Tue Jan 27th, 2009 at 10:16:26 PM EST
If you hit google news right now (01/27/2009, approx. 7:45 EST), you would see the"Death of John Updike" ensconced between a headline heralding "Obama Visits Capitol to Press Republicans on Stimulus Plan" and another far more crude declaring "Man Kills His Wife and 5 Children".
Updike would find his obit caught thus between the proverbial rock of a politics he never really liked or understood (he was much more conservative than liberal) and the hard place of the brute philistine of human nature (he was a soft spoken gentleman of letters who was both hospitable as well as charming) par for the course.
He had a knack for being caught between those extremes.
In terms of his place in literature, he crosses a curious divide between a now faded modern movement insistent on the primacy of language and the older schools of narrative realism from which he ultimately descends. Language wise, Updike could probably fashion a description of a man's hand, a woman's belly, a mountain range or the quiet stubbornness of a library on Saturday evening ten minutes before closing better than any writer on Earth. Seriously, he was a master of the gem like sentence, so masterfully cut it takes your breath away. His aphoristic descriptors nail with visual intensity. He's not especially witty--ultimately, I've come to decide he never thought that much of wit--he's painfully, subjectively visual, turning abstract concepts--like time, for example-- into visualizations.
"He comes into Brewer from the south, seeing it in the smoky shadow before dawn as a gradual multiplication of houses among trees beside the road and then as treeless waste of industry, shoe factories and bottling plants and company parking lots and knitting mills converted to electronic parts and elephantine gas tanks lifting above trash filled swampland yet lower than the blue edge of the mountain from whose crest Brewer was a warm carpet woven around a single shade of brick. Above the mountain, stars fade."
--Rabbit Run, p. 41
You can do that with almost any Updike novel, plop down on a page and find some extravagant description that is conceptually accurate, visually demonstrated and somewhat melancholy and sonorous. Like William Styron, his contemporary, Updike loves the long description, lives to tell you what someone or something looks like, how they fit into a particular context, or better, even, what exactly that context is. He lives on every page of his novels, is there, his opinion, whether right or wrong, is always inexorably there--and this has probably won him as many literary enemies as any literary gift is apt to do.
And it is a gift, for surely the one thing we must say of praise about Updike is that he was an enormously gifted writer, with an enormous awareness of his place and his time. His awareness, his insistent consciousness and instruction on such to the reader ends up being something of a hindrance, however. Certainly, not to speak ill of the dead (as Updike would necessarily admonish) but there is nearly a sophomoric awkwardness to the display of his gifts which might put off even his most admiring fans.
One of Updike's first published pieces, a short essay poking fun at the use of quotation marks in Henry James's work comes to mind. I remember reading it years ago, after I'd already tackled a few of Updike's greatest hits, Centaur and his Rabbit trilogy. It was an attempt at humor at the expense of Henry James larded use of quotes for ironic purposes. Updike, of course, found the `quotes' nettlesome and took James to task for them in no uncertain terms. The result was somewhat effective, but not terribly funny, and left you feeling ultimately a bit sorry for Henry James.
Much of Updike's fiction does this--creates characters that are visually accurate, perhaps even emotionally accurate, yet are surprisingly unconvincing. It's not that they aren't `liked', per se, it's that ultimately they are not believed. Maybe Updike himself understands this, naming his most realistic attempt 'Rabbit Angstrom'....Angstrom being the world's smallest unit of measurement (at least at the time Updike wrote the novel, I believe it's been since replaced with the nanometre--no little irony in that, either). It's as though the characters Updike invokes are so small and diminished in his eyes that his language completely overwhelms them. He needed a Quixote or Ignatius O'Reilly to fill out that fulsome tongue, but he only allowed himself the thin shades of characters in a gray state suffering an deep economic downturn and social upheaval. So, I think, Updike's overweening presence seems to mask his more realistic characters (Chiron, the mythical protagonist in the Centaur is an exquisite exception that seems to prove the rule), or create a penumbra of words that visually talks about them even as they indict and ultimately hide them.
The hard truth is, he had very few compelling characters that walked and talked and danced on his stage.
What he had ultimately was his voice. A multileveled, incredibly talented voice that talked about these ideas he had for people in really extraordinary ways. He just never got around to the hard work of letting his people, his characters talk for themselves.
I can already hear his singular judgment from the piney woods of Pennsylvania. Not so direct, sir, I am, after all, dead. A bit of respect is in order.
Indeed. His criticism -and I single out Hugging the Shore as one of his best volumes of criticism, will be reread by future generations. Some of his short stories, especially those illuminated in his Pigeon Feathers collection, and his wonderfully fanciful work, The Centuar will all be honored and remembered. As will John Updike.
A great writer died today. That he did not do all that he might--even after 50 books, should surprise no one--especially not for those of us engaged in these dark arts. As Samuel Beckett once said at the end of one of his works, "try again, fail better."
Let us grieve.
(Cross posted on DailyKos)