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Fork in the Road -- Atwood and Brody, or DFW and Zacharek?


Toward the End of Time
(John Updike, 1997)

Margaret Atwood: "Toward the End of Time'' is John Updike's 47th book, and it is deplorably good. If only he would write a flagrant bomb! That would be news. But another excellently written novel by an excellent novelist -- what can be said? 

David Foster WallaceIt is, of the total 25 Updike books I’ve read, far and away the worst, a novel so mind-bendingly clunky and self-indulgent that it’s hard to believe the author let it be published in this kind of shape.

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Margaret AtwoodLike many late-20th-century writers, Updike is fascinated with bodily goo, and by things that go yuck in the night. The verbal pleasure he takes in describing the exact nature and texture of Ben's searing and dribbly symptoms rivals Cormac McCarthy on exploding skulls or Patricia Cornwell on decaying corpses. 

David Foster Wallace: As were Freud’s, Mr. Updike’s big preoccupations have always been with death and sex (not necessarily in that order).  

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Margaret Atwood: He's afraid of Doreen too, but she arouses mostly wistfulness. Through her he has access to the lost prepubertal inexperienced self he once was, for whom he feels a tense nostalgia.

David Foster Wallace:  and even more pages of Turnbull talking about sex and the imperiousness of the sexual urge and detailing how he lusts after assorted secretaries and neighbors and bridge partners and daughters-in-law and a little girl who’s part of the group of young toughs he pays protection to, a 13-year-old whose breasts -- "shallow taut cones tipped with honeysuckle-berry nipples” -- Turnbull finally gets to fondle in the woods behind his house when his wife’s not looking.

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Margaret Atwood: Yet within an hour he's happily clearing off the porch, delighted by his new orange plastic shovel and hymning the praises of the snow itself. ''Does the appetite for new days ever really cease?'' he asks. Not for Ben Turnbull it doesn't, and through all the tribulations that beset him it's this appetite -- his ability to be surprised, his childlike curiosity in himself and in what may happen next -- that keeps him going.

David Foster Wallace: It’s not that Turnbull is stupid -- he can quote Kierkegaard and Pascal on angst and allude to the deaths of Schubert and Mozart and distinguish between a sinistrorse and a dextrorse Polygonum vine, etc. It’s that he persists in the bizarre adolescent idea that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants is a cure for ontological despair. 

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Margaret Atwood: It's finally Ben's evenhandedness that confers on ''Toward the End of Time'' its eerie ambiance, its ultrarealism, its air of a little corner of hell as meticulously painted as a Dutch domestic interior. The light of his intelligence falls alike on everything: on flowers, animals, grandchildren, corpses, copulations; on ancient Egypt and plastic peanuts; on memory, disgust, dread, lust and spiritual rapture.

David Foster Wallace: Though usually family men, they never really love anybody -- and, though always heterosexual to the point of satyriasis, they especially don’t love women. The very world around them, as beautifully as they see and describe it, seems to exist for them only insofar as it evokes impressions and associations and emotions inside the self.

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Margaret Atwood: Updike can do anything he wants, and what he's wanted this time is quintessence of mortality. [. . .] As a commentator, Ben is nothing if not ruthless; but he's as ruthless with himself and his own body as he is with everyone else, and with everyone else's body. Alongside the ruthlessness he does manage, from time to time, a sort of wry tenderness. ''To be human,'' he says, ''is still to be humbled by the flesh, to suffer and to die.''

David Foster Wallace: Mr. Updike, for example, has for years been constructing protagonists who are basically all the same guy (see for example Rabbit Angstrom, Dick Maple, Piet Hanema, Henry Bech, Rev. Tom Marshfield, Roger’s Version's “Uncle Nunc”) and who are all clearly stand-ins for the author himself. [. . .] [N]o U.S. novelist has mapped the solipsist’s terrain better than John Updike, whose rise in the 60′s and 70′s established him as both chronicler and voice of probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV. [. . .] But I think the major reason so many of my generation dislike Mr. Updike and the other G.M.N.’s has to do with these writers’ radical self-absorption, and with their uncritical celebration of this self-absorption both in themselves and in their characters.


