I re-read this during the summer, having read it (I shudder to think) way back in the late 1980s. It is a biting, comedic tour de force that spares no one, quite unlike anything else Updike has written. It is set mostly in a fictional African country called “Noire,” that bares a strong resemblance to Chad, or perhaps Niger, with scenes in the American Midwest, where the book’s African hero, Felix Ellelou, had come to study before returning home and becoming president. Updike once called it is his Mandarin novel, because of its baroque qualities. A sample:
“Esmerelda Miller was an interesting color, a gray as of iron filings so fine the eye could not detect the individual grains. In Hakim’s fancy the tint, which savored of manufacture, was a by-product of her beliefs, her economic determinism. At the same time she was an attractive, ectomorphic young woman, with a lean prognanthous face, almond-shaped eyes framed in pink plastic spectacles, and a bewitching way of thoughtfully swaying her jaw, as if testing molar crowns her father had made for her. “What are trying to achieve?” she would sak the young deserter from Noire, across the table in the Off-Campus Luncheonette, or later in the Pure Dairy Products Ice Cream Parlor, or later still in the Badger Cafe, with its beer-soaked sawdust on the floor, and its bubbling, phosphorescent advertisements. “Messing arouund with this deluded bitch Candy.”
“Achieve? That’s a rather other-directed way of putting it. What did Freud say? Pleasure is the removal of tension. There is a tension that screwing her relives. There was not doubt the sex has a component of vengeance, of tasting evil, of stealing Charlie’s prize, et cetera. From her side, kindred craziness. Still, we get along.”
Here’s another excert:
And this passage about Felix meeting his white American girlfriend’s (Candace) parents:
“In the home of Candace’s parents, where she took me late in our freshman year, the white woodwork was like a cage also. I marvelled at the tightness, the finish. Her father came toward me from rooms away, a big man with Candy’s beryl eyes and gray hair so thin and light it wandered across his skull as he gestured. I had the impression that his bigness was composed of many soft places, bubbles in his flesh where alcohol had fermented and expanded: he shook my hand with too much force, overcarrying. “So you’re the young man my daughter has been raving about,” he said.
Raving? I looked at Candy’s pointed polite face, whose straight fine nose had come from her mother; I had just met the lady, who seemed afraid. Maybe the something bloated and patchy about the Dad was fear too. We were all afraid. I was alarmed, as the house opened to me — its woodwork interlocked like the lattice of an elaborate trapl its pale, splashy, furtively scintillating wallpaper; its deep, fruitcolored, step-squelching carpets; its astonishing living-room, long and white, two white sofas flanking a white marble coffee table bearing porcelain ashtrays and set of brass scales holding white lillies whose never-wilt lustre was too good to be true. And what were these little saucers, with tiny straight sides and bottoms of cork, scattered everywhere, on broad sofa arms and circular end tables, as if some giant had bestowed on the room the largess of his intricate, oversize coinage?
“Daddy, I wouldn’t say ‘raving,’ ” Candy corrected, embarrassed, her face, that I now perceived as a clash of genes blushing.
“Rave is what she does, Mr. — I don’t want to mispronounced.”
“Call me Felix,” I said, Anglicizing the e. I wondered if I should sit, and would the sofa swallow me like some clothy crocodile? Often in America, in drugstores and traffic jams, I had the sensation of being within a bright, voracious and many-toothed maw. The Cunninghams’ living-room had puddles of cosmetic odor here and there. As in the old cinema palace on Commerce Street, a heroic stagnation had overtaken decor. Seating myself on the edge of the bottomlessly spongy sofa, I touched the brass scales and, sure enough, discovered a refusal to tip. Once an honest artifact, it had been polished, welded, and loaded with plastic lillies. Fixed forever, like that strange Christian heaven, where nothing happened, not even the courtship of houris…
“”Candy,” Mrs. Cunningham began with the overemphasis of the shy, having seated herself in a wing chair patterned in cabbage-sized roses, her lean shins laid gracefully, fiagonally together with a dainty self-concious “sexiness” that reminded me of her daughter… who had vanished! Horreur. Where? I could hear her voice dimly giggling in some far reach of the house. She had gone upstairs, it later transpired, to talk with her “kid” brother; or was it into the kitchen, to renew acquaintance with the Cunningham’s colored cook? At any rate she had left me alone with her terrifying pale parents, the female of whom was psed in mid-sentence, and now who settled on the verb she had paused to locate among her treasury of “nice” things — “alluded to your romantic adventures.”
“Not romantic, Madame; dreary, truly. The French in exchange for their poems asked that we fight in other poor countries. I obliged them Indochina, for it took me out of my native village; when it came to Algeria, where the rebels where fellow Africans, I became a rebel myself, and deserted.”
“Oh dear,” Mrs. Cunningham said. “Can you ever go back?”
“Not until the colonial power departs. But this may happen within the decade. All it needs is a politician in Paris who is willing to act as a mortician. In the meantime, I enjoy your amazing country as a fream from which I will some day wake miraculously refreshed.”
“There’s a question I’m rarin’ to ask you,” Mr. Cunningham sad, rising ominously, but not to throttle me, as his growling tone for a second implied to my alert nerves, but to move to a tall cabinet and het himself another drink, from a square bottle whose first name was Jack, or was it Jim? The riddle of my own name he informally solved with, “How about you, fella?”
My mouth was indeed dry, from unease. “A glass of water, if its no trouble.”
He threatened to balk. “Plain water?” Then his mind embraced my response, as something he might have expected, from an underpriviliged delegate from the childlike underworld. “Wouldn’t you rather have a 7-Up? Or a Shlitz?”
I would have, and brushed from my own mind the mirage of a beer sitting golden on a dark table of the Badger Cafe; but I felt the family dinner ahead of me stretch like a long trek through a bristling wilderness of glass and silver and brittle remarks, and had recolved upon sobritey as my safeguard. Also there was some silent satisfaction in impeding this big white devil’s determination to be hospitable. “Just water, if you please,” I insisted.
“Your religion, I suppose?”
“Several of them.”