Saturday, December 24, 2005
From the Vault: Memories of the Ford Administration by John Updike
"To me it seemed Genevieve was always singing one song, that went up and down, and returned upon itself as music does, repeating, repeating more urgently, looking for that thing it never does quite find."
John Updike writes the preceding paragraph in his latest novel, perfectly signifying both his place as America's greatest living prose stylist and the problems at the root of the novel.
The premise of Memories of the Ford Administration has Updike's latest hero, college professor Alf Clayton (bearing an uncanny resemblance at times to Updike's classic character Rabbit Angstrom), invited to write an essay for a scholarly journal looking back at the short tenure of the only man to serve as both vice president and president without having been elected to either office.
Instead, Clayton submits a rambling collage of his thoughts on his personal life at the time, when he was torn between ending one marriage and beginning another while obsessing about writing a book about James Buchanan, the 15th U.S. president.
While Updike's prose dazzles as always, the book seems divided into two unsatisfying halves. The juxtaposition of Buchanan's 19th century life and Alf's mid-1970s dilemmas never quite come together beyond the shared personality trait of indecisiveness that Updike's creation and the late president share.