Here is the opening line of John Updike’s New Yorker review of A Mercy, Toni Morrison’s latest.
“Toni Morrison has a habit, perhaps traceable to the pernicious influence of William Faulkner . . . “
The Faulkner comment raised my hackles to an extent unparalleled except perhaps by our our lame quack-quack president. It disposed me to reject whatever else Updike might say about the work of a writer I love and admire. Reasonable people might still argue, I suppose, about Morrison’s place in the literary pantheon despite her Nobel; but certainly Faulkner’s is secure. Not that everyone is required to like even the most revered. I, for example, have found Mr. Updike’s appeal a complete mystery. Some writers–Ishiguro, for example–I can admire, and I can understand their appeal even without being drawn to them. Updike just leaves me scratching my head, wondering what I’m missing. However, the fact that the entire world has treated him and his Rabbits as literary cause celebs forces me to conclude that the fault is not in the artistic stars but in myself. And I don’t go around trashing him.
That doesn’t mean that A Mercy is necessarily a good book. I haven’t read it, and it may be quite true, as Sir John says, that “Morrison’s epic sense of place and time overshadows her depiction of people” or that “[Sorrow/Complete] (one of the main characters) seems less a participant in the action than a visitor from the Land of Allegory.” Or that “. . . as Morrison moves deeper into a more visionary realism, a betranced pessimism saps her plots of the urgency that hope imparts to human adventures.” However, that opening Faulkner crack as well as a dig at her earlier work (“. . .bristling with sixties literary trickiness and protest . . .,”) and at Faulkner’s influence again, if not at Faulkner himself (“In line with the celebrated Faulknerian dictum that the past is not past . . “) I distrust his judgement and resent his presumption.
To be fair, I browsed through a few other reviews and found similar complaints about Morrison’s muddy logistics and obscurity of character, though usually with more praise for the poetics of her language and emotional sweep of the tale. I’ll have to judge for myself at some point, of course. In the meantime, I’ll stick with my annoyance at Sir John and let a quote from Alex Carnavale from the online journal Gawker stand as my closing statement on the matter:
Cranky old John Updike has always used his bully pulpit at The New Yorker to blast popular writers who didn’t fit his idea of fiction. This is nothing new for Updike — as his prose has gotten more journalistic and dull over time, his level of tolerance for more exciting stylists is inversely proportional to his own ineptitude, and he’s made many enemies. As he’s gotten older, his hatred of anything he doesn’t understand has become commensurately more transparent, earning the ire of Salman Rushdie, Tom Wolfe, and David Foster Wallace. And when you use that power [of a New Yorker pulpit] to throw both Toni Morrison and William Faulkner under the bus . . . while making sure to say that you find her white characters the most convincing, we have a problem with you, you old bastard.