Saturday, February 7, 2009

Some Thoughts about John Updike

John Updike (1932-2009)

“Updike is not, I think, a great writer.”  
--James Wood

If, as John Donne wrote, “each death diminishes us,” the death of a writer should have a singular impact upon living writers. The recent death of John Updike has affected me more than I expected, considering that I’ve not been a great fan of Updike’s writing, though I’ve always respected his industry and admired his envious productivity. Like many writers who made their living by writing alone, Updike produced his share of novels and stories that seemed composed more out of necessity than inspiration. Indeed, he tended to over-write both in quantity and in the quality of his prose, which I often found excessively ornate, if not tending toward the precious. But write he did; and while many of us were compelled to make a living by teaching or other means, Updike produced book after book, while his stories and reviews appeared regularly in the New Yorker.

Updike was not “our one great writer,” as a eulogist has recently suggested, comparing him to Henry James. Though he doubtless traveled farther and more widely than James, Updike had neither James’ breadth nor his worldly experience. And Updike simply did not produce a novel of the depth of James’ late great masterpieces, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove or The Golden Bowl. Nor do his stories, as technically adroit as some clearly are, have the subtlety of James’, or, for that matter, Hemingway's. If there is one great living writer in America he is Philip Roth; and during his lifetime that honor would have gone to Saul Bellow, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976. Bernard Malamud can’t be dismissed either; and for sheer visionary reach, not to say formal invention, Updike pales in comparison to Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon and, more recently, David Foster Wallace.

As a critic, Updike was fluent, but he lacked the range and adventurousness—along with the languages—of Edmund Wilson. He didn’t share John Aldridge’s polemical edge or Alfred Kazin’s Talmudic intelligence; neither did he exhibit the dialectical rigor of James Wood. At bottom, Updike was not really a critic but a sensitive reviewer, able to lead non-specialist readers through the work of writers as diverse as Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Chinua Achebe. There was a mildness to his non-fiction, an apparent geniality in his character, as described in his obituaries, that carried over into his critical insights. He appeared never to attack a writer or book under scrutiny, not an unlikable characteristic in a reviewer, though he himself admitted to have refused books that he felt he couldn’t review positively.

That said, I almost always turned to his reviews and other non-fiction in the New Yorker. I found them more interesting than his fiction, often solider, more absorbing because he seemed to have a way of leading you through a book or a writer’s career by describing his own encounters with each. As for his art criticism—art reporting is probably a better term for what he published in the New York Review—I found it often amateurish. The potted history and biography he included in the pieces seemed culled from Wikipedia and his insights had none of the incandescence of the reviews I enjoy in Artforum. Like his book reviews, his art writing seemed directed at a literate readership, subscribers who’d probably taken a course in art history, but, like spectators one encounters in museums plugged into digital docents, still wanting to be told what to see in what they were looking at. In that respect Updike delivered, but not with the power and the energy, or the deep knowledge and understanding, of critics as diverse in their politics or approaches as Robert Hughes, Arthur Danto, John Berger, or Jed Perl.

But then, from the very beginning, I always had the impression that the principal readership for Updike’s fiction was comprised of suburbanites of his own generation, Ivy League graduates who’d studied some literature, probably under the aegis of the New Criticism, and had therefore been taught that a novel, story or poem was a system of symbols they were required to identify and decode. On that basis, Updike satisfied them amply. His use of easily recognizable interior monologues or his employment of a modified stream of consciousness narrative in novels like Couples—indeed, the seamless way he appeared to mimic Modernist techniques in his fiction—didn’t alienate them the way Faulkner’s denser narratives or time shifts may have, not to speak of the stringencies inherent in the novels of the American experimentalist Robert Mc Elroy, or the fine intelligence of William Gaddis’s fictions.

