To Updike, predators everywhere in Morocco. (Heather Cowper)
I’m sure I’ve read a more repulsive Updike story. Right now I can’t recall one more repulsive than “Morocco.” Repulsive for its overt orientalism, its equally overt indulgence of racist tropes and travel writing’s laziest stereotypes.
The New Yorker rejected “Morocco” when he sent it in at the end of November 1978. He revised it, resubmitted it two months later, the New Yorker rejected it again. The Atlantic ran it in the November 1979 issue. He couldn’t bring himself to collect it in his next short story books, finally including it–as the very first story–in “My Father’s Tears” in 2009, three years after his Arabophobe “Terrorist.” Of course it’s not a story. It’s a travelogue of the trip he took with his wife and four children to Morocco in 1969. “A two-part Easter holiday began in Morocco, where they made an exhausting five-hundred-mile dash in a rented car from Tangier to Agadir,” Adam Begley writes in his biography; “they then flew to Paris for two days, but were too weary of living out of suitcases to enjoy it much.” Begley doesn’t mention the “story” that came out of it. I was looking around the web to see if I was reading something that wasn’t there. The story isn’t anthologized or referred to much, but I happened by a Maghrebi writer’s identical reaction.
Made up fears start in the first lines. Updike (let’s not pretend it’s a fictional dad) is afraid to stop his car anywhere. “What were we afraid of? A trap. Bandits.” It devolves from there. Nothing he sees, nothing he smells or feels elevates. Somehow, in one of the more sublime parts of the world, every mile, every sight is “the bleak plazas, the boarded up arcades” (though I could have been reading about Daytona Beach). One of his daughters, apparently blond, “attracted stares from native men everywhere.” The predatory Arab man trope appears on the second page of the story, as if the very same girl would not attract stares from Updike’s country clubs everywhere back home, as if Updike’s own predatory stares after nubile girls (how many times does the word “nubile” appear in Updike works?) doesn’t heave through his pages. He tries to add a comic element here and there (“Allah be praised”) but it falls flat. On a beach in Agadir, another predator: a man not far from the family is masturbating. They escape, go to a hotel and its private pool “where all the Europeans were swimming and tanning safe from the surrounding culture.” Could the bigotry be more explicit? He’s reveling in it now, in the superiority of it, writing like a supremacist colonialist of the 1800s. They don’t leave Agadir. They “escaped.” He blows through a red light and doesn’t stop when a cop hails: more western contempt for Arab laws. And again, “We had escaped.”
When Updike is more objectively reassessed for the distastefulness of morals and judgments behind the gilded style, this “story” will figure prominently.
In a December 2016 interview in the Nashville Review Danielle Evans said: “For a lot of the characters there’s that moment when they consider the decision, consider the possibility of a different course of action, and move forward anyway. It was important to me, especially in thinking about adolescence and particularly female adolescence, to write characters whose problematic behavior came from complexity and not from lack of comprehension. Sometimes that tendency to hurt themselves is a way of reconciling trauma. Sometimes it’s a conscious decision to choose between what seem like only bad options, so that at least they have the dignity of knowing in which way something will hurt. Sometimes it’s a drive to punish themselves for something else that seems like it should have hurt more.” That sums up Claire in “Boys Go To Jupiter,” a flawed but absorbing story–flawed because it’s more of a topical study along Evans’s purpose than a story breathing on its own, free of the necessary contrivances Evans builds into the plot. One of them seems untenable: that Claire, the central character, is capable of wearing a confederate-themed bikini (the bikini that somehow ends up snapped onto somebody’s social media page, triggering the scandal she faces in college when a dorm mate sees the picture) even though her best friend growing up had been black. Then again, the severing of that friendship by two dramatic shocks (both girls’ mothers have cancer, but Claire’s dies, her friend’s mother does not), and Claire’s car crash with the girl’s brother, her occasional lover (he is killed, she is not) may be the reason Claire is so foolishly exploring the self-hurt of going far beyond wearing the confederate bikini. Along the way Evans captures the language and often contradictory sanctimony of social and racial correctness and the lurid expediency of those who will brandish a racist cause behind the cloak of free expression. I kept thinking of The Human Stain. The story’s artistry almost chokes from its heavier polemic but for Evans’s remarkably assertive and lucid style. More on Evans here.
