Updike (2014)

Adam Begley

I was drawn to read Updike during a spat of exploring the work of Pulitzer winners. He seemed particularly intriguing as he is one of only three to have won the Pulitzer more than once, for two of his Rabbit novels. What I’ve found weird is that no one else that I know has read him. The impression I have is that his halo has dulled and his writing is less revered than some of his contemporaries. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps because Updike is unflinching in his exploration of gender dynamics and has been accused of misogyny in detailing what, I would argue, was an attempt to paint a true character and representation of gender dynamics in middle class America. Meanwhile the works of Hemingway, Miller et al remain popular with no such defence. Perhaps it is because Updike lived longer and was so prolific in his output? Perhaps he simply occupies an uneasy intersection of realism and high literature?

I was eager to read Adam Begley’s book to try and find the answers to these questions and know more about the Updike himself. On the latter matter, at least this book succeeds. It is a straight-ahead birth to death biography of a man who wasn’t particularly interesting even while all of his adult life was spent crafting stories and articles for the New Yorker. But even if the behind the scenes of this career was a little dull Begley still details all of Updike’s not particularly interesting life with the true enthusiasm of both a scholar and fan and it is this perspective which makes this book of value.

Begley manages to capture the sheer passion which Updike poured into his craft.  He conveys just how much of a genius Updike was and what went into his creating such a prolific output. Begley deftly covers Updike’s personal life and doesn’t appear to whitewash the many affairs which Updike embarked upon. In this respect, too there is a certain kind of second act in the book which is reminiscent of the Mad Men and shows how John Updike the man was as affected by the changing nature of sixties America as his main protagonist Rabbit Angstrom.

Unfortunately, this work doesn’t delve into how the perception of Updike may have changed with time. As if there is some great fact about him that could explain what he did and how he did it from such a young age. Because… while his books are great. They are just so mundane. And that’s what he wanted?!? How was he able to create such a style? To sell it. To somehow craft such gentle slow writing into such momentous and important works? Unfortunately, again, Begley like me, is a fan and if this book lacks anything it is a critical eye. Begley is even closer than me to the subject. He has no hope of being able to explain how Updike’s books do not seem to have prospered within the modern canon or how his ideas about honesty and diving deep into the mundane have become blasé. Or how his deep love of the written word and the luxury or revelling in it is not quite as in vogue as it once was. This book covers everything about a man whose life was lived in his writing. It just fails to address why this writing seems to be fading out of fashion.

Trainspotting 2 (2017)

Danny Boyle

I’ve watched this film twice now. The first time intentionally and the second because it was the last film to sell out on a busy labour day weekend. I’m happy for the second viewing though because it really elevated my appreciation for this film a lot.

Since then I’ve been chatting about the film to people since and it’s been surprising how many haven’t seen the original trainspotting. It doesn’t seem like it has continued to be as popular with younger viewers as it initially was. Perhaps, probably, because once upon a time every share house in Melbourne (and I’d assume most western countries) had a copy of this film on DVD (as well as, it seemed, Human Traffic, Requiem for a Dream and The Fifth Element all share house staples in the late nineties and early 2000’s). Trainspotting’s popularity then seemed to be driven by it’s cheap and ready availability on DVD. I guess with the decline of DVD it’s not so much a classic by default anymore.

That aside the first film was and is amazing. It’s so hateful, so full of venom. A visceral exploration and part romanticisation and, simultaneously also damnation of heroin culture, Scotland, and post-punk, all contrasted with the rise of brash 90’s commercial culture. The first film is an iconic chain of events which are collected in a series of scenes which only forms into a loose narrative in the third act of the film to provide culture.

The author of Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh (who cameos as Mikey Forrester in both films), wrote a sequel to his first novel in 2002 entitled Porno. The same characters from the first novel reunited and hatched a scheme to get rich off the porn industry. It’s a good book and great character sequel to the events of the first novel but I think everyone assumed that it was unfilmable because of the high level of sexual content, and more recently, because with the collapse of the porn industry no one really expects to get rich off of amateur porn.

I was suspicious of a sequel when it was announced. There have been enough unwatchable late in the game sequels. Dumb and Dumber 2 and it’s mean spiteful nature is perhaps the worst example though Indiana Jones & the Crystal Skull and it’s sheer clumsiness and stupidity is a pretty close second while later instalments of Die Hard simply seem unnecessary.

