John Updike's life and work

The entry from "The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors," published in 2000.


David Lipsky
January 28, 2009 12:40AM (UTC)

Just reading a list of John Updike titles can make a normal person -- one of the billions of non-Updikes who populate the world -- winded: Think what it took to write them. The fiction titles work together like a loose narrative: At first, you enter a festival space ("The Poorhouse Fair;" "Rabbit, Run"), moving past lots of exciting bird and animal imagery at a pretty good clip. Then the strong, solid domestic titles of the middle years ("Couples," "A Month of Sundays"), filled with marriage and comfortable entanglements. Next the suave titles -- a seasoned, been-around voice pouring out the whiskey and telling you where it's at: "Trust Me," "Roger's Version." In recent years, a post-game sigh of an imagination moving gratefully out to pasture, with an occasional snap of irritation: "The Afterlife," "Bech at Bay." Updike is so compulsively a writer that even his "Also by Updike" pages tell an interesting story.

There's a discomfort about Updike. America is still new to its celebrity culture -- we've never decided what to do with our veteran actors, athletes and writers. (Do we go on applauding them? Do we slip them a pension and get them away from our population centers?) When Updike comes up, so does a kind of sub-auditory impatience: He's probably still the best word-by-word, thought-by-thought, sentence-by-sentence writer we have, but isn't it time he moved on?

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By tacking so closely to his own experience, Updike has made this a character question -- do we like the kind of man Updike appears, from his books, to be? He is without question the most successful literary writer of his era, but his career has also been a series of hairsbreadth escapes, of jumping out of the dirigible just before it crashes. Updike broke into print with light verse, just as the world decided that funny, rhyming poetry was something it could possibly do without. He rode the old New Yorker style (of dapper, frosty wit) from 1954 until that brave and reliable horse gave out in the mid-1990s.

There are moments in the recent novels, firing up the high style, when he sounds the way you do on a telephone call when you aren't sure whether you've been cut off; Updike is speaking to a literary audience that may or may not still be listening. (Since Updike is exquisitely sensitive to all things Updike, he's covered this material himself in a short essay called "Learn a Trade" in which an artist argues his kids away from the business: "He was like a man who, having miraculously survived a shipwreck, wants to warn all others back at the edge of the sea.")

From the beginning Updike set himself the task of recording every input a fairly ordinary, ordinarily lucky middle-class person might be expected to log over a seventy-year life. In this, he had no serious competition for four decades. (The Vietnam-era "Rabbit Redux" gives a better sense of what 1969 America felt like than any book -- not to mention movies, TV shows or straight history.) He's been aided by three qualities that, by themselves, would have guaranteed impressive careers in any writer: He's funny; he's able to express how anything feels (for example, there are a number of rapturous scenes where characters find longed-for toilets); and he writes beautiful sentences that bop around in your head after you read them like show tunes.

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Updike's early books cover childhood, parental conflict, small towns and adolescence. The voice is endlessly, mechanically receptive, as if a NASA robot lander had been outfitted with a "Talk of the Town" sensibility and set loose on Updike's bio. "Rabbit, Run" cemented his reputation as a writer willing to go the extra mile for data about sex, on which he could be ugly and comic, and then resolve the discomfort with a beautifully literary punch, like this bit from "A Month of Sundays:" "Head and heart, tongue and cunt, mouth and cock -- what an astonishing variety of tunes were played on this scale of so few notes."

To avoid literary celebrity, Updike ditched New York in 1957 for the Boston suburbs. ("Celebrity," Updike writes in his memoir "Self-Consciousness," "is a mask that eats into the face.") The sixties made him famous anyway, as a chronicler of the problems suburban husbands got into being faithful and unfaithful to suburban wives. These novels vary in quality from the over-staged adulteries of "Couples" to the truly heart-rending "Marry Me" and "Too Far to Go."

In the mid-1970s, Updike divorced his first wife, remarried, and picked Vladimir Nabokov as his literary model. Jazzed up, he produced some of his strongest work. There was enough career behind Updike to leave him open to two charges: The first is misogyny. But the charges feel groundless. Updike writes about everything, and the capacity to dislike, desire, misjudge and occasionally abhor the opposite sex is one of the things both genders have in common.

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The second charge was leveled by the younger writer David Foster Wallace in a giant-killing, hey-fogies-get-off-my-interstate 1997 essay called "Twilight of the Phallocrats." Updike was, according to Wallace, one of America's last "Great White Narcissists." But to call Updike a narcissist (and this charge has gotten around) misses the point, since the impulse behind his self-examination is so basically generous: Our smallest encounters and realignments of feeling are worthy of inspection; if Updike's life is a story, everybody's is. What could be a less selfish notion than that?

Updike finished up high school as a yearbook editor and class president; he learned the local standard of excellence, and he met it, and in certain ways he didn't look beyond it. That impulse may never have left him. In the closing semesters of his career, the author has slipped comfortably into serving as a kind of class president and yearbook editor for American writing. His 1970s and 1980s book reviews are taken as definitive, like an alumni magazine's "Class Notes" section. He's president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His most recent bestseller list appearance was as editor of the administrative-sounding "Best American Stories of the Century." If Updike missed an opportunity, it was to play a different role, to be not the dependable class president, but the class goat who surprises everyone with a stunt they never knew they were longing for. But his forty books record his forty productive years with a fidelity unmatched by any competitor, or by any of the other media that have become a writer's scariest competition. It's an immense achievement.

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David Lipsky

David Lipsky is the author of the novels "The Art Fair" and "The Pallbearer" and the short story collection "Three Thousand Dollars." His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times and Harper's.

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