A Fan's Notes

On Updike's Long Game

HUMANITIES, May/June 2008, Volume 29, Number 3

It was a commonplace even back a few decades ago to insist that American writers, at their best, were beautiful and damned, to borrow a title from one of the most beautiful and damned of all. They either drank themselves to death too soon, or wrote themselves out too rapidly, became self-made cartoons like Hemingway or Life magazine pundits like Steinbeck, retreated into silence like Salinger or embarrassed us with noise like Mailer. The great American novels were one-offs—The Red Badge of Courage, The Great Gatsby—preceding either a sad long decline, or else a final stellar explosion.

This was so much part of the myth of American writing that it had, in a reverse twist, almost become a kind of deferred virtue of American writing. We might not have the longest arcs but we lit the brightest lights; the intensity of the radiance rose from the brevity of the explosion. So quick bright things come to confusion. (The few apparent exceptions to the rule of early bloom and sudden destruction, or else long late wither, were either writers excused as monastic recluses in the Deep South or the deeps of England—monks, like Henry James and William Faulkner—or else, as with William Dean Howells or Edith Wharton, those who kept a note of self-announced minority about themselves, even when, as with Howells and Wharton, there was nothing really minor in them at all.)

What then are we to do about John Updike? A bright light and a very long arc, youthful blossoming—the cover of Time at thirty-six—followed by a rich middle-aged variety topped by a late harvest of what the reviewers call “arresting departures.” So quick bright things become slower, older, ever brighter things. Of all modern American writers, Updike comes closest to meeting Virginia Woolf's demand that a writer’s only job is to get himself, or herself, expressed without impediments. Short stories and essays, book reviews and poetry, art criticism and even the occasional bit of commentary and reporting, all this wrapped like ivy around the red brick wall of those—what is it? Twenty-eight(!) novels. No part of the possibilities of writing seems to have eluded him. Waiting nervously in a dentist’s office one bumps one’s shins against Updike on dinosaurs in National Geographic; apprehensively turning the pages of the New York Review of Books in fear of being beaten up by a brutish British critic, one finds five perfect columns on Renoir or Chuck Close—and always the same shining serene sentences, the same puckish note of bemused praise, which he learned from E. B. White and the old New Yorker, and never disposed of (let's come back to that), the spirit of purposeful, slightly schoolboyish intensity: the feeling that this subject, whatever it may be today, is to be taken seriously, not slightingly, much less sneeringly, but still lightly, for reader’s pleasure, not instructional pain. The willingness to write, to say “Yes” not merely to editors but to the writer's encompassing job of registering experience of all kinds, has something so inspiring in it to younger writers that it can seem like an achievement in itself. His rival and companion over the past fifty years, Philip Roth—and the “intertextual” comparison of those two grizzled vets, novel by novel and sex act by sex act, will make for several good, fat unreadable Ph.D. theses in the near future—has accomplished something similar, for sheer dint and grit. But Roth has over the decades withdrawn from all the littler labors of writing to become one more of those diligent American monks, a man at his hassock in his studio in Connecticut, a novelist tout court and a novelist alone, where Updike continues to amaze us as a man of letters, a pitchman for writing, up on the balls of his feet wherever readers may be found.

This has been so much the case that, I suspect, it is a source of exasperation to Updike; certainly one senses in his response to worshipful younger writers like Nicholson Baker in Baker’s wonderful fan letter, U and I, a note of frustrated bewilderment: stop admiring the inscriptions and read the damn books. For—and this is what makes Updike unique—the micro-gift for prose is matched by a macro-gift for scale, with getting it all in. Updike wrote once that he admired Kerouac, and though this seems absurd—the perfect sentence-maker against the non-sentence non-writer—it is true, surely, in their twin desires to pay attention to American reality as it really is. The wires of poet and reporter cross in Updike as they do not even in his God, Nabokov: the language-loving, witty, inventive meta-fictioneer who delights us postmodernly in The Coup or Gertrude and Claudius is the same writer as the attentive, news-minding chronicler who gives us Terrorist and the Rabbit novels.

Updike remains both conjurer and chronicler, each gift serving the other. Updike began his pro writing career back in the fifties reporting for the “The Talk Of The Town” the jump-off section of short pieces that still begins the New Yorker, and there is something of the willing journalist in him still. His readiness, not to mention ability, to write a novel like Terrorist reminds us always of the roots of the novel in news, and of Updike’s seismographic ear for the tremors of his time—just as Skeeter, the black militant in Rabbit Redux sprang credibly, as they say, right out of the headlines of his dark Nixonian era into Updike’s pages. Each of his early novels, and many of the later ones, have been, as Updike has allowed, shaped to a presidential period—Truman's in The Centaur, Eisenhower's in Rabbit, Run, Kennedy's in Couples, to which one could add the discomforts and anxieties of the Carter era in Rabbit Is Rich and the bewilderments of Reagan in Rabbit at Rest (not to mention the more obvious Memories of the Ford Administration). The same will to get it down as it was happening that made Howells move to New York to write about unions and violence and brought Trollope out of the cathedral close to write about Disraeli and parliaments and politicians inspires Updike too.        

