The Rumpus asked writers to share their thoughts on the work and legacy of John Updike, who died this week at the age of 76. Click on each name to read their full remarks.
John Updike: His Trove
Andrew Sean Greer
In 2004, after he had written a lengthy and unexpected (and positive) review of my second novel, I wrote a note to John Updike on a borrowed piece of stationery and mailed it to him via the New Yorker. It said, in effect: “Mr Updike, your review set the tone for my book’s reception; it was like having a big brother go to school ahead of you and tell people: you’ll like him, he’s cool. I’m sure you didn’t write it to please me, but thank you nonetheless.”
I know he received it; my editor ran into him at an event, and he said he found it, and my novel, “charming.” To my further surprise, he reviewed my next novel, The Story of a Marriage, also at length, also in the pages of the New Yorker.
He did not find it charming. I was more upset than I expected, and not because it was a mixed review (after all, the shock of any attention at all from Updike overshadowed any disappointment) but because this time it felt as if a big brother had taken me aside and said: look, I tried to help you out, and you’re fucking it up. My first thought was, of course, that he was utterly wrong, but my second was that I would write my next book quickly, and he would surely like it; I would please my big brother at last, and would at last get to meet him.
Now he will never read my novel, but that is of course the very least thought on my mind. In my high school years his stories were given as the ultimate example of the form; in college his writing was held up as the worst in chauvinist colonial writing; in graduate school he was not taught to us at all–but despite his faults, I have always used his writing to remind myself to hold language to the highest standard (I like his humorous Bech: A Book the most), and now that is lost forever.
He was one of those rare “men of letters” (a title that, in an Updikian way, leaves great female writers out of the picture), who produced fiction, poetry, and criticism as fluently as a triathlete runs, swims and bikes. He was always in training. He was always writing just to please and challenge himself–what other way is there? And within his trove of writing are two pieces favoring and disfavoring a much younger writer. That would be the unlikely me. You cannot imagine how lucky I was to have had his keen eye pause on me even for a moment. I never got to meet John Updike. He died today.
I guess like many people my age, I was moved by and affected strongly by the Rabbit novels, which I read early. I think I actually read Rabbit Redux first, when I was about fifteen. Couples, too. And then I reread all of Rabbit (except the novella, which didn’t exist yet), when I was writing The Ice Storm. I liked some of the short stories a lot too.
Mainly, though, the lesson he has had for me had to do with a certain kind of commitment to the job. He was a lifer. I have always modeled my career on the way he did things: every other book a novel, and a book, reliably, every couple of years. In this way he published fifty books. That’s a whole lot of writing. Much of it very, very strong.
If I had my quarrels now and then with particular efforts, that didn’t mean that I wasn’t in awe of his commitment and sheer muscular reliability. That’s the kind of writer I have always wanted to be.
I was on break from graduate school, visiting my sister in Los Angeles, when I picked up a used copy of Rabbit Redux, the second of the Rabbit books and the one least talked about. The story begins in 1969, just after Rabbit’s wife has left him for another man. Rabbit takes in a wealthy runaway teen named Jill and an African American, drug dealing Vietnam vet named Skeeter. Along with Nelson, Rabbit’s son, they form a family of sorts. I finished the book in two long sittings, and was amazed by how many things he was doing so effortlessly, how much of the world he brought in, and how flawed and human his character’s were.
A month or so later, I devoured Rabbit Run. Then I luxuriated in Rabbit is Rich, all the wife-swapping and loose morals, the poignant comeuppance of poor decisions. Rabbit at Rest I listened to on a long car trip across country. Nelson was a deeply flawed adult by then, Rabbit overweight, depressed, and longing for redemption, and in my two years with these books I felt I’d watched a family and a country come of age, for better or worse.
Then, of course, I started reading Updike’s stories and criticism. I read his Paris Review interview. I tried occasionally–with meager results–to write like him, but I know I’ve learned a ton from him. It always semed as though there must be six or seven John Updikes writing all his books and articles. It’s hard to believe that they won’t be writing anything new, say on the literature of the Obama years. Whomever has not read him, why not start now? He will be missed for sure.
