Memories of the Ford Administration
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Memories of the Ford Administration

by John Updike
     
 

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When historian Alfred “Alf” Clayton is invited by an academic journal to record his impressions of the Gerald R. Ford Administration (1974–77), he recalls not the political events of the time but rather a turbulent period of his own sexual past. Alf’s highly idiosyncratic contribution to Retrospect consists not only of reams of

Overview

When historian Alfred “Alf” Clayton is invited by an academic journal to record his impressions of the Gerald R. Ford Administration (1974–77), he recalls not the political events of the time but rather a turbulent period of his own sexual past. Alf’s highly idiosyncratic contribution to Retrospect consists not only of reams of unbuttoned personal history but also of pages from an unpublished project of the time, a chronicle of the presidency of James Buchanan (1857–61). The alternating texts mirror each other and tell a story in counterpoint, a frequently hilarious comedy of manners contrasting the erotic etiquette and social dictions of antebellum Washington with those of late-twentieth-century southern New Hampshire. Alf’s style is Nabokovian. His obsessions are vintage Updike.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Quintessential Updike . . . [a] comic and melancholy reflection on politics and passion.”—The New York Times Book Review
 
“Updike has the ability to evoke the micro-epochs that fascinate us. He can bring to life what seem to those of us who have lived them the vital differences between the decades of our lives.”—Chicago Tribune
 
“Compelling . . . Alf’s life and times are light and funny; Buchanan’s are dark and serious. Alternating between the two, Mr. Updike entertains and instructs . . . in gorgeous prose.”—The Wall Street Journal

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Irony, whimsy, supple prose, pungent imagery, penetrating social observation and a focus on his protagonist's libido are the familiar elements Updike brings to his 39th book (after Rabbit at Rest and Odd Jobs). But there is more: a biography/historical novel interpolated into the main story makes this an uneven, hybrid work. Ostensibly preparing a paper on the Ford administration, narrator Alfred Clayton, a professor at a New Hampshire junior college, finds his impressions of the period inextricable from the events of his own life at the time. Epitomizing the sexual liberation of that pre-AIDS era, he had begun an affair with a colleague's spouse, Genevieve Mueller, whom he dubs the Perfect Wife, in contrast to his own mate--messy, scatty Norma, the Queen of Disorder. His halfhearted attempts to divorce the one and marry the other are as inconclusive and bumbling as was (by implication) President Ford's lackluster half-term. Meanwhile, Alf is writing a biography (never finished) of James Buchanan, whose administration immediately predated the Civil War. Realizing that his recollections of his own experiences in the 1970s are as unreliable as were contemporary accounts of Buchanan's life and times, Alf concludes that it is impossible to arrive at the truth of any event. Updike's attempt to weld his two stories together is not always successful. Alf's sexual exploits are, by design, conveyed with more energy than Buchanan's aborted romance, and the details of Cabinet meetings attending the crisis at Fort Sumter retard the narrative's pace. Yet Updike's skill as a raconteur overcomes his novel's hobbled structure; in the end, his account is social history of a high order. BOMC alternate. (Nov.)
Library Journal
A simple request from an organization of historians for impressions of the Ford administration elicits these ``memories'' as reponse. Professor Alfred Clayton remembers what the Ford years meant for him: domestic disruption in the wake of his leaving his wife, the Queen of Disorder, for his idealized mistress, the Perfect Wife; ubiquitous sexual license; and the eventual abandonment of his attempt to write a sympathetic biography of President James Buchanan. But the subject of this virtuoso performance is not so much life during the Ford years as it is human memory and how lives, both our own and those of the historical dead, are remembered. Updike writes with droll wit and sly observation, serving up a meditation on history hidden in an erotic comedy. This should stand in the Updike oeuvre where Pale Fire does in that of Nabokov.-- Charles Michaud, Turner Free Lib., Randolph, Mass.
Kirkus Reviews
His dreadful play of some years back, Buchanan Dying, must have left Updike with a raft of research material that he seems now to have taken and thrust into the fictional hands of a New Hampshire girls'-college historian, Alf Clayton, who's writing a sympathetic book about Buchanan, the president that had the misfortune to usher in the Civil War. Clayton also is writing a personal recollection of his chaotic sexual and family situation during the Gerald Ford administration—this makes up the narration here—and thus Updike can move freely inside two ideas: that the past is no more knowable than the confusing present, and that things—even if they do it at wrenching cost—"bump on," work out. Clayton has left his wife and family of three to live alone yet sleep with Genevieve. Genevieve's "The Perfect Wife" of a creepy deconstructionist—who finally sabotages the affair with a bit of deconstruction of his own devising. Alf sees sex, during the 70's, mostly as pathos, determined taboo-breaking that yields little more than manners; this is contrasted with the historical judgment of Buchanan, whose good instincts have been forgotten in favor of his ill-stars ("the erratic half-steps whereby a people effects moral change and whereby well-intentioned men of substance seek amid agitation and the long stasis of contending equal interests the path of least general harm"). It's a novel about failure—and that paradoxical spinoff of failure, optimism. The Buchanan stuff, though, is gluey, boring; and Alf's Gongoristic high-style, stuffed with tropes and excruciated vocabulary, is rarely more palatable. It's the sex, as so often with Updike, that you come to the tablefor and is the most filling thing here—the grace notes of man/woman perceptiveness for which Updike is rightly renowned. The idea of macro- and micro-history clearly is something Updike wanted to chew over (as he did the ramifications of computers in Roger's Version), but it's the grounded experience of wanting and losing that grows the grass.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780449912119
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
08/28/1996
Pages:
416
Sales rank:
1,025,339
Product dimensions:
5.49(w) x 8.19(h) x 0.97(d)

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher

“Quintessential Updike . . . [a] comic and melancholy reflection on politics and passion.”—The New York Times Book Review
 
“Updike has the ability to evoke the micro-epochs that fascinate us. He can bring to life what seem to those of us who have lived them the vital differences between the decades of our lives.”—Chicago Tribune
 
“Compelling . . . Alf’s life and times are light and funny; Buchanan’s are dark and serious. Alternating between the two, Mr. Updike entertains and instructs . . . in gorgeous prose.”—The Wall Street Journal

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
. . .it is significant that Mr. Updike, the hyperrealist, has turned to the modernist technique of describing contemporary life in the context of a more heroic past that contrasts with the present. As [the hero] expostulates at one point: "Modern fiction. . .thrives only in showing what is not there: God is not there. . .The sense of eternal scale is quite gone. . .these old fabulations are there, as ghosts that bedevil our thinking."

Here in this slyly amusing novel, Mr. Updike has tried to lend greater substance to those ghosts by dressing them up and giving them speech. The New York Times

Meet the Author

John Updike was born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, in 1932. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954 and spent a year in Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of The New Yorker. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rosenthal Foundation Award, and the William Dean Howells Medal. In 2007 he received the Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. John Updike died in January 2009.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
March 18, 1932
Date of Death:
January 27, 2009
Place of Birth:
Shillington, Pennsylvania
Place of Death:
Beverly Farms, MA
Education:
A.B. in English, Harvard University, 1954; also studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England

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