Sewanee Review, Nr. 4, 2017, Best American Short Stories 2018, ed. Roxane Gay
Steve and Max, white men in Mississippi, are improbably walking and talking together toward Little Lee Roy’s house as Steve tells Max of the not-too distant days when he (Steve) was a circus caller and Little Lee Roy a clubfooted black man who’d be dressed up as an Indian girl called Keela, made to eat live chickens, growl and act as beastly and freakishly as possible for circus-goers’ enjoyment. The freak show is an old, deplorable American tradition that long predates Trump rallies and NRA conventions.) Max is a saloon-keeper. It’s not clear what Steve is doing, if anything. Little Le Roy is on his porch, surrounded by chickens, when the two men appear and continue conversing as if he weren’t there except for a couple of asides by Max. Steve still calls Little Lee Roy “it.” And who calls him Little Lee Roy, itself an abusive, demeaning term for a grown man and father of an unknown number of children? We don’t need to be told: in Welty, white society’s presumptions don’t have to be explained.
Steve speaks as if he were regretful of his days as the caller outside “Keela”‘s tent, though “I reckon I seen it a thousand times,” he says of the freak show: more than enough times to known that he loved it, and even now, to retell with a touch of relish every detail of the atrocity Lee Roy, once kidnapped into slavery at the circus, was made to endure: Welty devotes a full page to the recounting, which–anachronism aside–reads, at least in its raw, pornographic expository nature, almost like reports from Sabra and Shatila after the massacre, but limited to one man: the revelry of atrocity at the expense of human lives is the same. Yet Steve is trying to atone: “It’s all me, see,” said Steve. “I know that I was the cause for it goin’ on an’ on an’ not bein’ found out–such an awful thing. It was me, what I said out front through the megaphone.” Or through Monday morning’s quarterbacking: his guilt is hollow, as is his claim that “none of us knowed it could talk.” None of them asked, none of them had a conversation with him, none of them is willing to have a conversation with him even now. A physician uncovers the truth, saves Lee Roy, and has the real circus freaks, the only circus freaks–its managers–arrested. Steve and Max talk about responsibility: “You wouldn’t of knowed it either!” Max has already staked out his role. He listens to his jukebox. He doesn’t listen to anything else. He’s the complicitly dis-informed Southerner, wearing his ignorance like a shield to a reality he’d rather not confront, let alone contend with. It was the South of Welty’s surroundings.
I came across this undated, un-authored but worthy analysis from someone at Owensboro College:
The circumstances in ‘Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden’ strain credibility, and the device of having a conscience-tormented young man force his story upon a cynical tavern-operator while the object of the tale looks on does not seem very plausible. Yet the basic story was true; Welty heard it from a man who was building a booth at a county fair during her WPA travels. As she told an interviewer in 1942, `I guess if you read it you must have known that it was true and not made up – it was too horrible to make up’. ‘Keela’ was her attempt to explore `how people could put up with such a thing and how they would react to it’ (CNVRS, pp. 5, 157). At the same time she was very subtly commenting upon the symbolic place of women and racial minorities in Southern life.
Welty returned to the story years later in December 1964 when she delivered a large public lecture at Millsaps as part of her contract with the college. The previous summer had seen the murders of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the firebombing of forty black churches, and the white Citizens’ Councils’ intimidation of whites known to have “moderate” sensibilities, intimidation that had not ceased. In her lecture, entitled “The Southern Writer Today: An Interior Affair,” Welty delivered comments that she would later publish as “Must the Novelist Crusade:” Here, she rejected an ostensible political purpose for fiction, arguing that “there is absolutely everything in great fiction but a clear answer,” that fiction is concerned more with the complexities of human experience than with proposing solutions to human difficulties. But she also asserted, “What matters is that a writer is committed to his own moral principles. If he is, when we read him we cannot help but be aware of what these are. Certainly the characters of his novel and the plot they move in are their ultimate reflections. But these convictions are implicit; they are deep down; they are the rock on which the whole structure of more than the novel rests.” The great novel, she argued, is grounded on the bedrock of principle, the very principle for which the crusader speaks. What a lesser novelist’s harangues would have buried by now, the great novelist”s imagination still reveals, and revelation of even the strongest forces is delicate work. Welty followed this address with a reading of “Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden,” which, appropriately, examines the complexities of human relationships. The story, written in 1938, describes a crippled black man who was once kidnapped into carnival work as a geek called Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden, and who, notwithstanding the horror of his past, feels nostalgic about the carnival experience in which he was noticed as now within his own family he is not. The story further deals with the guilt felt by Steve, the carnival barker, and with his inability, nevertheless, to overcome the separation of race, and finally, the story depicts a bystander’s courting of detachment from the horror and guilt Keela represents.