Andrew Foster Altschul
My father loved John Updike, which of course was reason enough for me to hate him. When I read the Rabbit books in high school, I decided it was ironic that my father admired them so. My father had grown up in working class Paterson, NJ, but by middle age found himself in tonier suburbs, carrying a mortgage and a couple of kids and cars, surrounded by bourgeois boredom and destructiveness much like what Updike detailed in Rabbit Is Rich–but of course my father, a lawyer, wouldn’t see himself (or us) in the book, I was sure. His appreciation must have stemmed from some generational pride or reflexive hero worship. Or maybe it was all the sex, tinged with the casual misogyny men of their generation saw as normal. Either way, it was easy to say you loved Updike, I figured. There was no risk in it. Just as there’s no risk in a son dismissing his father’s literary judgments as old-fashioned, ill-informed, unliterary.
Then I remember something else: my first college English class, a course on the short story. For a final project we had to read an entire collection by one of the writers in our anthology. Why, if I scorned him so, did I choose Updike? Pigeon Feathers, one of his earliest books, contains story after story of sullen, resentful, confused adolescents – like Sammy, who quits the A & P to impress a girl who doesn’t even know he’s alive; like Allen Dow, whose mother stifles him so cruelly he lashes out at the one female he really loves. I can’t say why I picked Pigeon Feathers, though I still have that copy, held together by a rubber band. Could it be that I needed to find something in common with my father? Or that, try as I might, I couldn’t help but see myself in every sentence? Well, maybe it was all the sex.
But I do remember my shock when I burst into tears at the end of the title story, when David Kern, examining the exquisite feathers on a dead pigeon, has the epiphany that “the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.”
What beautiful lies we tell ourselves.
In the late 1990s, when I began to read Updike’s art criticism in the New York Review of Books, I thought this was another John Updike. I’d never engaged too deeply with Updike’s fiction–going to school in the canon-defying Eighties, I didn’t particularly have to try–but the Updike in those pages was a persona strikingly apart from the graying WASP of his New Yorker stories. Here was a maverick, a figure delving into the subtleties and politics of the art world because art mattered, mattered to the point of eccentricity. One essay I photocopied ad nauseum and foisted upon countless associates was about global economics as expressed in Richard Serra’s mythic-sized sculptural monuments to ego, published during Serra’s retrospective at the MOMA in 2007.
In the pages of NYRB, Updike’s work was in conversation with an entirely different literary set than his fiction. Another circle of graying white men, admittedly, but certainly one also suited to the term eccentric: Paul Goldberger, Herbert Mitgang, Peter Scheldahl. Yet in this circle Updike seemed to me the bad boy—refreshing, unexpected. Read in this context he sounded young, with it, like someone you’d encounter in a blog. A writer on the margins. This owed less to word choice or sentence structure than simple sensibility: amidst all the Serra encomia of the moment, no one else seemed to be asking simple but illuminating questions. Where did those gargantuan swathes of metal come from? Who pounded them flat? How could these questions not reflect upon the message of the art itself and its place in the socioeconomics of art and power? Updike wasn’t trashing Richard Serra, he got him.
Perhaps Updike arrived at such unexpected thoughts on art because he came to criticism as a fiction writer, as an outsider. But I prefer to think he was master of the persona, and that this is the lesson to take from those essays. A writer’s voice is always persona, something to don. The most skilled and flexible among us choose different masks from which to address different audiences. In that view, it seemed to me later, even the seeming rigidity of the New England worldview in Updike’s fiction was testament to the flexibility of a master.
For me, and probably any American my age writing fiction, Updike has always been huge enough to take for granted–a generational tidal swell felt in the early-mid 1980s. His short story “A&P” is justly standard-issue in high school anthologies, and from there it’s a short step to the Rabbit books. The most immediate sensation I get from Updike is the pressure of a prior generation’s imperatives playing out in print–the need to confess male desire, to reveal what happens inside suburban marriages and bedrooms.
I’m a white suburban male myself, and a New Englander. I face the fact that Updike has covered my territory. He was almost too good and too thorough, so much so that that his style of transgression now feels, as a literary gesture, empty–we now know we all have dirty laundry. One reason I cheered David Foster Wallace’s demolition of the “Great Male Narcissists” is that I shared his rejection of, boredom with, those preoccupations, their egocentrism, their faintly infantile craving to shock.
I still write against Updike–it’s difficult not to. We need new ways of being thrilled on the page, and one of the challenges he left us is to find more ways of talking about being human than combing through the ramifications of having sexual desires. Updike’s excavation of those problems, his painstaking, eloquent, honest publication of that struggle freed the rest of us to move on and say what hasn’t been said–to find new axes for frozen seas as yet uncharted.