15 years later …

Wolf of Wall Street
(Martin Scorcese, 2013)

Richard Brody: It’s as pure and harrowing a last shot as those of John Ford’s “7 Women” and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Gertrud” -- an image that, if by some terrible misfortune were to be Scorsese’s last, would rank among the most harshly awe-inspiring farewells of the cinema.

Stephanie Zacharek: Martin Scorsese's “The Wolf of Wall Street” is the kind of movie directors make when they wield money, power, and a not inconsiderable degree of arrogance.

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Richard Brody: It’s thrilling for Jordan Belfort to use and abuse this power, and it’s thrilling for us to watch -- and his understanding that his actions are wrong only adds to the thrill.

Stephanie Zacharek: But if there's nothing pleasurable or revelatory in watching these guys act like cavemen who have just discovered women, drugs, and cash, it's even less fun to see them get caught.

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Richard Brody: Instead of fitting his performance to a preconception of Belfort, DiCaprio seems to be improvising on the theme of Belfort, spinning out an electric repertory of gestures and inflections. By being, more than ever, himself on-screen, DiCaprio realizes his role more deeply than ever before.

Stephanie Zacharek: DiCaprio's Jordan is manic in a studied way; he's always leaping onto desks or writhing on floors.

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Richard Brody: But the exceptional audacity -- and the highly crafted, deliriously confected intricacy -- with which Scorsese calibrates the thrill of corruption ...

Stephanie Zacharek: Scorsese is one of the few great old-guard filmmakers with the clout to make movies on this scale, and this picture  -- dreary, self-evident, too repetitive to be much fun even as satire  -- is what he comes up with?

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Richard Brody: It’s like mainlining cinema for three hours, and I wouldn’t have wanted it a minute shorter.

Stephanie Zacharek: But as a highly detailed portrait of true-life corruption and bad behavior in the financial sector, “Wolf” is pushy and hollow.

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Richard Brody: Anyone who needs “The Wolf of Wall Street” to explain that the stock-market fraud and personal irresponsibility it depicts are morally wrong is dead from the neck up; but anyone who can’t take vast pleasure in its depiction of delinquent behavior is dead from the neck down.

Stephanie Zacharek: It's self-conscious and devoid of passion, and there's no radiant star at its center. 

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Richard Brody: “The Wolf of Wall Street” is the first modern movie about the world of finance because it situates money in the so-called libidinal economy

Stephanie Zacharek:  … but DiCaprio's turn might be more effective if he hadn't just played Jay Gatsby, in a much better performance, earlier this year. Both Gatsby and Jordan are strivers and fakers, but Gatsby aspires to elegance, not excess, and even then his greatest hope is that it can buy him love. 

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Richard Brody: What lifts Scorsese and his cast and crew to such heights of creation is the deep, strong, and volatile source material -- not merely Belfort’s life, deeds, and book, but the vast internal energies that they draw on, and that Scorsese and company face up to with an unrestrained fascination and find echoes of, at great risk, in themselves.

Stephanie Zacharek: Scorsese, on the other hand, belabors every angle of this lukewarm morality tale. 

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Richard Brody: Within the movie’s roiling, riotous turbulence is an Olympian detachment, a grand and cold consideration of life from a contemplative distance, as revealed in the movie’s last shot, which puts “The Wolf of Wall Street” squarely in the realm of the late film, with its lofty vision of ultimate things.

Stephanie Zacharek: “Wolf” is [. . .] like a three-hour cold call from the boiler room that leaves you wondering, "What have I just been sold?"

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Richard Brody: Scorsese puts the film’s viewers face to face with themselves, charges us with compensating for our lack of imagination and fatal ambition through contact with the wiles of a master manipulator.

Stephanie Zacharek: Long after we've gotten the picture, Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto are still presenting each new, depraved revelation as if it were an infant water-nymph on a lily pad, a thing of wonder they'd never seen before.


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