Four pieces of John Updike's writing:
* Introduction to Samuel Shem's "House of God." All I remember is that Updike really enjoyed this one image: a woman's vagina causing the front of her panties to fill with "Pacific winds", much like the spinnaker of a sailboat. I don't think he really liked the rest of the book.
* The famous/often anthologized short story whose title I don't remember which involves three girls in bikinis walking into a convenience store, the young cashier wanting to serve them and the conservative store owner wanting to kick them out for inappropriate dress. The cashier quits his job and this is an epiphany.
* The Witches of Eastwick.
* Another famous/often anthologized short story: Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car. This one is the goods, one of my favorite short stories ever. If you are a lucky New Yorker subscriber you can read it "for free," if you are not you can probably find it in either an Updike-specific anthology or one of those "Fiction You Must Read" affairs. Four short stories about everyday minutiae, impeccably detailed, via a process that I can't figure out leading to epiphanies.
Pubic imagery, small-town moral crisis, Bible-tinged sexual experimentation, religious ecstasy. These are the walls of Updike's cage--is what I would like to say, sure. But it isn't accurate. Updike's interests are too wide-ranging and the subjects of his novels too completely bizarre for that (trilogies, long-running series, witch porn, a book where a man tries to write a computer program proving the existence of God.)
I think it was Martin Amis who talked about Updike's undifferentiated love of detail. It's something that came out when I was reading The Witches of Eastwick in 2008. You have a story about a group of female witches seducing and being seduced by a slovenly devil, using erotic powers to control the life of a small Pennsylvania town. That should be the best book ever.
Instead it was a succession of descriptions of hot tub controls, restaurant counters, cello maintenance, and, as ever, pubic hair. All of them really good descriptions, probably the best descriptions yet written. But he already wrote Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car. At some point description alone offers diminishing returns. At some point when reading the book you start to realize that this book was written because Updike thought what, that suburban women were hot? Yes, the Witches of Eastwick were hot, but really, is that all we get?
Updike was someone who could see the good and the beautiful in everything, I guess. This makes for a seriously faulty storyteller. Good storytellers usually see the beautiful intricacy in everything, which is different: Dickens's underworld is beautifully horrible, but it's horrible.
There are four Great American Novelists at a time, by tradition correlated with the elements. Remaining: Don DeLillo (fire), Cormac McCarthy (earth), Phillip Roth (water.) (The Chinese zodiac also involves a fifth element, metal; this is probably Thomas Pynchon.) DeLillo had and has good, inventive ideas for novels. McCarthy has a sense of the kind of moral weight novels can achieve, given plenty of violence. Phillip Roth likes people more than either of them. (Thomas Pynchon just wrote a novel about a gang of balloonists, plus Tesla.)
Traditionally when one of the Great Four/Five falls, a successor is appointed. (Franzen walks behind DeLillo, bearing his robe in supplication, sharpening his knives.) Updike succeeded Nabokov as the resident "best prose writer in the world," his winning of the Literary Reviews Bad Sex In Fiction Lifetime Achievement Award notwithstanding. He believed in that bad sex.
But here's the thing about Updike as a member of that literary pantheon. I don't know anyone personally who thought of Updike as a vital writer. I don't mean that to say that Updike is somehow stiff, stultifying; he's the opposite to an unwholesome degree. What I mean is that I know several people who swear by Blood Meridian, Gravity's Rainbow, Goodbye, Columbus, even my personal pet peeve White Noise. These books cracked open lives, made people into readers. With the exception of our own Goodman Carter, who spent his pubescent years reading the Rabbit books obsessively, I don't know of anyone who says the same thing about Updike, or who even recommends his books beyond the Rabbit stuff.
He's a masterful prose stylist, all right. Is he a storyteller?
No: I imagine that more people can recite a list of his titles than can talk about how his characters changed their lives, or even touched their hearts. Bech is a parody. Rabbit is a sustained portrait of an era. The Witches/Widows of Eastwick are high-class porn.
Is he a storyteller?
No: he's a poet, someone who presents the world as it appears to an eye that's delighted by everything it sees and wants to communicate that delight. Not someone who presents the world as it appears to an eye that wants to navigate the mess, to build upon it.
Is he a storyteller?
No: he's a priest. He's the mad conscience of the current literary world--and a crucial figure in the founding of the Cult of the Sentence in American fiction. He's the man who said that it's tragic that American publishers don't put out more books that you'd find on your piano teacher's bookshelves, and the man who wrote books that meandered, that overdescribed, that made it difficult to see the point in taking up Serious Novels that celebrate small towns you don't particularly like.
A priest can not be in a state of moral crisis, or at least can not show this in his sermons. The best fiction comes out of an author's moral crisis. Updike was completely convinced in the viability of everything he did, or he was very good at faking such conviction. It is the time for doubt and danger again.
Updike's fiction stands for universal acceptance and undifferentiated beauty. We need this. But we don't need it as a high-water mark which all fiction is tacitly expected to reach. We don't need to substitute "exquisite prose" for all the other storytelling modes in the world--and then to make that standard a prerequisite for getting into the high-klass publishing world. We don't need to substitute "universal ecstasy" for the possibility of saying, in a story, that things are very bad for some people, lastingly bad, and that there is no tragic dignity or beautiful texture to their lives.
We don't need to be hung up on the idea that literature is the exclusive sublime province of prose stylists, ecstasy addicts. I think a lot of prospective and working writers are hung up on this idea, and to the extent that Updike's death is going to be taken as a symbolic death, a transition moment in American fiction, I think it's a good idea to treat it as a liberation.
(In passing, I will mention that I'm 99% sure he was a very nice man and it's grim that a very nice man is dead.)
We all felt guilty that we didn't read more Updike, yet we felt absolutely no inclination to read more Updike. Updike was a technical genius at writing prose. He was not the end goal of prose. For too long and to too many people in creative writing programs, he's presented as the end goal of prose. His cult is powerful and seductive and it has just been thrown into chaos because for better or for worse, you can not replace Updike. Updike pushed being Updike as far as it could go. Steal his tricks and turn them into stories instead.
The cult of the sentence has just lost its L. Ron. Here's the Fiction Circus obituary:
Posted by future on Tue, 27 Jan 2009 22:35:29 -0500 -- permanent link