Was Updike a realist, as claimed? One of his eulogists wrote that Updike looked unflinchingly at American life and rendered it with utmost precision. What I found in Updike was an often cloying lyric interference with the real. Adam Gopnik called it a “lyric surface.” And it was this often distracting poetic patina that seemed to create a dissonance, if not a disconnection between what was being described and the way it was rendered. For example, in the early pages of Updike’s 1965 novella Of the Farm, he describes a rural mail box as standing “knee-deep in honeysuckle.” Mail boxes don’t have knees. Furthermore, this mail box has “a flopped lid like a hat being tipped.” Simile or not, mail boxes are not hats, nor can I observe any correspondence between them. Across a meadow “buildings waited on the far rise.” Again, people wait, inanimate objects don’t. While the poetic fallacy of this sort of description may indeed constitute “lyric surface,” what it calls attention to more often than not is the author’s cleverness, not the actual attributes of the things described, their inherent or implied meaning, so that, in the end, the reader’s attention is almost always on the writer not the thing or person being written about. In this sense, Updike could have learned something from objectivists like William Carlos Williams who insisted upon “no ideas but in things.”

Compared to the prose of the great American realists like Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrell and Sinclair Lewis, Updike’s can hardly be seen to be realistic. Rather, it verges on the magically real or surreal. And if the prose diverges often wildly from the object or scene it attempts to render (one critic described Updike as “trying to kill a mosquito with a howitzer”), what about the authorial vision itself? Is Updike indeed looking unflinchingly at the reality of American life or is he refashioning it into a hyper-real version of itself? As for realism itself, there are few contemporary American novels that can compete with the truly harrowing narrative trajectories of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road or The Easter Parade, not to mention Yates’ own stories, recently collected. And compared to Yates emotionally, Updike remains in adolescence.

With respect to narrative itself, Updike could have learned a lot from Raymond Carver and the later minimalists. He claimed to have benefited from an early reading of Hemingway’s stories, but I never found Hemingway’s concision or his characteristic narrative and descriptive restraint in Updike. Rather, there is too much exposition in Updike’s fiction, too much “sheer writing” as Norman Mailer noticed early on. Too often he tells the reader what the characters are thinking and why, instead of letting us gather up the clues as we read, making us partners in the narrative journey, thereby increasing its tension and our suspense. By the same token, Updike tells the reader what to look at, how to interpret the behavior of a character, rather than letting us discover it for ourselves.

His slick use of the present tense, especially in the Rabbit novels, often trivializes the subjects, making both character and action seem superficial, with little concomitant depth or resonance in the narrative, only forward motion. Events flit past, don’t stick; seem more cinematic than real. The attempt is clearly to re-enact life’s flow, but ultimately it’s here and gone, with no profundity, all glitter and show, all “look what I can do with language!”

In this sense, Updike has always seemed to me the high school show-off, as he once described himself, clever but not a member of the in crowd. And like that outsider, he’s always trying to insert himself into the conversation with wisecracks and bright locutions, to impress, although he apparently didn’t have to impress his teachers—the novelist and critic, Albert J. Guerard, who was Updike’s writing and literature professor at Harvard, called him one of his most brilliant students. By way of compensation, he seems to have built an entire literature on adroitness rather than on depth of feeling or breadth of experience (Updike once confessed to a group of students at Brown University that his greatest regret was that he’d never worked for a living--hence, the lives of his working class characters, including Rabbit Angstrom, who becomes declasse` through marriage, seem more researched than directly experienced). Moreover, what I find particularly lacking in Updike’s fiction is any sense of the tragic, as one finds it in Hawthorne or Melville, the sense that there is an inexorable will to destruction in the human character, to self-destruction, even, and the destruction of those around us; a death wish, if you will, deeply engrained in our nature, leading to acts of monomania like Ahab’s, or Faustian bargains like those entered into by Hawthorne’s blighted scientists; a sense, finally, that human beings seem doomed to repeat their mistakes. There exists no Portnoy in Updike’s oeuvre, pushing the envelope of his sexuality, no Herzog, so monumentally sympathetic in his failure. Granted, as a practicing Christian, another of his cloying characteristics, Updike didn’t appear to believe in the tragic—he believed in redemption and salvation, in transcendence, for what that was worth in Richard Nixon’s or George Bush’s America. Updike also supported the war in Vietnam—our only major writer who did; and his apology for his position and the war itself, in Self-Consciousness, betrays an incredible political naivete.

