writer. Not quite a master yet, but he's getting there."

Michael Schaub commented that he'd thought Rushdie was a master since about 20 years ago. I'm inclined to agree. Also, while I like some Updike (the Early Stories collection is wonderful and intimidating in its accomplishment), I also find a great deal of his work painfully dull and indulgent, especially compared to the similarly verbose but far more delightful Rushdie. Also, Rushdie is all of 15 years younger than Updike, so I see no reason for him to play the condescending avuncular role.

Because of this, and because I am a mean person who loves meaningless comparisons, I decided to do a side-by-side comparison of books Updike and Rushdie published around the same time. I realize that Updike began publishing significantly earlier, and I think his earlier works are better, and yeah, it's under 10 novels versus, gee, about five hundred by this point, but you see, I don't really care.

1975: Grimus and A Month of Sundays
Ah, the only matchup where I haven't at least read part of either of the books, I'll admit. I have heard that Grimus is so bad that Rushdie tried to keep it out of print and is embarassed when he sees people reading it, so I'll go ahead and give the nod to Updike here.

1980/81: Midnight's Children and Rabbit is Rich
Right on to the one where I've read both books at least twice. Excellent. This one is also a pretty loaded one--winner of the Super-Booker vs. a Pulitzer prize winner. I suppose I could declare it a tie, but I prefer the grand, sprawling, historical-mythological dazzle to the the minutely-detailed account of a man, his midlife crisis, and his private parts.

1983/84: Shame and Withces of Eastwick
I always found Witches disappointing; despite the three heroines being differentiated, they're all such stereotypes that it just hammers home that Updike can't really write a fully sketched, complex woman. Even the movie, with the Ballsy One, the Uptight One, the Shy One, and the Devil, shows a bit more nuance (and doesn't show the women as ravenous man-eaters to quite the same degree). Shame isn't lacking in violent women (including three furies), but it's also a complex allegory of Pakistan, instead of a thin allegory about the dangers of desire.

1988: The Satanic Verses and S.
I find SV difficult and not one of Rushdie's best works, but I once read 30 pages of S. because someone told me I would hate it. I do. Again, a female protagonist. Again, she is a flaky flake-flake, and is driven to do what she does because the men in her life control her. Sigh.

1990: Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Rabbit at Rest
Okay, there's really only one way this could go. It won the Pulitzer. It was good, though Rabbit Remembered later kinda wrecked it for me. Haroun, like Woody Allen's musical, is one of those slight things that I like but realize is not the greatest thing ever.

1995/96: The Moor's Last Sigh and In the Beauty of the Lilies
Well, at least Updike isn't trying to write a woman protagonist anymore. But up against one of Rushdie's best female characters, the religious fable is a little pale.

1999/2000: The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Gertrude and Claudius
Oh, hey! Look! It's Aurora from Moor's Last Sigh! Only... she's a rock star now? Okay, sure. Not as strong as other Rusdie works, but man, G & C knocked me out better than Ambien whenever I attempted to get through it.

I haven't read either's new works yet, so I won't speak to them. But it's still looking 5-2 Rushdie to me. I think he's gotten there.