U is for Unsatisfying Uhnak and Ummm Updike

What I read: Victims by Dorothy Uhnak

I'm not a huge fan of crime novels. Mysteries, yes. I LOVE mysteries. And I'm a big fan of television police procedurals (CSI, Law & Order, Blue Bloods). But I've never found novel cops and robbers particularly interesting.

Victims, however, starts out good. The main cop protagonist is interesting, and the entire novel (at first) is based around the real-life Kitty Genovese case in which a woman was stabbed (several times) outside an apartment complex; her neighbors saw and heard it happen, but no one helped.

Using a similar set-up, 2/3rds of Victims focuses on interviews with the neighbors and their reasons for not calling 911. Uhnak does a fairly good job demonstrating a wide range of what is popularly called the Bystander Effect. There is a nice degree of tension between the protagonist, the famous reporter who wants to write about the neighbors, and the neighbors.

And then, the book completely collapses. It collapses because Uhnak falls back on the plot device of POLITICAL MACHINATIONS by POWERFUL PEOPLE.

There are really no words to express how unbelievably boring this plot device is. If anything can make me fall asleep while upright, it is POLITICAL MACHIzzzzzzzzz.

Like death, POLITICAL MACHINATIONS by POWERFUL PEOPLE is a writer's ultimate cop-out, a contemporary deus ex machina. The autopsy report was changed! Thousands of workers were bribed to keep their mouths shut! The reporter sells out for movie rights! Money buys off everyone!!

It's boring. (This may be why, while I enjoy crime shows, I lose interest the moment the Mafia enters the picture.) And it completely overwhelms the human element. The story is no longer about individuals struggling to get on in life; it's about whatever the powerful people are doing or thinking or...who cares?

How can this type of art even speak to people? Other than conspiracy-theorist, paranoid-type people? Sure, if all a person wants out of life is a fear of big, bad forces OUT THERE--I suppose the art has some use. But I can believe in big, bad forces OUT THERE without the help of art. Those big bad forces are called volcanoes. And earthquakes. And, if I'm really insistent, asteroids. I don't need to rely on people to clutter up my vision of big, bad forces.

If I'm going to watch movies and read books, I expect something more human, something closer to the human condition. The trappings are unimportant. The exploration of human interaction is what matters. Genre matters less than human connection, be it humorous, light, fantastical, bizarre, down-to-earth...

But plot devices that fall back on tired cliches about everyone being at the mercy of THE MAN--oh, please. Who cares. Go leave that message on someone else's machine.

Give me Columbo over POLITICAL MACHINATIONS any day.

2023: I read John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius.

It was readable but intellectually tedious. Despite the wealth of historical details and the use of supposedly medieval names (until the end), the story felt like a suburban love affair plopped into the middle of a historical moment.
Updike may have been making a point. Yet the story felt--not contrived but curiously lifeless. I am generally a fan of seeing universal human nature in the past--that is, although I believe that the past doesn't truly repeat itself and history relies on distinct, non-repeatable individuals, I also believe that human emotions/human biology/human desires show up in every era.
Consequently, a show like Rome--which has a number of flaws--still manages to capture the experience of actual human beings trying to survive a turbulent time.
Rome (again, despite its flaws) points the difference to Gertrude and Claudius. With Rome, I feel that human beings are reacting humanly to unforeseen events (there's no "right side of history" here--it's a mess!). The Tess of the D'Urbervilles approach (how many more dramas can the scriptwriters heap on a single family?) gets a little wearisome. Yet the sense of normal people just trying to get by remains.
While reading Gertrude and Claudius, on the other hand, I continually felt like the whole thing was an elaborate game of dress-up, which again may have been Updike's point but seems a tad extreme for 200-odd pages. Not normal people with normal human emotions trying to survive but contrived "types" costumed and buried in historical references. The bored and misunderstood wife! The cosmopolitan and enraptured lover! The pompous and mean-spirited husband!  
The non-reality of these types may have been Updike's point...but the book takes itself rather seriously. Worse, it isn't even funny.

I, Claudius
, like HBO's Rome, descends into melodrama but is pulled back from the brink by the dark humor and phenomenal comedic timing of the main actors, namely Derek Jacobi, Sian Phillips, George Baker, and Brian Blessed. At one point, Sian Phillips as Livia and George Baker as Tiberius encounter each other--both in their own litters--in the marketplace where they start squabbling about her birthday. It's a fantastic scene that undercuts the melodrama and brings the viewer in on the joke: Yes, we are making the ancient Romans sound like a family in a sitcom. That's the point! Why shouldn't they be?!
Updike doesn't seem to be aware of anything so grounded as real people simply being weird. Throughout his novel, I did occasionally ponder if he was trying to play fair, to show that Hamlet, the father, was not without insight; that Claudius (Fergon) and Gertrude (Gerutha) are wholly self-serving and rather shallow.
But the jacket paints Gertrude and Claudius as having "fond intentions...on a stage darkened by the ominous shadow of a sullen, disaffected prince."
I don't particularly mind Hamlet (the younger) being kind of a jerk, an immature, smug man who pulls down an entire edifice over arguably self-important emotions.
Unfortunately, Updike doesn't see any other character as clearly. His supposedly historical drama lacks the tough self-mocking reality of Monty Python's look into the medieval and ancient worlds.

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