We gave it a B
The brief presidency of Gerald Ford in the mid-1970s, like the brief reign of some third-century Roman emperor whose name you can’t remember, seems to be one of history’s asterisks or commas, a barely noticeable punctuation mark in its endless sentence. So it’s clever of our cleverest novelist, John Updike, to write about this indistinct interval, in Memories of the Ford Administration, as if it were a monumental Age of Something or Other, like the Victorian era or the Age of Faith: ”In that far-off Ford era — a benighted, innocent time — the college had, believe it or not, no announced policy on fornication between faculty and students…The Ford era was a time of post-apocalyptic let-down, of terrifying permissiveness.”
The Age of Over-the-Edge Sex, in other words, and Updike has a point. The unprecedented sexual anarchy that Ford woodenly presided over was the last utopian breath of the expired ’60s, a revolutionary experiment hastening to its doom: ”The social experiment that had begun in bohemia…had discovered what pre-Gutenbergian societies already knew: sex, like eating, has a limit…and all the screwing in the world will not rattle bank foundations or bring down the walls of the Pentagon. The earth only seems to move.”
The same might be said of this novel, which shifts somewhat inertly back and forth between the sex-saturated ’70s and the staid pre-Civil War era of James Buchanan, our 15th President and Updike’s fellow Pennsylvanian, about whom he wrote (in the Ford era) his only play (Buchanan Dying). Buchanan is the subject of a book left unfinished in the 1970s by Updike’s narrator, Alfred L. Clayton, a professor of history at Wayward Junior College in New Hampshire, who has been asked to contribute an article on the Ford presidency to a history journal’s symposium. Writing down what turn out to be his highly unsuitable memories, Clayton keeps returning to Buchanan’s melancholy, stolid story — the death of his estranged fiancée and the approaching Civil War loom largest — while telling his own Ford-era story, which, since this is an Updike novel, is a story of upper-middle-class adultery.
Adultery, with its attendant spasms of ecstasy and guilt, has been the chief fulcrum of Updike’s fiction, sacrament and penance all at once. Clayton has left his tranquil and disheveled wife, his ”Queen of Disorder,” and their three children for the lithe young wife of a colleague who has succumbed to the newly imported vapors of French deconstructionist literary theory (nicely fumigated in a few parodic passages). Following the casual conventions of the time, Clayton betrays his new love by sleeping with the mother of a student and so blunders full circle back to his wife.
Thus, on a small, middle-aged scale, we get a recipe for the fallen utopian souffle of ’70s sex, which perhaps obscurely echoes the collapse of Buchanan’s personal and political hopes. But the historical parallels and contrasts seem undeveloped. What the book is really about is time’s thievery: ”How quickly we become history, while wanting always to be news.” The past, remote and recent, speaking in the gravely deliberate tones of Buchanan’s era or the whining and rudely urgent ones of Ford’s, tells us the same thing. This theme — ”what a quick idle thing a life is, in retrospect” — and the resemblance between two pedestrian, well-meaning Presidents gives the book what little unity it has. Otherwise you have the serendipitous pleasures of Updike’s prose, going off as usual in a thousand metaphorical and speculative directions, returning sometimes with his Grail, the ”quiddity” of an experience, sometimes empty- handed or empty-worded. For me, at least, Updike’s unflagging curiosity and agility were enough — enough, that is, to make a worthwhile novel that’s too jerry-built to be called exactly good. B