Why we should still read John Updike | Daily News


Why we should still read John Updike

In the opening scene of Rabbit, Run (1960), John Updike’s second published novel, the twenty-six-year-old Harry Angstrom – aka Rabbit – joins some children playing basketball around a telephone pole. One of the boys is very good.

He’s a natural. The way he moves sideways without taking any steps, gliding on a blessing: you can tell. The way he waits before he moves. With luck he’ll become in time a crack athlete in the high school; Rabbit knows the way. You climb up through the little grades and then get to the top and everybody cheers; with the sweat in your eyebrows you can’t see very well and the noise swirls around you and lifts you up, and then you’re out, not forgotten at first, just out, and it feels good and cool and free. You’re out, and sort of melt, and keep lifting, until you become like to these kids just one more piece of the sky of adults that hangs over them in the town, a piece that for some queer reason has clouded and visited them. They’ve not forgotten him: worse, they never heard of him. Yet in his time Rabbit was famous through the county; in basketball in his junior year he set a B-league scoring record that in his senior year he broke with a record that was not broken until four years later.

Are the kids reading John Updike now? Or is he, like his most famous creation, “just one more piece of the sky of adults”? For “adults”, in 2019, read Dead White Males – or, as David Foster Wallace put it in one of the most (mis)quoted reviews of Updike ever, Great Male Narcissists. Wallace was writing in 1997, when Mailer, Roth and Updike, his central trio of GMNs, were “in their senescence”. Surprisingly, Saul Bellow didn’t make the cut. Bellow’s heavily autobiographical fiction surely meets Wallace’s criteria for the GMNs: “radical self-absorption, and … uncritical celebration of this self-absorption both in themselves and in their characters”.

In 2019 we have lots of things to say about autobiography and self-absorption, but string them together and you get some very snarly knicker elastic indeed. Is self-absorbed fiction always narcissistic, or only if it’s written by a straight white male? What if it’s autofiction? Does that make it ok? What are the alternatives? If a writer ventures outside their own socio-cultural sphere, is that praiseworthy empathy or problematic cultural appropriation? Is Karl Ove Knausgaard more self- absorbed than Rachel Cusk? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Bellow’s current status may give us a clue to Updike’s imminent fate. Less than fifteen years after his death, the Nobel laureate is not only little read but frequently reviled as an exemplar of toxic, entitled masculinity. Reactions to the second volume of Zachary Leader’s anxiously judicious biography focused on Bellow’s own deathbed question, Was I a man or a jerk? Often, the conclusion was that, thanks to the five wives, the affairs, and that bit in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, he was emphatically a jerk.

Updike’s final wife count stood at a modest two, though he surely rivalled Bellow on the affairs front. And it is not hard to imagine that he and Roth will be next in the dock. Literature’s cold cases have been relatively unsensational – no Saviles or Weinsteins unearthed as yet. But plenty of people (Bellow, Dickens, T. S. Eliot, etc) have been tried and found guilty of failing to live the unblemished lives we increasingly require from our writers and role models.

Updike, then Roth, then … Martin Amis? Ian McEwan? (McEwan, I suspect, will be hard to frame, though a review of Machines Like Me did finger him as a perp of the ultimate middle-class writerly crime – mentioning wine too often.) The tide is undeniably on its way out, sucking at the shins of Jonathans Franzen and Safran Foer, authors who didn’t get the memo, and persist in writing big, confident novels full of sex and thinly veiled autobiography. Updike hasn’t gone the way of Bellow quite yet, but Wallace’s essay of 1997 clapped a tag around his ankle that’s proven hard to shake. “Just a penis with a thesaurus”: the unforgettable soundbite is often wrongly attributed to Wallace himself. In fact the piece is much cleverer than that. Wallace provides a damning series of “actual-trust me-quotations” from anonymous female sources, while declaring himself “one of very few actual sub-40 Updike fans”. His review mingles valid criticism of the novel in question (Updike’s Toward the End of Time, 1997) with baser critical practices. At its climax, he provides “hard statistical evidence” in the form of a page tally. Sample: “Total number of pages about Mexico’s repossession of the American Southwest: 0.1; Total number of pages about Ben Turnbull’s penis and his various feelings about it: 7.5”. And this is the review’s sanctimonious New Sincerity judgement on the protagonist: “Erect or flaccid, Ben Turnbull’s unhappiness is obvious right from the book’s first page. But it never once occurs to him that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole”.

The implication of the “statistical evidence” is that the book should have contained more about Mexico’s repossession of the American Southwest and less about penises. This breaches the first of Updike’s own elegant rules for reviewing, as stated in the introduction to his prose collection Picked-Up Pieces (1975): “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt”. But 2019 wants to know why we should play by Updike’s rules. Increasingly, fiction is judged on content over style. Updike chooses to write about an asshole with a penis: if you don’t want to read a book about assholes with penises, then Updike has written a bad book.

What will today’s reader make of the contents of the Library of America’s reissue of Updike’s first four novels, The Poorhouse Fair (1959), Rabbit, Run (1960), The Centaur (1963) and Of the Farm (1965)? By today’s standards, there are certainly things to object to, and in the interests of full disclosure I’m going to list some of the most incriminating moments here. Think of me as a very honest estate agent, pointing out the cracks and damp patches so that you know exactly what it is you’re getting into. Because Updike’s apartment in the many-windowed House of Fiction is a beautiful place, and it would be a great shame if people stopped hanging out there altogether.

- Times Literary Supplement

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