But if the persistent journalist in him is one of the things that has kept his novels alive, it is the satirist and humorist in him that have kept his sentences aloft. Despite the “lyrical” surface of his prose, he is a realist, never even marginally a romantic. He is genuinely unfazed by, unseduced by, all of the myths of American romanticism—gorgeous Daisys and vast sinister Western landscapes are equally absent from his books. His girls and women are real with scratchy pubic hair and vaginas (albeit shaped like ballet slippers) and his American landscape of car dealerships and fast-food retreats, has no place for doomed, exciting, existential gunmen. Salinger and Fitzgerald anticipated Updike’s kind of tenderness, the ability to summon a world in a phrase, the bouncing love of the surface of existence—yet Updike has written tartly of Salinger’s self-enclosure, his need to make a world and a family more beautiful than can be hoped for in the real world; and I sense in his criticism of Fitzgerald, too, once more an unconvinced disdain for all those improbably beautiful girls whom, he remarks sensibly, the writer loves too much to give the reader any space to love them for himself. He is, for all those perfect shining sentences, a realist; the sentences sing, but they don't ennoble.

And though it has been too long since his parodies and casuals have graced the pages of the New Yorker, still, the urge to amuse (and mock) remains strong in him. Updike the humorist is probably the least known, or recognizable, Updike of them all, but something of the White-cum-Thurber sound of the old “Talk”—that bemused, high-spirited, ironically smiling but resolutely well-wishing, not merely un- but anti-malicious comic tone—still lingers in his work. There is at least the material of comedy implicit in almost every sentence he writes: the dancing recognition of the likeness of the unlike, the will to treat the organic mechanically—his sexual congresses are blissful but funny, never “transcendent,” because they are so entirely acts of organic machinery, wise souls made into copulating machines. The simple common sense which regularly inflects his judgments of big writers and dubious ideas has its origins in a humorous tradition too; in his criticism he catches the notes of Wolcott Gibbs and Brendan Gill as much as of Edmund Wilson.

And he is a moralist, too, of a surprisingly old-fashioned kind. Throughout all that varied work, one theme has risen and been repeated over and over. Updike’s great subject is the American attempt to fill the gap left by faith with the materials produced by mass culture. His subject is how the death of a credible religious belief has been offset by sex and adultery and movies and sports and Toyotas and family love and family obligation. For Updike, this effort is blessed—and very nearly successful, almost close enough to grace to count—and yet in the long run doomed, since the fact and shadow of death hangs over it all. Unlike his European contemporaries, who see the same space and the attempted filling as mere aridity and deprivation, Updike is close enough to, and fond enough of, the source of postwar material abundance to love it fully, and for itself. (And he knew enough of the decade of deprivation that preceded the big blossoming never to be jaundiced about plenty.) He views the material culture of American life with a benign appreciative ironic eye—like Wayne Thiebaud viewing his cakes. But he has no illusions about it either, for its ability to cover the failure or wish away mortality. His recent novel In the Beauty of the Lilies, which this reader suspects will emerge as his Golden Bowl or Our Mutual Friend, the late masterpiece overlooked or praised by rote in its day, only to be rediscovered by another generation, makes this almost schematically apparent: The death of American religion is matched by the rise of the American movies. The longing for the transcendent and numinous, wherever it appears —in cult camps in Oregon or in a computer lab in Cambridge—is to be respected, caressed, but not to be deceived about.  

It is in the longing for the numinous, and the awareness that it can only be remade in our time from the normal, that, I suspect, his wonderful writing on art, placed in two fine volumes already and still being written, is far from a workingman's diversion. Updike recognizes in the struggle of the modern artist to make art at all the same spiritual struggle that fills his characters’ lives, carried on in the thinner air of avant-garde experiment and with consequences that are blessedly semipermanent, very nearly death-defying feats. In the attempts of modern artists to wrest meaning from the flotsam and detritus of the world—in Cubist collage or Schwitter’s Merz, or even in the less referential attempts of a Cézanne to register the apple as the apple appears to him, not in smooth certitudes of chiaroscuro, but in stabbing, apprehensive touches of direct color—Updike sees a trace, perhaps even a chart, of the common search to find religious meaning in experience previously deemed marginal or merely material. As much as Rabbit fleeing Reading, Cézanne or Picasso flees the regularities of perspective and illusion in search of something larger. In his essay (collected with the unfortunately too-jocose title of “What MoMa Done Tole Me”) on his early experience of the then still spectator-sized Museum of Modern Art, he makes this likeness explicit:

