Tuesday, February 17, 2009

When Misogynist Books Surprise Me

Last night I finally started reading a book I can stand. It's sadly a bit cliche, as the movie's out, but it's Revolutionary Road, and I have to say it's fantastic. I had lumped its author, Richard Yates, into the category of unforgivable, disturbingly overrated misogynist writers like Philip Roth and John Updike (also, a big hello to Grandpoppy Ernest Hemingway), but I think perhaps there may actually be something in this novel that relates to human nature (gasp!) and not just the oh-so complex workings of the male member.

That said, since Updike died two weeks ago, and I'd been feeling a bit, well, bitchy, about being so against his writing. I tried to read the Rabbit novels over two summers ago, and found them to be the most boring novels I never finished. I gave him yet another shot with The Centaur, and again with Pigeon Feathers. Nothing stuck. However, The New Yorker dedicated practically an entire issue to their fallen colleague, and in reading some of the bits and pieces of his work that they compiled, I thought to myself, well Jessica, maybe you'll have to give him another go. Are there any Updike fans out there? Is there a novel, or a collection of short fiction you'd recommend that won't make me puke from its total and complete neglect of the fairer sex, or fall asleep from sheer boredom?

(Sorry, Roth, you don't get another chance).


Anyway, you're probably wondering who this dude is in the photo up top. His name is Michael Shannon. He's an actor that was most recently seen in the aforementioned movie version of Revolutionary Road. David Edelstein (the film critic over at NY Mag) recently wrote a profile of him, and I highly recommend reading the whole thing (it's not that long, you have no excuse). Shannon plays John Givings, the mentally ill and violent son of Kate and Leo's neighbors. Apparently his performance is the film's best. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I plan to when I finish the book in the next few days.

I'm so tired of non-actors who just play around with this Hollywood shit. Shannon strikes me as an angry young man, who, like so many fantastic actors, finally figured out that he could work through his shit in a healthy way and be creative by being an actor. The result, of course, is that he's actually an actor.

Over lunch in Carroll Gardens, near his Red Hook apartment, Shannon recalls how badly he’d wanted the part. In his audition, he explains, he pulled out every stop when it was time to tell his controlling mother (played onscreen by Kathy Bates and in the audition room by the casting director) to shut up. When it was over, she told him that in all her years in the business, she’d never felt so personally wounded by an actor’s reading.

He thinks a moment. “I guess for years and years, I’ve been wanting to tell my mother to shut up, and I finally got an opportunity to do it. One of the great things about acting is you can do things that in real life would get you in trouble. I think that’s something I figured out pretty early on. ’Cause I had some issues … ”

Does anyone else find this totally refreshing?


That was a side-track, really. It doesn't connect at all to my point about misogyny. So far, in the book, Frank Wheeler gets all the face time. And he's pretty pathetic. I haven't gotten to know April, his wife, nearly as well, and I find this a bit problematic. We'll see. But there's an underlying disgust and suffocation in the tone of this book that has nothing at all to do with gender. It reminds me of The Bell Jar. And for someone like Richard Yates, I can't think of a greater compliment.

Book / movie review coming soon!


Bookhouse said...

I was never able to get behind Updike. I've tried the span of books, from Rabbit to the shorts to Brazil, but 15 pages into Brazil he was beating to death this description of an abalone shell and I was done.

And it has at times, depending on the streak of rejections I've received, caused me to find issue and ire at the continued publication of his work in the literary journals and the paying markets. There are certainly hungrier, more desperate writers whose work is far more taught and ready and for who the pay from such an acceptance would be far more beneficial than a member of the overly published old guard.

Snobber said...

I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who finds him incredibly boring. But I think your point about how much he's been published is even more important. I can't tell you how angry it made me to see him in The New Yorker, or The Paris Review, or even smaller journals. I suppose we don't have to worry about that anymore, though.

Bookhouse said...

See, that's the other thing, because someone is going to still publish his stuff in the journals. The publicist at the house that publishes his books will do it, and the NYer or PR will take it and give that space to his estate rather than a struggling, living writer they've never heard of.

Christina said...

Ohhkay. I have a question/misconception. When I read Hemingway, well, he seems to ...like his female characters, but I always hear him described as a misogynist. Can tell me what I'm missing? (the shamefaced female Hemingway fan is steeling herself for the worst)
Also, loved Michael Shannon's comment, refreshing indeed.

L. said...

The John Updike story "A&P," one of his earliest, is the only thing of his I've ever read. Well, I think I read a story of his in The New Yorker in the past few years but it pissed me off because it was so misogynist. Anyway, before I read David Foster Wallace's essay about Updike's misogyny, I didn't have any idea, because "A&P" was so beautiful and sweet. You can read it here, it's super short and worthwhile: http://www.tiger-town.com/whatnot/updike/. Interested to know what you think!

Snobber said...

christina: i think, in response to your hemingway question, the female characters may be likeable, but they serve a purely sexual, egoistic function, as an extension of the male protagonist. usually it's in a negative way (i'm thinking here of sun also rises) but sometimes, it's not so bad (i've heard some people like the lady in farewell to arms). basically it's just that he uses women to prop up his men, usually in a purely sexual sense.

Snobber said...

lise: i really like this story, especially how simply beautiful it is, but i still get a little ew-ness from it, them being little girls. does that make me a feminazi?

Glimmer-glass Girl said...

thx for your answer to my quest! Thinking back to sun also rises, Brett's function was mostly sexual. sad. --Christina

F. said...

uhhuhu Debby Cowan!