Saturday, January 31, 2009

Speaking in tongues

Ian McEwan’s thoughts on John Updike (bless ’im) in today’s Guardian are well worth reading. His assessment of Updike’s style is lovely, a real gem:
Like Bellow, his only equal in this, Updike is a master of effortless motion - between third and first person, from the metaphorical density of literary prose to the demotic, from specific detail to wide generalisation, from the actual to the numinous, from the scary to the comic. For his own particular purposes, Updike devised for himself a style of narration, an intense, present tense, free indirect style, that can leap up, whenever it wants, to a God's-eye view of Harry, or the view of his put-upon wife, Janice, or victimised son, Nelson.
I guess this style of conflicting perspectives and voices is what Mikhail Bakhtin meant by heteroglossia – the disruptive multi-tonguedness that he ascribed to the Dostoevskian novel. With reference to Bakhtin, therefore, I'd like to beg to differ with McEwan on the point that Updike is the sole representative of such a style (equalled only by Saul Bellow).

Here a passage from J.G. Ballard’s novel Rushing to Paradise (1994) – a viciously politically incorrect satire about an island commune of noble eco-warriors turned feminist dictatorship - which I had to think of when reading McEwan's article:
Neil tucked into the greasy mackerel with a plastic fork. His spirits rose as he remembered the savoury anchovies from Carline’s hamper that he had devoured on the beach. The waters of the lagoon teemed with snapper and coral trout, blue-fish and sea perch that many of the yacht-crews, not yet indoctrinated by Dr Barbara, grilled on open fires in the evening (84).
Dr Barbara, you must know, is the warrior queen/sadistic guard who oversees the utopian concentration camp in which the novel is set; Neil is the teenage admirer/alter ego/competitor with whom she exists in a destructive symbiosis.

It seems to be through the latter's eyes that this scene (as indeed much of the novel) is presented. In the third sentence, however, another perspective appears to intrude upon Neil's culinary and zoological contemplations, when a voice that might or might not be his suddenly, unmotivatedly raises the issue of indoctrination.

But is it Neil's voice? One the one hand, the reference to Dr Barbara's indoctrination would tie in with the image that he tries to project throughout the novel, namely that he is the last remaining sceptic in a microcosm of totalitarian madness. On the other, especially given his fascination with the feminist dictator to the very end of the novel, it seems doubtful that he is at all capable of such a rational stance.

Alternatively, this comment might be seen to come from another source altogether, like a distant, disembodied voice of reason speaking from elsewhere - possibly through the character - yet without influence upon his actions.

Rushing to Paradise hinges on the idea, central to Ballard's writing, that human beings are addicted to what destroys them and that no amount of rational analysis can bring them to their senses. Neil's problem - as well as that of the rest of Ballard's cast - is their inability to heed the voice of reason that they sometimes (as the example of Neil suggests) seem to ventriloquise.

This is the great contradiction explored again and again by Ballard: We like to think that we are rational creatures and do everything to leave that impression in public, but underneath the thin veneer of civilised rationality we are driven by impulses and passions that are beyond our control.

Is that different from Updike's writing? I think that yes, but not in principle. Where Updike uses heteroglossia to express his protagonists' battles with the world at large, Ballard's writing is all about the seductive enemies within that overshadow his characters' engagement with the world.

This does not mean that Updike is the more "social" (and realistic) and Ballard the more "psychological" (and surreal) author. What it means is that they approach their shared interest - the conflicts and contradictions of human existence - from different angles, only to finally meet somewhere in the middle.

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