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
Toulouse-Lautrec, “L’inspection medicale” (1894). Lautrec grew up at 24 Rue des Moulins in Paris, a whorehouse, at a time when 34,000 prostitutes were licensed in Paris. See this interesting paper.
The whorehouse the maid describes in her Creolish patois to her aristocratically white and prissy employer Madame Blanchard–note the frosting on the name–is no Maison Tellier. As if to entertain a Blanchard who could be no less of a madame than the brutish one the maid is describing, she tells the story of Ninette, a prostitute whose wages are garnished and accused of stealing, and who is routinely beaten. Ninette saves up enough to flee. Her madam doesn’t object until her customers, all white and rich enough to be, in a different generation, sending money to adopt poor children as far away from their clipped lawns as possible, demand that she return. It takes magic to pull that off. The madam’s cook, clearly feeling no solidarity toward the whore–cooks considered themselves superior in the hierarchy–provides the recipe. “And then they did it just as the cook said. They took the chamber pot of this girl from under her bed, and in it they mixed with water and milk all the relics of her they found there: the hair from her brush, and the face powder from the puff, and even little bits of her nails they found about the edges of the carpet where she sat by habit to cut her finger and toe-nails; and they dipped the sheets with her blood into the water, and all the time the cook said something over it in a low voice; I could not hear all, but at last she said to the madam, Now spit in it: and the madam spat, and the cook said, When she comes back she will be dirt under your feet. Madame Blanchard closed her perfume bottle with a thin click.”
Seven nights later Ninete returns. There may be a touch of Isaac Singer’s supernatural here but not really, not if the madam had “began to ask the police to bring her again,” not if Jim Crow worked as intended on the oppressed, whatever their pigment or uses. Whores have always been aristocracy’s fetish.
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 bouncily crass story plodding with clichés (“an ass like two moons”), stereotyped racism (a Japanese girl giving the narrator the eye, “though it was hard to tell with those eyes, those opaque little pools of racial ambition, noncommittal as camera apertures”) and the usual objectifications (“it thrilled him like a spurt of ice water to realize he must dump her”), none of it redeemed by the humor of the grown-man narrator and Porsche-driving real estate developer living with his mom, his first marriage having failed years before.
The slithery-named Freddy Python’s girlfriend Corinna “(or whoever),” goes one reference about her, gets bored at plays and seems to be the usual shallow canvas Updike uses to paint his desires’ vagaries. They go to the theater, she doesn’t feel well, she faints. “She was out cold, and looked grand.” A whole paragraph about the way she looked out cold, the way he felt, as if prized to be the refracted object of the attention she draws. An attendant wakes her up with smelling salts. “The watching women [obviously, no men are watching] greeted this prodigy with murmurs, and Freddy, as somehow its father, took their applause as a compliment to himself.” Everyone orbits around Updike’s male protagonist. Himself. Her unconsciousness is his epiphany. The couple marries.
The New Yorker rejected the story. It appeared in the same Playboy issue that carried the interview with Anita Bryant. Apt, in its own way.
Like reading a Barnett Newman. It is mostly in what Hemingway doesn’t say, in the silences between glimpses of terror and cruelty: “The worst, he said, were the women with the dead babies. You couldn’t get the women to give up their dead babies.” They scream at midnight until the soldiers point searchlights at them. One woman dies and goes immediately stiff. They’re refugees of the Greek-Turkish war of 1922, seen by a seemingly dissociated narrator, either a British or American soldier in charge of managing the situation while Turks, a little too Paul Bowles-like summed- and smudged up in the person of one “Turk,” are portrayed as complicating the situation. But that narrator is either unnerving or maddening, or both. Or mad: “You remember the harbor. There were plenty of nice things floating around in it.” Who is he talking to? Why this reference to “plenty of nice things floating around” in the midst of horrors? What nice things ever float in a harbor? Ever? It’s throw-away details like that, that you know would never be throw-aways in Hemingway, that make you think he’s just throwing a line for effect rather than meaning/ Nothing wrong with that of course. Viz, Newman, his Vir Heroicus Sublimis (the “Heroic Sublime”), whom we just saw at MoMa. See my picture above. Maybe that’s a Turkish man wondering yet again why he’s being thrown under the big red bus and those “zips,” as Newman called those lines. I don’t know why the photo utility I just used dulled the reds as it did. Maybe Kazyo Shigara’s 1964 “Untitled” is more apt:
Kazuo Shiraga’s Untitled,” 1964. (c FlaglerLive)
The two-page vignette was originally the introduction to In Our Time. He unfortunately renamed it, pretentiously, “On the Quai at Smyrna.”