A Thousand Points of Light and One Dim Bulb
Acres of print have been consecrated to Updike and his achievements, from academic treatises to Nicholson Baker’s sublimely idiosyncratic tribute U & I, but perhaps the book that captures Updike’s writerly public persona best is a curious little gem called Updike in Cincinnati: A Literary Performance, an account (edited by James Schiff) of Updike’s readings and musings at a short story festival in 2001.
Mr. Updike’s four keenly observed Rabbit novels (“Rabbit, Run,” 1960; “Rabbit Redux,” 1971; “Rabbit Is Rich,” 1981; and “Rabbit at Rest,” 1990) chronicled the adventures of one Harry Rabbit Angstrom — high school basketball star turned car salesman, householder and errant husband — and his efforts to cope with the seismic public changes (from feminism to the counterculture to antiwar protests) that rattled his cozy nest. Harry, who self-importantly compared his own fall from grace to this country’s waning power, his business woes to the national deficit, was both a representative American of his generation and a kind of scientific specimen — an index to the human species and its propensity for doubt and narcissism and self immolation.
In fulfilling Stendhal’s classic definition of a novel as “a mirror that strolls along a highway,” reflecting both the “blue of the skies” and “the mud puddles underfoot,” the Rabbit novels captured four decades of middle-class American life. Mr. Updike’s stunning and much underestimated 1996 epic, “In the Beauty of the Lilies,” tackled an even wider swath of history. In charting the fortunes of an American family through some 80 years, the author showed how dreams, habits and predilections are handed down generation to generation, parent to child, even as he created a kaleidoscopic portrait of this country from its nervous entry into the 20th century to its stumbling approach to the millennium.
Mr. Updike’s novels wove an explicit and teeming tapestry of male and female appetites. He noticed astutely, precisely, unnervingly. His stories, some of the best ever written by anyone, were jewels of existential comedy, domestic anguish and restraint.
And his nonfiction! Even when his essays included a harsh criticism, he politely coiled it, tucked it inside, part snake, part rose, and the reader would feel the bite sprung silkily only at the end — in a balletic allegiance to both generosity and candor. Self-knowledge and self-forgiveness bestowed their own empiricism: he knew too what it was to create weak art.
Thomas Mallon (at NRO):
Perhaps the keenest compliment one can pay him as a man is to say that his life will make for a lousy biography: Just about no scandal; precious little feuding; almost no phony contretemps and posturing. He was deeply interested in sex and God, but more than anything he was interested in working—steadily and prodigiously. The Rabbit books, taken together, are the great American novel of the second half of the twentieth century. Even when he was through with them, he kept writing fiction as if, culturally, it still counted—as if it could still land a writer on the cover of Time. He loved his country, avoided political faddishness, was a devoted Democrat and got both of his national medals—one in the arts and another in the humanities—from Republican presidents.
The Artist Formerly Known As The Virgin Ben:
John Updike’s Dead: Do We Still Have To Pretend To Like His Books?
For the last few years, we have been treated to a bevy of columns and articles lionizing John Updike. It is certainly a tragedy that he is gone – he had massive literary potential. But since the media has been busy writing his eulogy for years, it does not seem unfair to add a note of reality: Updike was not a great writer. He was not even a very good one.
It has always puzzled me how the media selects “great writers.” I, for one, would consider Frederick Forsythe’s driving, brilliant action novel “The Day of the Jackal” far better literature than Don DeLillo’s pointless and meandering “Underworld.” I think Leon Uris’ “Mila 18? is far more compelling than the Cormac McCarthy’s purposefully obscure “Blood Meridian.” It isn’t that I don’t enjoy the occasional psychological novel – it’s tough to argue with either Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. But the gauge of authorial greatness shouldn’t be the ability to pen 600 pages of plot-less description of characters who would bore you to death or repulse you in real life.
What, then, makes John Updike such a god to the media? It certainly isn’t his writing, which vacillates from the tedious to the atrocious. His style falls somewhere between Thomas Hardy and Kate Chopin on the soporific scale.
He had "massive literary potential"?
Jesus. Fucking. Christ.
I’m just speechless as are UCLA and Harvard who failed this manchild miserably. Really.
His parents should ask for a refund.