Free mini-review by Hub Blog
: While huffing and puffing on a stationary bike at the gym, I finally finished reading the print version of John Updike’s short story “Varieties of Religious Experience”
(also see item below) in the November issue of Atlantic Monthly. Hub Blog is no literary critic, as the following mini-review will make abundantly clear. Still, here goes:
Not very impressive, though some tantalizingly interesting points.
As the title suggests, the story is about God and faith -- that of Americans and the Sept. 11 hijackers -- before, during and after the terrorist attacks. The story briefly traces the lives of Dan Kellogg, a 63-year-old Episcopalian lawyer who’s in New York on Sept. 11 visiting his daughter; ‘Mohamed’ and his Egyptian sidekick, two of the Sept. 11 hijackers; Jim Finch, a bond trader on one of the top floors of the WTC South on Sept. 11; and Caroline, a widowed grandmother on the United flight above Pennsylvania.
The snapshot of the religiously zealous hijackers, set in a strip bar as they get drunk in an attempt to disguise their identities and motives, is powerful and convincing. Mohamed is utterly contemptuous of American culture and its sluts, whores, materialism and openness. One can’t help thinking Updike is trying to make the point that the terrorists’ religious fervor -- and their overall conviction that their cause is just -- is stronger than ours.
Jim and Caroline are treated with dignity as their lives hurtle toward their end. They really don’t know what’s hit them. But their reactions in the face of peril and death are not quite believable. They’re too clueless, too nonchalant, too slow to comprehend their imminent doom. One instinctively suspects their final, horrifying emotions and thoughts -- as well as other victims on Sept. 11 -- would have been, if anything, more imbued with intense, sharp clarity. (To be fair, Updike’s portrayal of the “let’s go” rugby players is anything but clueless and nonchalant.)
And what about Dan Kellogg? You’ve read about him before in other Updike novels and stories: the slightly apathetic, dippy, divorced, unbearable-lightness-of-being suburbanite from the Midwest, who struggles with his own faith and purpose in life. That may or may not be the point of Updike’s story: Those with genuine conviction, those who did have simple purpose in their lives -- they died. And Dan is left alone at the end, surrounded by a daughter and granddaughter (from younger generations) with more conviction and hope than Dan could ever have. Maybe Sept. 11 really was the end of irony.
And that’s Hub Blog’s foray into literary criticism for the quarter.
Reader No. 1’s review: If you’re not interested in all this Updike chat, just scroll on down to other items. Anyway, here’s Reader No. 1's assessment:
“I took on your Updike challenge yesterday to read the story, then read your review this morning. I think I agree with most of what you wrote. While it is far from a masterpiece, I did find that I couldn't stop reading it -- first, remembering the day, and then next putting yourself into the center of the action. The description of events (the Trade Center falling) was very powerful in that respect, as opposed to the characters. For me, the character impressions that lasted the longest were Dan Kellogg's daughter and especially his youngest granddaughter. Yep, Kellogg is overly familiar. The observations towards the end, about why he doesn't give up going to church in the end, rang true. The Atta section was OK, but I didn't think we learned anything new. I suspect the thought patterns are a bit different. I certainly agree with your perception about the power of feelings (especially hatred) that Updike conveys. I did like some of the random observations in Caroline's section: her observation comparing the dress of the hijackers with her dotcom grandchildren conveyed how hard it is to really see -- know -- things in the modern kaleidoscopic culture. The bond trader section was not especially effective for me until Dan focused on the image of his daughter, alone. It's familiar but powerful.”