A religion reassembled from the fragments of our daily life, in an atmosphere of gaiety and diligence: this was what I found in the Museum of Modern Art, where others might have found completely different—darker and wilder—things. Gaiety, diligence, and freedom, a freedom from old constraints of perspective and subject matter, a freedom to embrace and memorialize the world anew, a fearless freedom drenched in light: this was what I took away, each time, from my visits of an hour or so, usually in the afternoons, my day’s journalism done, before heading south to my wife and apartment and daughter on West Thirteenth Street. I took away, in sufficient-sized packets, courage to be an artist. . .

In this way, his writing on art, far from being a minor chapel in the church of Updike, actually occupies, I suspect, a central place. More, I suspect, than among the countless writers he has sung and (mildly but unmistakably) chided, it is among the painters whom he has praised that he finds a pursuit that chimes with his own deepest ambitions for his art: to save something shining from the great garbage disposal of time. Certainly, a note of almost religious happiness rises from his art writing. However much it may be frowned on by the pros for being insufficiently “serious” or “critical,” i.e., contextual or historical, it has always seemed to this ex-pro truthful in its unashamed enthusiasms, the desire to match the artist evocation for evocation, representational trick for trick. (In the decade when I wrote about art for the New Yorker, supplying context and history up the reader’s wazoo and beyond, Updike would emerge a couple of weeks later in the New York Review of Books with a few diffident and amateurish-seeming pages which always seemed, frustratingly, closer to the true mark, more infused with the artist’s own ambitions and resonating with the real feel of the thing.)

With all the other, dutiful things said, it is this note of happiness, there in unalloyed form in his art writing, that rings throughout Updike’s prose, and that draws us to it, makes us happy when we read it. It is not a fatuous happiness, or a happiness made unaware of death—it is his preoccupation with death and dying that is most steady in his work, if anything is—but neither does it cede too much to mere mortality. One has a sense of someone who—as much as, though with more wit than, Andy Warhol—has spent a good deal of his life liking things. Women’s clothes, their hair, American voices, the hybridization of American accents, the way girls smell in football season; the way that the hyper-cold of the airline baggage compartment can be felt like a secret in the bag as you unpack—all of these images and moments, recalled at random from his work, are not just reported but quietly rhapsodized, registered with love.

Since this happiness is, in a certain sense, banished by some of what I take to be his tougher-minded religious beliefs, which are hard and Protestant, not to say Pennsylvanian, I am inclined to believe that the act of writing, like the act of art-making, is such a source of quiet glee to him that it holds off death for a while at arm’s length. And I wonder, too, if he does not still find in the act of sentence-making—not “construction,” or “plotting,” but getting one sentence down right about one specific thing—something of the serenity that illustrators still find in the act of confronting a sketch pad with a pencil. Surely some touch of his original ambition to be a cartoonist or illustrator lingers still for him in at least the act of writing. Certainly in the few times that we have shared a stage or a table—most often with the avid, nerve-rattled, high-voiced junior introducing the elegant silver-haired senior partner—I have been impressed by this slightly monarchical inwardness, a cordial but still remote, dancing-eyed detachment, as though at any moment he might disappear into the corner, cross-eyed, to register on paper, as sketch or note, some small improbability unnoted by everyone else in the room. (And, as I hope that sentence shows, the mere thought of this proximity is enough to set off pastiche, if not parody, in the junior writer’s sentences.)

Having said all that, one thing I am sure of is that, while his triumphs have been mostly in prose, his emotional proximity to painters and poets has been one of the things that has kept his prose the thing it is. Updike's affinity for painting and poetry—the still felt desire to have been a painter or poet—is perhaps the secret fuel that keeps the prose shining and still in motion. One would want, therefore, in the end to triangulate him, as he once did T. S. Eliot, above all, among the poets, some near and some far: with Richard Wilbur, for a stubborn graceful adherence to craft and finish in a time of improvisation and amnesia; with Wallace Stevens, for the intimation of the numinous in the ordinary Sunday mornings of the mid-Atlantic states; and with Shakespeare himself for the ability to get himself expressed fully, unimpeded, and for the desire, even in the face of time, to set down, for readers still unborn, all the sweetness of our common life.