The four Rabbit novels have been seen as Updike’s greatest achievement. Some eulogists have gone so far as to call them the most important fictional achievement of our time. Compared to Philip Roth’s masterful trilogy of our national life from the 1930s to the present--American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and Human Stain—Updike’s novels fall far short. Nor has Updike produced anything with the intellectual depth or sheer experimental reach of Roth’s Zuckerman novels. Apart from the Rabbit books, which tracked the life of an uneducated lower-middle class small town Pennsylvanian, who might well have been a high school classmate of the author’s, Updike’s principal subject, like John O’Hara’s and John Cheever’s, both of whom influenced him, was suburbia, in particular the small town life of educated professional couples—the life he and his first wife appeared to have lived in Ipswich, Massachusetts, a life of boozy parties, restless social striving and dreary adulteries.

Which brings me to the sex in Updike. Hailed by some as a pioneer in writing openly about sexual experience (as if D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller had never lived—or in our time, Norman Mailer), Updike always seemed to me to write from a position of sexual repression. He often describes the sexual act as if from a voyeur’s perspective, acts that appear furtive or blown out of proportion by his prolixity; in Of the Farm he describes Joey Robinson’s intercourse with his wife Peggy as involving cities, countries and castles—whole landscapes—rather than the conjunction of genitals and desires. At bottom, I have always suspected a deep ambivalence on Updike’s part toward women. The female genitalia are often described as dark, hairy, unclean, hidden; women are commonly degraded in terms of their motives and intelligence; and there is frequently, it seems to me, an attempt to shock with explicitness, again the high school show-off vying for attention. Sex, especially in its adulterous liaisons, seems an attempt at escape from stultifying marriages entered into by couples who, as Updike noted, were “children when they had children.”

All this could be the subject of major fiction—Evan S. Connell successfully attempted it in the Mr. and Mrs. Bridge novels, and no one has written better about adulterous sex than Andre Dubus, with far greater realism than Updike. But in Updike’s hands it seems overdone, willed, the driven writing of an obsessive overachiever: Dickens scribbling away until death, Joyce Carol Oates turning out one mediocre novel after the other, rather than the art of a Flaubertian master. Think of Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, James Salter’s Light Years, or the exquisite novels and stories of Gina Berriault.

Still, there is something quite moving about Updike’s achievement, and not, as Norman Mailer suggested, solely in terms of the writing itself, whether one is attracted to it or not. Returning recently to Rabbit Angstrom, I found the novels more engrossing than they had previously seemed to me, often addictively so, especially when Updike sticks to what’s at hand and doesn’t allow himself to get lost in flights of fancy writing, though the political issues he alludes to have worn thin, and Updike’s attempts to situate the narratives in their own time seem now superficial, as if his primary sources had been the weekly news magazines. Yet in the end, merely describing city streets or the parking lots of supermarkets and shopping malls, listing consumer products by brand or the names of television programs, does not constitute an analysis of their reality or its social or political context. That crucial analysis is sadly lacking in the novels, indeed in most of Updike's fiction.

Nevertheless, every day Updike sat down to produce a minimum of three pages. He wrote stories, essays, reviews, memoirs, novels, children’s books, light verse—and all of it was published, as if there were an inexhaustible hunger, a readership that couldn’t wait for the next installment. To have created such a readership is an achievement in itself; indeed to have a single magazine whose editors cherished your work and paid well for it, a publisher, who, without hesitation, produced every manuscript you submitted. How many writers have shared that munificence? And Updike was, according to those who knew him, a person almost entirely without pretension, unfailingly generous, friendly to younger writers, self-effacing, a gentleman of the old school.

Yet, even though he wrote compulsively millions of words, he seemed, at some level, to have held back. There appeared to be some part of him he never revealed, for all the talk of psoriasis, of stuttering and asthma. For all the lavish prose, all the incandescent images, I find an absence at the center of his work, and maybe equally in the writer himself. It may not on the surface appear that way--and his most devoted readers would doubtless disagree. Nevertheless, I can't locate the man in all the words, all the books. He seems to be avoiding himself, escaping in the rush of words. It's as if the writing, the very prose itself, were a mask to hide the man from himself and from the reader, if not the world. There is no depth in Updike, only the illusion of depth; and I wonder if, in the end, Updike ever lived an authentic life, or did he merely write as a substitute for living? Was he, finally, like Hawthorne, who, having fled the world, once confessed that he had not lived but only dreamed of living?

Postscript, February 25, 2009: In a 2006 review of Updike's novel Terrorist, David Walsh examines Updike's work from a political perspective sadly lacking in most Updike criticism. Here is an excerpt. The entire review, along with an important analysis of Updike's life and work in the contect of the Cold War, can be found at

Novelist John Updike dead at 76: Was he a “great novelist”?

