Thursday, 25 December 2014

A Christmas unsuitable for kids

Full title: The Twelve Terrors of Christmas
Author: John Updike (Drawings by Edward Gorey)
Genre: Short stories
Attributes: 32 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Pomegranate Communications (2006)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

In the month of compulsory gratification all responsibilities are heavy. We live on the dividing line between giving and taking, precariously playing both roles with affliction, buying more than we can carry and seeing/witnessing/watching more than it's humanly acceptable to the ocular apparatus and the mind that comes with it.
With the corporatized, profit-driven Christmas growing around us like the dark force in some B-class horror movie, we hope for a breath of fresh air, which would shake the hell out of this too-familiar spectacle and bring to light something we can learn to appreciate with joy.
What would do? A book, perhaps; a booklet, a series of sentences, a package of quotable quotes. Anything, no matter how small, only bring us something able to spell out the very thoughts we've never given ourselves enough courage to utter.
That book, that booklet, that series of sentences  could be, why not, John Updike's tiny little The Twelve Terrors of Christmas.
To make things clear from the get-go, Updike doesn't dismiss the fiction in the picture. He wouldn't. Why would he, since the fiction is good, the fiction is heart-warming? If he has something to say against anything, it's not the story that takes the brunt of his satire. He deals with the other fictions, the ones we find on the other side of celebration: the wrongly understood idea of merry-making, the mercantilism vows of ever-buying, the programmed blindness to the ideology of mirth.
The text of The Twelve Terrors of Christmas is already over two decades old. It was first published in The New Yorker, in 1992. Its structure poses no problem. Twelve vignette-sized pieces of satire, all easy to swallow, like pills prescribed against seasonal nausea, after having binged on everything that's bad for you. Every one of these tiny writings asks one rhetorical question or more, and with them Updike seems to instate something I'd happily call the Season of Rhetorical Questions. It's a season in which we are invited to bring out some of our best hidden doubts: the doubts we have learnt to overcome, in the name of the consumerist glory rolling like a tsunami over us every year. Some of these questions are funny, asked for the sake of a joke. In the case of "Santa: The Man" (the first vignette in the booklet), Updike has this to say/ask/interrogate:
"Loose-fitting nylon beard, fake optical twinkle, cheap red suit, funny rummy smell when you sit on his lap. If he's such a big shot, why is he drawing unemployment for eleven months of the year?"
Remark the double-adjectives in the first sentence. Then, once you've swallowed them whole, you can ask the relevant question. How often have you inserted the word "unemployment" in a sentence about Christmas? How many times have you doubted the beauty of the season in order to make light around its shoddy premises?
So you're getting the point.
These funny rhetorical questions are at their funniest and most rhetorical in the next text, the one entitled (with so much more promise, I would say), "Santa: The Concept." Once again, the point is apparent from the very title. And if it wasn't (damn the abstraction!), then here are the questions, rhetorical as ever, calling for the recognition of what has always been lurking in the back of your mind, only, perhaps, less jokingly:
"Why would anybody halfway normal want to live at the North Pole on a bunch of shifting ice floes? Or stay up all night flying around the sky distributing presents to children of doubtful deservingness?"
These are, obviously, questions best kept out of reach of your children, if what you're after is the preservation of an essentially beautiful fiction. But better be ready for the time, not too far away from the present moment, when you will have to give them this book and tell them, 'Read on, my darling victim of the grown-up lore, and laugh at your happy moments of yesteryear.' BTY, this ain't an Updike line, but how I wish I'd find it in his booklet! At least for the balancing effect of its tragic tone.

Source: From Shopping to Saving
But do not think the aim has gone amiss. Updike too wants to make apparent the tragic twist of the event of Christmas. In order to do so, he goes for our emotional jugular: our memories. And there he comes across carols. "The Carols," the booklet's vignette number seven, makes sad appeal to the withered power of those seasonal songs we used to sing in angelic voices, but which we're now sending toward different skies: the heights of shopping-mall ceilings. The statements and the questions on this page go as follows (in full quotation):
"They boom and chime from the vaulted ceilings of supermarkets and discount malls - and yet the spirits keep sinking. Have our hearts grown so terribly heavy, since childhood? What has happened to us? Why don't they ever play our favorites? What were our favorites? Tum-de-tum-tum, angels on high, something, something, sky."
And with the pondering of Christmas's grey area comes the confidence to dive into the darker matters, the real worries, the truly ridiculous anxieties, the awful truths of our Christmas debilitation. They grow out of the latter half of the dozen texts, as in "The Specials" ("Isn't there something else on, like wrestling or Easter Parade?"), in "Fear of Not Giving Enough," in "Fear of Not Receiving Enough" ("Three dull neckties and a pair of flannel-lined work gloves - is this really how they see you?"), in "Fear of Returns" ("The humiliating descent into mercantilism's boiler room"), and culminating with the most tenebrous of all Christmas moments, the moment when it is all over, when all lights are off, when everything has turned, indeed, pitch black, and when the mercantile world appears scary in its offensive nudity: "Is this Hell, or just an upturn in consumer confidence?"
Here it is, dear former boys and girls, dear current ladies and gentlemen: the drama of our having grown out of childhood. One strong-enough reason I have, like Updike, to say, again: 'Don't allow your kids to read this book.' Not yet...