It was something of a surprise to read last night of John Updike’s death on Tuesday. Updike was a mere 76, practically a youngster these days, and I’d heard no rumors that he was sick. He was though, with cancer. Thirty years ago my high school English teacher (a huge fan of Updike’s, he fought the rural-minded, easily-shocked local school board to let him teach Updike in his advanced class – and won) said that Updike would never really die because he was the type whose ghost would be an unrelenting nag.
That was uncharitable and probably not true. From what I’ve heard (living in Massachusetts, you hear about Updike all the time, it’s in the air, like carbon from outdoor barbecues in the South), he was a charming, funny man, and from what I’ve read he seems to have had an almost comic eye for silliness and the small, savory defeats that make up our smaller, less savory days.
Wherein lies the problem, of course. Updike was a maddening writer. A real wordsmith, it often didn’t seem to matter to him what he was writing about, only that he was writing. “I would write ads for deodorants or labels for catsup bottles, if I had to,” he told The Paris Review in 1967, and it too often seemed that that was precisely what he was doing. His poetry in particular (but his prose was infected with it, too) suffered (imo, of course) from a focus on matters so inconsequential that it was almost as if Updike was challenging himself to find a way to take meaningless trivia and make it sound as if it were of lasting and even global significance. Needless to say, he failed. Odes to storm windows notwithstanding, banality is banality no matter how much you weigh it down with pretty words.
And nobody could pile words on top of you like John Updike. He would cover you with them as if they were the dirt covering your grave. Not long ago I wrote about his seminal novel, Rabbit, Run:
To begin with (and end with, as far as I’m concerned) only a fairly selfish, insensitive clod could or would act the way Rabbit acts, say the things he says, or do the things he does. But Updike presents us with the exact psychological opposite, trying to fashion an insensitive character of enormous sensitivity, a selfish character shining with a wish for unselfishness, and a crude boob with the heart and sentiment of a Victorian poetess. To put it mildly, Rabbit makes no sense. He isn’t human. He is a literary construction, a scarecrow to hang words on instead of clothes. Long before the end of the book you are tired, annoyed, and painfully aware that you are reading about, at best, a contradictory cartoon in the guise of great literature.
You get tired, as well, not just of the lack of any fungible reality but of the dense forest of words you have to wade through to get to it. This is one thick forest, full of vines and thorns and concentrations of bush you need a machete to get through. The words are so piled on top of each other that you feel like you’re climbing a pointless mountain for weeks and weeks on rocky, untouched land only to reach the peak and be faced with another just as pointless and even higher. Now the views are pretty and the flowers along the way are breathtaking but, hey, there’s a florist shop around the corner that’s a lot easier to get to.
In the end, Updike was always a terribly frustrating read. You would make this long trek through the mosquito-ridden jungles of his prose and while there were, granted, beautiful flowers along the way, when it was over you discovered that you’d been tricked by a pretty tv show and had never even left your house. I don’t even remember whether or not I read certain of his books. I owned Bech: A Book but for the life of me I don’t know whether I ever read it. I know I read Couples but aside from a passage or two of highly pleasant erotica, I remember absolutely nothing about it. I don’t remember the characters or the plot or what happened to anybody. Nor do I remember caring whether I knew those things. In Lehmann-Haupt’s NYT obit, he writes:
With “Couples” (1968), his fifth novel, Mr. Updike moved his setting away from Pennsylvania to the fictional Tarbox, Mass. There he explores sexual coupling and uncoupling in a community of young married couples who, as Wilfrid Sheed wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “wanted to get away from the staleness of Old America and the vulgarity of the new; who wanted to live beautifully in beautiful surroundings; to raise intelligent children in renovated houses in absolutely authentic rural centers.”
And I thought: “That’s what he was writing about? No, that’s what Cheever was writing about. In the 50’s.” Cheever I remember, from the brother and sister walking into the sea to the swimmer with the breakdown, making his way across his suburb pool by pool. Updike was mining territory pioneered by other people, particularly Cheever and Roth, and like a cowbird he exploited what someone else had built without ever really adding to it or expanding it. He did the same later in his career when he simply broadened the scope of writers he was stealing from – Le Carre for The Coup and The Terrorist, for example.
Along with being frustrating, reading Updike was an odd experience. It was like reading a comic book where the visuals were extremely sophisticated and visually exciting but the plot was stupid, the dialogue childish, and the theme either thoroughly incomprehensible or hopelessly mediocre. It still amazes me that the literary world never caught on to the psychological dissonance inherent in most of Updike’s characters, that the stylistic poetry that seemed to them urbane and insightful was in fact neither. It was covering up a lack of insight so profound that it must be said of him that he knew no more about people than your average rube, like the powerful smell of an orchid hides beneath it a hint of the garbage heap.
But who am I to diss John Updike? He lived a nice life, a life I envy, and writing gave it to him. I’d do likewise if I could get away with it. I think the deepest problem is the near-hypocrisy of it. The pretense that Updike wrote “great literature” is akin to the pretense that Seinfeld is artistic comedy that transcends its trashy intentions or that Warhol’s long-running practical joke on the art world was really a deep satire of Campbell’s soup. I react badly to pretense – to Jackie Susann insisting she writes serious fiction, to Kenny G insisting he’s a serious musician. Updike is very nearly in their league for pretentious fakery, and it’s irksome. I wish I could say the world of literature will miss him but frankly I wonder whether he’ll be remembered as anything more than a conscientious fraud.