On my first watch, of trainspotting 2 it took until almost three quarters into the film before my suspicion and distrust eased off and I began to enjoy it. Trainspotting 2 is the same characters and uses the basic setup of the novel Porno minus the get rich amateur porn storyline. It’s much different to the first film however because it relies upon narrative to tell a story of its characters rather than simply detailing their chaotic self-destructive lifestyles. For me at least the narrative ambition of trying to say what had happened to the characters and their city and how they felt payed off.  Not only did I get over my mistrust but I came to love this film and what’s more it made value the first all the more.

This film doesn’t try twist or ignore the events of it’s predecessor, to create a new franchise or hide how old the actors are or how out of touch their characters are with youth culture. Bald spots are actually shown off. The mile a minute pop-culture dialogue between Johhny Lee Miller’s Sickboy and Ewan MacGregor’s Rentboy is still entertaining but not so much biting and funny now as self-deprecating, rueful and almost sad. In terms of these two characters, who were central to the first film, this second film examines them in a culture and stage of life where they are beyond punk and heroin and the irony of post-punk and are instead middle aged and merely low level and not very successful criminals rather than rebels happily wasting their potential.

The film updates it’s ‘choose life’ manifesto and takes subtle jabs at online culture, nostalgia, a conformist society and gentrification but just as all the characters are leery of younger generations ironically enjoying their own youth culture (in music and fashion) so too they are cautious now in attacking what is new.

Meanwhile the real surprise and main story of the film centres around Ewan Bremmer’s character of Spud and Robert Carlyle’s Begby and it’s in showing more of the backstory of one and the shattered dreams and despair of the other that the film really transcends itself and become not just good but a genuinely great film is so amazing in how much it treasures and loves its predecessor and the lives of the characters.

Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

Jean Rhys

Considered a colonial interpretation of as well as a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Wide Sargasso Sea is a well-written and constructed book which uses it’s Caribbean setting to provide a gothic landscape and setting for the sins of the father and a ghost in the attic. Rhys draws influence from Charlotte Bronte and Daphne du Maurier in creating this sense of fear and unease in her setting and I found that it was this tone that was the most interesting part of the book.

The setting, the tone and the writing I liked but as usual I personally just didn’t find the themes of power struggles between men and women very compelling. A glimpse into the history of creole and the islands was an interesting bonus but, even so, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book unless perhaps it was to someone who was interested or a fan of its influences. That said I read it fast for a uni subject with a massive book list and I do still wonder what I missed and may re-visit one day. That probably won’t happen any time soon as the shelf of books waiting to be read is fast outgrowing those I’ve read. As it is this one may have to join the stack of classics which I haven’t appreciated and, in that, at least Rhys will have good company with Dickens and George Eliot.

Don’t panic: Douglas Adams and the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy

Neil Gaiman

Perhaps the most disappointing book I read last year. As a biography of a person this book is dull. It is full of information and would be valuable for completest fans of Douglas Adams and his work. There are detailed break downs of all the Hitchhiker radio and tv episodes as well as a behind the scenes insights into the making of Dr Who episodes Adams worked on and, of course, a comprehensive list of the various incarnations of The Hitch-hikers Guide in the many varied forms it has taken

As for the author, well, according to this book there isn’t much of a story to Douglas Adams. He seemed to have been blessed with a genius sense of humour, sense of invention and imagination. The most interesting sections relate to how Adams worked within the BBC in the eighties. He was chaotic, often very late and always unorganised. Unfortunately, Gaiman seems to try to stretch these sections and, at times, the writing begins to resemble the cheap unauthorised biographies of celebrities which themselves are often extended Wikipedia entries.

Its as if this book needed to be combined with something else like, for instance, the history of the BB or radio serials or perhaps the nature of adaptation. Gaiman suggest that the creation of Hitchhikers Guide was a result of impulse, spontaneous wit and the pressure of a deadline. In turn to try and summate that spark in the flowery elaborate style of Gaiman’s feels anachronistic.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to say if this book might have been better if it had been written by someone other than Gaiman, who, is not at fault per se but is perhaps too close to the subject and unwilling to allow that large parts of Adam’s life were boring or uneventful. But, again, this book is invaluable as a source of information on the history of the Hitchhikers guide. It’s simply does not or cannot provide an interesting story about the man behind the work.