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Memories of the Ford Administration
by John Updike
Alfred A. Knopf, $23
"Was there ever a Ford Administration? Evidence for its existence seems to be scanty," writes Alfred Clayton in a rambling exegesis to the Northern New England Association of American Historians (NNEAAAH) on his Memories of the Ford Administration for a symposium of the same title. The document doubles, in its post-modernist way, as John Updike's latest novel.
Alf didn't pay much attention to politics in the two years and five months that Ford was in office. But he does have a story to tell, and he starts in the beginning--watching Nixon's resignation with his three children whom he had recently "abandoned" when he and his wife separated. He is babysitting because his wife, Norma, is out on a date with Ben Wadleigh--husband of Wendy Wadleigh, who is in turn having an affair with Alf.
The Claytons, Wadleighs and the Muellers--who soon enter the picture--are the reigning academics at Wayward Community College, a two-year women's school in southern New Hampshire. Alf hates Brent Meuller, a literary deconstructionist, whom Alf finds "contentious, dismissive, cocky, and a great hit with the students; he played to them with a televisable glibness and catered to their blank, TV-scoured brains by dismissing on their behalf the full canon of Western masterpieces, every one of them (except Wuthering Heights and the autobiography of Frederick Douglass) a relic of centuries of white male oppression, to be touched as gingerly as radioactive garbage." To undermine Brent's growing authority, Alf has an affair with Brent's wife. And in a bold move, Brent is having an affair with Alf's wife.
Alf's main problem as a demoralized history professor is coming to terms with a new age of criticism that obliterates history. He has been working for years on a definitve history of James Buchanan, the 15th and only bachelor president. Alf and Norma are fine, so it seems, until this lonely and much-maligned historical figure fails to form into a book. "My attempt at extending our family to include a bouncing book had proved painfully slow and thus far futile. Perhaps Buchanan was the cause of our break-up," Alf reasons.
To most, Buchanan is not a charismatic figure. (I grew up less than 10 blocks from his mansion in Lancaster, Penn., and I have only gone inside once--and that was to receive money.) But Alf loves him, and this is one relationship he'll remain faithful to.
Alf does learn something from Brent Meuller--that history, because it is a false construct, does not have to be true necessarily. Mulling over documents and picking apart the details of long ago events are fruitless. Historical inquiry will never yield a "correct" version of what happened--because there is no correct version of what happened. It can all be deconstructed down to nothing.
So with this intellectual "freedom," Alf takes his liberty in spinning James Buchanan's story with Updike's fictional sense of character, scene, detail and above all, sexual frustration. Historical fiction is all the rage these days--from Umberto Eco to Susan Sontag and now to Updike. The "facts" may not be true, but maybe it's more interesting that way. There isn't much of a market for books on Buchanan--even in his home town--but Updike's book will deservedly land on best seller lists.
Updike has the ability to evoke a precise and charming picture of whatever era he presents--whether he is talking about the hit songs during the Ford administration or the elements of Buchanan's dinner on the eve he loses his only love.
Buchanan may seem like an odd choice for this work, but he actually meshes well with the feeling Updike wants to evoke about the Ford years. In describing this era, Alf is more concerned with himself than the world around him. Ford wasn't a monster and he wasn't a hero; he provokes no more interest in himself than that he stewarded the country during Alf's life. The same with Buchanan. He might have had a more profound effect on the country's history than Ford, but he didn't provoke much interest in himself--the bulk of Alf's tale is about the people in Buchanan's life, including Russian czars and Nathanial Hawthorne.
The country was sedate under Ford. People had sex, not as an expression of freedom, but just because it was there. The most striking thing about these encounters, Alf notes is not their promiscuity. That was the '60s. The Ford era was about one-night stands. And no one was concerned about swapping bodily fluids--a recurring obsession in a book written in an AIDS-conscious time.
Dealing with "blahness" and "meaninglessness" may not inspire some readers. The Buchanan passages do get weighty towards the end, especially when the narrative switches from rich texture to the beat of a bad text-book.
But Updike can always charm a reader. He's not playing the deconstruction game for the sake of some high theoretical purpose. He's poking fun at the theory itself.
When Brent's wife, Genevieve, finds out about Alf's fling with the mother of one of Brent's students (who may or may not have been having an affair with Brent but unsuccessfully tried to seduce Alf--the mother only sleeps with Alf because she likes to sleep with her daughter's boyfriends and thinks he slept with her daughter) Genevieve tells him their whole affair has been rendered meaningless.
"Why meaningless?" he asks. "What do you mean by meaning? What meaning does any of this have, in the long run, when everybody is dead, and our children are dead, and their children's children?"
The meaning? Just that John Updike is able to fit James Buchanan, Gerald Ford, literary theory and the grand continuum of history into the sexual appetite of one man.
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