The writers I love most tend to be those whom I associate with a single, unforgettable book—-Walker Percy and The Moviegoer, William Maxwell and Time Will Darken It, Grace Paley and The Little Disturbances of Man—-writers whose names immediately bring to mind a title, with all its accompanying associations, specific sentences and images, and also a feeling, a memory of where I was when I read the book, how I found it, what my life was like at the time. For me, the name John Updike rings no such bells. Updike has always existed for me in that peripheral space of the older and venerable white male writer, so often lauded by older white male professors and so routinely reviewed that over I time I developed a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the name, feeling that his work could not, for me, be personal, in the way that the work of Lars Gustaffson or W.G. Sebald or Jayne Anne Phillips is personal.
But something happened this week that may have changed that; I am not speaking of his death.
On Tuesday, January 27, I went to see a friend in the burn center of a local hospital. We first met when she enrolled in my creative writing class almost a decade ago; she was merely dipping her toes in to writing, the way she has gamely dipped her toes in so many things over the years. Her real business was another field entirely, a field in which she went on to become wildly successful. She is six feet tall and very pretty, an avid runner, and the most accomplished hostess I know; invitations to her legendary parties are a coveted commodity. On January 25, I attended her annual Burns Night soiree. Early the next morning, after almost everyone had gone home, there was an accident with the fireplace at her house—an explosion, burning fuel, and what must have been an intensely painful and interminable ride to the emergency room. When I walked into her hospital room on the 27th, her face was so swollen that I hardly recognized her. We talked for a few minutes, but she was very tired, and it was painful for her to open her eyes, so I soon said my goodbyes. On the way home, I heard the news of Updike’s death on the radio. While the significance of his death to the literary world was not lost on me, it had little personal resonance; I was thinking, of course, of my friend.
This morning, again in my car, I happened to hear an interview with Updike by Terry Gross that had been recorded in 1989 following the publication of Updike’s memoir Self-Consciousness. One of the subjects dealt with in the book is the author’s psoriasis. In the interview, Updike talked about the essential problem of the body: “It’s a strange thing, isn’t it, to be born into a certain body instead of an ideal body, and the whole idea of a face is slightly funny, isn’t it, if you can put yourself outside of the species for a moment.” He seemed amused by the absurdity of the human condition in this respect. “These faces we carry around,” he said, his voice trailing off. He talked about his obsession with glancing in the windows of storefronts in order to see his own reflection, “in the hopes that I had somehow changed.”
These faces we carry around…It was only a snippet from a much longer conversation, an offhand remark. But it remains with me. How inextricably our faces are connected to the way we are perceived by the world, the way we perceive ourselves. My friend is one of the few people I have known in my life who was truly born into “an ideal body.” I think of her beautiful face, how disconcerting it was to see it so dramatically changed, even if only temporarily.
“A writer is somebody who tries to tell the truth,” Updike said in this interview, “and your value to your society is a certain willingness to risk being honest.”
I have not read a book by Updike in several years—so many books, as the saying goes, so little time—but I know I will be reading Self-Consciousness in the coming days. I sense that, in this book–his only memoir among dozens of novels and story collections–he has said something deeply honest. Honesty, perhaps, matters only insofar as we are willing to hear it, only insofar as it appeals to the daily machinations of our lives. And this, I suppose, is how authors become part of our personal mental library. Something happens that moves a writer’s book or books from the periphery of our consciousness to a more central and meaningful place. The writer’s words reach us at precisely the right moment, intersecting with our lives in such a way as to seem particularly meant for us. Suddenly, a writer we’ve never spent much time thinking about says something that makes good sense, something that reflects or clarifies our own thoughts, sometimes with painful irony. We buy a book, we place it on the shelf, and this book leads us to another, and another. And, at last, we begin to understand the collective admiration.
The Minute Fluctuations
John Updike has held an unreasonably large place in my conception of myself as a writer. He, more than any other writer in the pantheon, stood for everything I opposed in fiction. This had little to do with his celebrated and reviled misogyny or his endless fascination with himself. I didn’t mind those traits; they sat fine with me in the work of the many of the writers I held most sacred—Burroughs, Bellow, Roth, Kerouac, Mailer. My complaint had to do with what I saw as his celebration of conformity, his comfort with the small-town, middle-class existence that had brutalized and politicized me even before I reached puberty. To me he was a patrician, a WASP, the erudite voice of the conservative mainstream, and therefore worthy of my disdain.
I know this was unfair of me. I knew at the time that this was unfair of me. I hardly knew his work. I’d read a handful of stories, half of Rabbit Run, a few pages of The Witches of Eastwick. I’d never gotten through a single one of his books. But it was helpful. He provided me with a convenient foil against which to begin forging an aesthetic of my own.