Steve punches Max for being doubted, insulting his sexuality and his intelligence–“I could tell a man from a woman and an Indian from a nigger though–and Max doesn’t take it badly: he offers Lee Roy some alms and Steve him free food back at his joint. Lee Roy tells his children of the encounter, but they tell him to hush. It’s open to interpretation: they may not want to hear about their father’s humiliating days again. They may not be listening to their father any more than those two men were. He is marginal, even in his own house.
In the August 16, 2019 New Yorker, Ian Frazier writes: “About a forty-minute walk away is the Bronx Zoo. In 1912, it was called the New York Zoological Park, and it was run by a patrician named Madison Grant from an old New York family. Though he and Du Bois lived and worked within a few miles of each other for decades, I don’t know if the two ever met. As much as anyone on the planet, Grant was Du Bois’s natural enemy. Grant favored a certain type of white man over all other kinds of humans, on a graded scale of disapproval, and he reserved his vilest ill wishes and contempt for blacks.
As Du Bois would have remembered, in 1906 the zoo put an African man named Ota Benga on display in the primate cages. Ota Benga belonged to a tribe of Pygmies whom the Belgians had slaughtered in the Congo. A traveller had brought him to New York and to the zoo, where huge crowds came to stare and jeer. A group of black Baptist ministers went to the mayor and demanded that the travesty be stopped. The mayor’s office referred them to Grant, who put them off. He later said that it was important for the zoo not to give even the appearance of having yielded to the ministers’ demand. Eventually, Ota Benga was moved to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, in Brooklyn, and he ended up in Virginia, where he shot himself.”
A story, more like a novel, of nouveau poor. We’re in Seville. Formerly rich and currently widowed, bigoted and still extravagant Mrs. Lance, who sleeps with a revolver under her pillow–and once shot her husband, mistaking him for a burglar, wounding him in the hand– and her pretty daughter Crystal, 20, who speakhttps://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/06/18/upshot/cities-across-america-question-single-family-zoning.html?searchResultPosition=5s the way she scrawls. They’re waiting for a letter and money from Crystal’s uncle after “a disaster.” “They were at the most expensive hotel in Seville merely because they were afraid of going anywhere else. She stayed there because she had always stayed at expensive hotels and would continue to do so, money or no money. A lifetime’s habit of wealthiness had become, now that she was in fact poor, almost a superstition. In the old days the money had come naturally from her husband; now he was dead, it might well descend from heaven, and she began to look upon everyone as possible intermediaries of the divine will.”
Mrs. Lance: “Her voice had an affected drawl that was calculating rather than tired. She was frank, bitter, snobbish and courageous. She controlled a jealous temper and adopted towards her daughter an attitude of affectionate contempt. She liked making enemies.” And Crystal? Crystal who, well ahead of her time, ends most of her sentences with a question mark? Crystal who secretly wants to be an actress? “She seemed to be unhuman; not a fairy from wild and delicate hills, but an artificial creature stepping out of the Cinderella coach in a pantomime. Her presence was a glitter of light that threw shadows of grotesqueness upon all other people.” In contrast with her mother, “She went about with a pretty, determined air, humming like a bee in a timeless world of her own with an idle belief in the goodness and happiness of everyone.”
