Books, science fiction

Frankie and Johnnie

My copy of Dune looks like this.

My copy of Dune is vintage.

Over on the Guardian Books Blog, Sam Jordison continues his slog through past Hugo winners with Frank Herbert’s desert planet epic, Dune. I have a great deal of (possibly nostalgic) affection and admiration for the novel, and Jordison seems to, as well. I was particularly interested by his observation that, “The fact is that Herbert writes wonderfully and can carry all but the most cynical over any amount of rough ground as a result.” It’s not often you here that an SF writer is saved by his prose.

Dune could undoubtedly have been a mess in another writer’s hands: its labyrinthine, often absurdly complex, plot is all dynastic conflict and shadowy conspiracy, and as Jordison notes some of the characters are too one-note for the reader to fully buy their motivations. It is bold and bonkers.Yet the setting is so rich, and the writing so careful, that the reader doesn’t mind: there is more than enough in Dune to make up for its imperfections as literature.

I’ve just finished reading Rabbit, Run, the first of John Updike’s famed series of novels featuring the ‘everymerican’ figure of Harry Angstrom. Updike’s reputation is not one which has made me eager to read his work; to boot, my only previous exposure to his novels was his late career philandering chronicle Villages, and that misfire didn’t encourage me to read further, either. Following Ian McEwan’s rhapsodic eulogy for Updike, though, I decided to give the old boy another chance.

So too is this photo of Updike.

So too is this photo of Updike.

Undoubtedly, Rabbit, Run is both better written and philosophically more interesting than Villages. And yet the things that most frustrated me about that book are present in the earlier work: the self-absorption, the attitude to women, the distancing style. Updike’s sentences are frequently things of true beauty, replete with arresting images and new perspectives. But it’s hard not to question whether there’s anything (or, at the very least, anything palatable) to all that verbiage. Rabbit, Run is as expertly written as any novel I’ve read, yet somehow it lacks the exquisite quality of a novel which is also about something else.

In this sense, and to follow Jordison, Herbert’s Dune achieves a richness Updike lacks. I might hesitate to say I’d read Dune over the Rabbit novels – Updike’s language is still purer stuff than Herbert’s, and despite the absences that lurk beneath it this represents a very special richness of its own – but it is certainly true that in Dune SF can at least claim to have something which addresses the world beyond itself (and indeed which challenges it, something which again seems beyond the bounds of Updike’s interest). There is something small and suburban about not just Updike’s characters but his prose, too: his books seem to care little for the existence of things except insofar as they affect the self.

There are more things in heaven and Arrakis …

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4 thoughts on “Frankie and Johnnie

  1. Nick says:

    I’m told that about “Rabbit is Rich” as well, but I do so hate skipping ahead in a series.

    Perhaps you should give Updike’s contemporary, Richard Yates, a try and see if you like his work any better.

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