The problem, of course, was that he was a whole lot easier to hate in abstract than in actuality. I’d pick up a copy of the New Yorker, and seeing that he had a new story running in its pages, rev myself up for a good dose of indignation. Then actually reading those supple sentences of his, I’d be overcome, not by his unworthiness, but my own. He was just so damn good at what he did. If I still found his themes and milieu alienating, I couldn’t deny that he wrote better sentences than anyone else working in the form.
In a New York Times review of the story collection The Afterlife, Jay Parini described Updike’s work thus: “He records the minute fluctuations of feeling that occur as people move bodily through time, falling in and out of love, suffering the usual mortal indignities, experiencing small joys and occasional moments of grace.” Reading that review in 1994, when all I had to show for myself was arrogance and ambition, I was humbled by what I recognized to be a fair assessment of the man’s work. I clipped the sentence and taped it to the keyboard of the laptop on which I was struggling to teach myself how to write. Something to aspire to.
I Must Fight Against the Sensation
My father read Updike, and Rabbit Run was one of the books that spent months or years on the back of the toilet in our house when I was a kid, along with Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess and Gunter Grass’s Cat and Mouse. I remember reading a sentence in which having sex was described as putting your penis into a slipper. The whole book gave me profound creeps. Just ten minutes ago, NPR played an essay he wrote for their “This I Believe” project and I finally heard something from Updike that I was unambiguously glad to hear someone say, because it expressed something I have struggled with a lot as a fiction writer trying to make a living. He said: “I find in my own writing that only fiction–and rarely, a poem–fully tests me to the kind of limits of what I know and what I feel. In composing even such a frank and simple account as this profession of belief, I must fight against the sensation that I am simplifying and exploiting my own voice.”
I take it to mean something like, Except when I’m writing fiction, I feel stupid and lame in a way that I don’t think I actually am. If that’s even part of what he’s getting at, well, it was really nice to hear.
In 1992 I was living in Nusa Tenggara, in south central Indonesia, on a island with no phones, no cars and more cats than people. If you kept to the only road, really a sand-dirt path along the water, you could go about a mile in either direction before it faded beneath your feet, depositing you in wilderness and hard coast. Once I kept going, scrambling on the tidal coral, determined to make a circuit of the island. It took all of two hours.
I had a lot of time on my hands. I’d arrived with a stock of books but went through them faster than anticipated, having failed to factor in the utter lack of interruptions. So I foraged, and the locals got to know me as a ready market for pretty much anything printed in English. Traveler-jettisoned paperbacks, usually. A twenty-year-old edition of In Cold Blood, the lower half of which had clearly been dipped in the sea. A spy novel with what seemed like random passages violently underlined, as if someone had been desperate to extract a private message. Once a well-foxed, jacketless hardcover: The Coup, by John Updike.
I’d thought I had a firm handle on what Updike was all about–he’s the Connecticut-and-adultery guy, great stylistic chops but typing his way through familiar territory, filling up the silences of Salinger and Cheever. But have you read The Coup? It’s set in Africa. And unlike Heart of Darkness or Henderson the Rain King and every other damn thing I’d read by white folks about Africa, it is not about white folks in Africa. It’s the story, told mostly in interior monologue, of a despot ruling tenuously over a blighted post-colonial nation, where a single river provides the “one boundary not drawn by a Frenchman’s ruler.” He has killed the previous head of state in a very public execution, or perhaps he has not; the old king becomes a far more real presence as the book unfolds. It’s three hundred pages of Updike relentlessly occupying someone else’s head, someone as far away from Rabbit Angstrom as it was possible to be.
The audacity of that, of authoritatively willing forth these people and this landscape, struck me as more transgressive than any sex scene Updike has written. A purely African narrative, even one set in a fictional African country–do you see the tightrope act of that, how one false note could have made it a comic operetta? In my own writing I’d been self-conscious about the slightest leaps out of my own demographic. What business did I have writing about Indonesians, or German tourists, or for that matter anyone who wasn’t male, bookish and from Southern California? Updike had ignored any such boundaries, and even the boundaries of his comfortable, profitable reputation. Instead, he’d given himself license to write in any direction he pleased. And in that book he’d put more distance on America than I had, coming to that island.
In the years since, I’ve taken to heart a quote by Cynthia Ozick: “If we had to say what writing is, we would have to define it as essentially an act of courage.” Updike quietly committed that act six days a week, for fifty plus years, fifty plus books. Brilliance, yes. But also bravery.