Alec Ferguson An Englishman in Seville with an engineering company who “gave the impression of thickness and heat” is following them, interested in Crystal, but Mrs Lance neutralizes him, treating him like a son, using him to ultimately tap his money to her needs. the Marquès de Palominas, owner of vines and olive groves, “shrewd, affable, and obstinate and easily excited,” a lazy sensualist. His wife: “She was slightly taller than he, as pale as flour. She dressed in black. She was large and black and white and swollen, and though she sighed a great deal of air out of her body, she did not get smaller. She spoke very formally in a very high voice that shook her chins as if they were a toppling pile of saucers. She was very devout and came to Seville every Easter to see the religious ceremonies, and she did not like foreigners because they were usually not Roman Catholics. Although she seemed drowsy and obese she was nervous and suspicious, and her small black eyes were very observant.”
Marquès unabashedly flirts with Crystal as he takes her to an appointment with Alec at some woman’s house . But he thinks Crystal is making advances as she muses out loud about her need for money. They’re both scheming. He can’t figure out if she’s leading him on for herself or to hitch him with her mother. “Had he won the mother or the daughter, or both? It was so difficult to know about these foreign customs.” Meanwhile, she forgets her bag in the Marquès’ carriage.
Next, it’s Marques and Mrs Lance who flirt. She hopes he’ll pay her hotel bill. “The dirty little dago would pay the bill.” She schemes: “And then her face brightened with the inspiration of revenge. His word ‘ruthlessness’ put her on her mettle. What an excellent plan it would be to make him pay the bill by pretending to promise to meet him, and then quietly slip away with Crystal by the night train!” But Crystal reveals his advances on her, and her mother is now jealous, too, and wishes she hadn’t sold her gun.
Marques’ wife is incensed at the letter found in the carriage, something about asking a certain Madame Mathieu to give back money “he” lent. He protests, says it’s Lance’s, asking Mathieu for money. And decides to stop Lance’s scheming to get her bill paid. They both agree the English are “barbarous.”
Bigotry is a central theme. Hypocritical Mrs Lance, incensed at Crystal being flirted with but hiding her own flirtations with the same man: “I always knew that these people were beasts, but I did not know they were swine.” “The little monkey-like night clerk with his big yellow ears and cropped hair.” (The theme vanishes in later sections.)
The religious procession. And then a twist: It’s poor deluded Alec, the one true gentleman who doesn’t think himself a gentleman, who pays Lance’s hotel bill. “He whistled at the amount a bit, but she would repay him. Mrs. Lance was a lady; he himself was not perhaps by her standards quite a gentleman, but he could not put her in the position of asking him for aid.” That should kick off a tragi-comedy of errors. Alec senses he’s been played by Lance, “but he pushed the unworthy thought away.”
They return to London. Lance had extracted revenge: she’d left a glove in Marques’ room. Reality bites: “her husband had avenged himself upon her by leaving her a paltry £ 100 a year. The grand buccaneering days were over.” “She could not admit the fact that she had ever ceased to be wealthy. Her talk was again an increasing pageant of rich islands and continents in which she had luxuriously lived, galloped horses, won absurd wagers, and despised everybody.” She repeats the scheme she pulled off through Alec, using Crystal’s friends to get at their money, pimping her daughter, using her “as bait,” as Dufaux later puts it: “Mrs. Lance almost unconsciously put her daughter to that usage into which she had stealthily and amusedly slipped in Seville; Crystal made friends and brought them to the house where her mother, unknown to her, would borrow money from them. Crystal’s beauty was becoming her mother’s capital.”
Mr. Adolphe Trellis, architect, father of two boys Lance is coaching. Prospective trick to Lancers designs: marry him to Crystal, even though he’s married. Meanwhile for Crystal, “the vague hostility she felt towards her mother was growing into a determined anger.” She realizes her mother is receiving her, not passing along calls and deals that would land her stage jobs.
She discovers being pimped, and Pritchett is a bit heavy handed making her voice the self-revelation: “She has always been interfering with me ever since I can remember, and she doesn’t care what she does. Always talking about her money! She only wants it for herself. She can never forget how rich she has been. And she is so relentless that she even uses me. Everything is money, money, dreadful money. And that is why I have failed. Now I can see it. Everyone, as Mr. Geelong says, is suspicious. It is shameful.”