By David Walsh
29 January 2009

Updike remains an enormously gifted writer. Very few Americans have ever put words together as effectively as he. However, an artist is not free to do as he or she pleases and works, in fact, under definite historical and historically shaped intellectual conditions. Updike, born in 1932, grew up in the small town of Shillington, Pennsylvania (near Reading in the southeastern part of the state), son of a high school science teacher and grandson of a Presbyterian minister, and came of age during the Cold War.
The need to champion the "free world" against "communism," of course in a sophisticated and literate fashion, stayed with him. (His first novel, The Poorhouse Fair (1959), in part, is a rather mean-spirited attack on the welfare state and any attempt at "socializing" American life.) In Rabbit at Rest (1990), one of Updike's finest books, his long-running character, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, remarks laconically, "Without the cold war, what's the point of being an American?" (The comment, interestingly, was cited by Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations, in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1997.) However ironically intended, the words shed considerable light on Updike's evolution.
On the basis of liberal anti-communism ("blacklists, congressional show trials and meaningless, redundant loyalty oaths for a time gave patriotism an ugly face," he later wrote), Updike was able to explore "the whole mass of middling, hidden, troubled America" (his words) with some degree of honesty in novels such as Rabbit Run (1960) and The Centaur (1963). As the name of his most prominent character, "Angstrom," suggests ("angst" = anxiety or apprehension), Updike, a lifelong churchgoer and student of Christian theology, was initially influenced by thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard, the nineteenth-century melancholy Dane, and theologian Karl Barth.
As to the latter, a commentator writes, "The principal emphasis in Barth's on the sinfulness of humanity, God's absolute transcendence, and the human inability to know God except through revelation. His objective was to lead theology away from the influence of modern religious philosophy back to the principles of the Reformation and the prophetic teachings of the Bible." Not very attractive, and Updike weaned himself from Barth's influence to a certain extent in middle age, while remaining a devout Protestant.
This is not the occasion for an in-depth accounting of Updike's religious philosophy, if such an accounting be warranted. What strikes one most forcefully about the novelist's "theological" concerns is the extent to which they form part of an overall cultural regression in the postwar period. Updike speaks of a certain "religious revival" in the 1950s, but such a phenomenon could only have taken place as part of a serious intellectual falling off, made possible in large measure by the purging of left-wing ideas from American cultural life.
After Twain, Mencken, Dreiser, early Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, early Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis (for all his limitations), Richard Wright of Native Son, the Harlem Renaissance members, and Steinbeck, O'Neill, Sherwood Anderson and Faulkner, for that matter, as well as other lesser figures, are we to arrive at this: "an unavoidable, unbearable, and unbelievable Sacred Presence," which Updike believes we will find in his fiction; "the yearning for an afterlife [which] love and praise for the world we are privileged, in this complex interval of light, to witness and experience"; and the demand that we "examine everything for God's fingerprints"? It's the concentrated provincialism, self-limitation and, to be blunt, banality of many of the concerns that is most disturbing, and, in the end, has proven most harmful to Updike's art.
Updike's explorations of certain aspects of small-town, lower middle class American life in portions of the Rabbit Angstrom series are irreplaceable, as is his encounter with the surreal hideousness of Florida's Gulf Coast in Rabbit at Rest (admittedly an easy target). However, and this is a great inadequacy, Updike has rarely been able to truly empathize with (and recreate artistically) anyone who does not resemble himself in important ways, in particular in his search for and belief in the "transcendent." (This quality, in fact, is what saves Ahmad in Terrorist, unconvincingly.)
A thorough consideration of "middling, hidden, troubled America" would have required a far different, more critical starting point. In Rabbit Redux (1971), a contrived consideration of 1960s radicalism (one of Updike's bête noires), Harry Angstrom announces that he has learned the US is not perfect; however, "Even as he says that he realizes he doesn't believe it, any more than he believes at heart he will die." The general acceptance of the status quo has had a paralyzing effect on the American literary arts and cinema over the past half-century.
In Updike, one sees a certain cultural process in concentrated form: the accumulation of great formal, technical skill at one pole, and the severe weakening of the artist's understanding of history and social organization at the other.