Saturday, January 31, 2009

John Updike and My Love/Hate Relationship with His Writing

Among the people pronouncing on the work of John Updike, I doubt anyone will be Googling my name to see what I think, but isn't that, after all, what blogging is all about––unknown people expressing opinions no one else much cares about. (No offense, of course, to my handful of followers.)

As I mentioned in my short post the day he died, John Updike was one of those people I just thought would always be around. Like Fidel Castro, love him or hate him, many Boomers just can't imagine a world without him. His name and face were ubiquitous in the literary world (and the world at large) for over a half century. He won just about every literary prize imaginable, showed up regularly in the annual Best American Short Stories anthologies and edited The Best American Short Stories of the Century. His face graced the cover of Time twice. His name regularly appeared in The New York Review of Books over those years, both as the reviewer and the reviewed. He was both idolized and reviled. He was accused of being too literary (see same reviled) yet some saw his books like Couples, The Witches of Eastwick, and the more recent Terrorist, when they first came out, as playing into the popular themes of the day and thus having been written as, gasp, money makers.

I agree––with all of it.

John Updike was a member of the cadre of post WWII writers chronicling the middle class. Pre-war, while the language may have been simple, the topics were big: love and war, debauchery, poverty. Post-war, the opposite was true. Writers crafted beautiful sentences that focused on the everyday––the dark secrets hidden behind the picket fences. Along with John Cheever, Updike was a master at this.

We well-read high school and college students in the 60s and 70s loved anyone who could poke holes in the middle class facade, and all the better by someone who lived that life. What high school kid couldn't identify with the indignant youth in A&P? Another one I always remember reading from that time was "Friends from Philadelphia" because it dealt with the "does money equal success" issue we so loved at the time.

But that was all back when the tract house in the suburbs and the consumer society were new and ripe for exploration. Back when adultery and pre-marital sex were daring topics and divorce was rare enough for us to find it interesting. Now those topics are all too common and so are the stories about them. Over the years, I came to resent Updike's entitlement to spots in the annual "Best" anthologies as he applied his middle-class chronicling to old age with treacly sweet nostalgia I doubted would ever have been published by a new writer let alone an "old" new writer.

Oddly, at the same time I found Updike's eye on the middle class a bit worn, his ventures into other worlds felt like an awkward stretch. The last Updike novel I read completely was In the Beauty of the Lilies, a family saga that starts well enough with a minister who no longer believes in God but ends with a story of Hollywood stardom and mass killings more suited to People Magazine than a literary novel . (This blogger loved it, so maybe it was me.) I tried Terrorist but found the main character a cliche, much like this reviewer.

Yet when I think of John Updike I will always think of Rabbit. I read that series mostly in my 30s and 40s and found the character development––even the minor ones––right on target. I will never forget Rabbit's mother who forbade her husband from mowing the strip of grass between their house and the neighbors'. I can't think of a better example of "show-don't-tell." While the Rabbit novels also dealt with the same themes of bad marriages, adultery, child-rearing, they had just enough depth and tension to make it work.

I have often wondered, though, if even the Rabbit books, because they are so topical, so much "in the moment"(mentioning things like the gas crisis of the 70s, for example) will stand the test of time. Assuming people still read books in the next century, will they be reading John Updike the way we still read Edith Wharton––another commentator on her class and times? Or will future readers shake their heads and wonder why we read this schlock instead of something under-appreciated for its time as was Moby Dick.

As with any artist, time will usurp the words of current critiques in determining John Updike's place in the literary world. In the meantime a reading of those opinions makes clear I'm not the only one who had a love/hate relationship with his writing.

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