But she gets a big part in a play. It’s her break–her break into theater, her break from her mother. She must deal with that new world’s cesspools of politics and jealousies, embodied in the rippling Miss O’Malley (see her described below). And she has a new interest: Fontenoy Dufaux, yet another (unhappily) married man, seeking a divorce for four years. “She felt she was chained to him by her mother’s act, and as she walked about the Rows of the town she would be surprised to see only one reflection of herself in the shop windows, when, in her mind, she was one of three enemies: her mother, Dufaux and herself. Her fear of them had made both Dufaux and her mother intimate and silent inhabitants of her body, and she loved them both and submitted to them.” But then Crystal realizes he despises P’Malley, so “they could be united on enemy ground: her mother and Miss O’Malley.” The story is all about competing hatreds, dueling one-uppmanship, feared and actual deceptions.
But the story is losing its stride here, getting weedy with stage talk and plottish tatters that are taking us away from the more absorbing narrative of the earlier pages.
Crystal and Dufaux take a long walk together, she defends her mother against his accusation and feels she now has the upper hand, no longer fearing Dufaux. But what glimmer of romance was between them–“some profound dark sighing behind them”–vanished. Or was Pritchett refereeing to the malaise between them created by her mother’s pimping? The latter: “Having forced herself in her own devious way from her bondage, she became coquettish and awakened him to pursuit. A score of meetings in his rooms or hers, in restaurants, dance halls, walks, a glittering and fascinating net of talk drew them apart from the rest of the company. For weeks it dragged round from one town to another, creaking, wheezing, declaiming, quarrelling, united by the common fear of extinction. Dufaux wooed her not openly first, but by indulging in long tirades of self-condemnation.”
The theater company tours, in full page after page as “Her love for Dufaux was a heavy and ever-warming wine in her limbs, filling her with power, making her unreal to herself.” But jealous O’Malley snitches on them to Crystal’s mother, who rushes in to crash their party. Crystal has a breakdown. The couple splits. She is out of the theater. She broods. Dufaux doesn’t answer letters. Her spirit for life is gone. “The world had lost its flame, had extinguished and become unreal and meaningless, because she had no meaning to give it.” Mr. Geelong tries to get her back on stage, as her agent. And whatever happened to Alec? Just disappeared? At least we’re back to Mrs. Lance borrowing money to survive. The two women quarrel. Geelong proposes marriage, she refuses. Then changes her mind. A bit ridiculous. They marry. “They were married at a registry office one morning, went to a cinema in the afternoon and dined together in the evening.” Obviously, Pritchett has lost interest in this story, lost its threads long ago. Yet she still lives with her mother. “It was a strange situation; for it never entered Crystal’s head that her mother was Mr. Trellis’ mistress; and Mrs. Lance, confused in the dream of her own life, could never have imagined that Crystal would marry Mr. Geelong, whatever else she might do.”
A strange, unsatisfying ending, after all this. I started and finished this story today. I was fascinated, then bored and disappointed. He must not have known what to do with it.
He can overwrites http://a.co/eDv1GaH
Pritchett similes: “The whiteness of the houses was the rough whiteness of an Arab’s robes;”
“And then the highest of her toppling pile of chins surprisingly toppled over into a loud yawn.”
“this peacock tail of talk.”
“The whole of Miss O’Malley smiled and gleamed. An almost visible wave of pleasure passed in a rich and fleshy eddy from her bosom, across her stomach and forked in two satiny streams down her thighs. And then the tide curled back and arriving at her face, there resolved itself into a scowl.”
“… the cruelty of the crucifixion—not because of the crucifixion itself, but for the grotesque way it makes people feel cruel toward their neighbors: “And then, mounted on a platform, were the voluptuous images of the Crucifixion gleaming in the light of candles as with the sweat of a grotesque agony. The candles tinkled in their vases. A murmur passed over the heads of the people. At the sight of such pain frozen in sculpture, their eyes were satisfied. This was the summit of cruelty. One hated his neighbour. This put passion into the heart. If one could be for the flash of a second as cruel as that!”