Tag Archives: John Updike

Updike’s Ghost

updikeIt 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.

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John Updike and His “Rabbit”: Much Ado About Not Much

I have just finished – for the second time – John Updike’s classic novel (and the one that made him the literary lion he is today) Rabbit, Run. The first time I read it I was a sophomore in high school and, believe it or not, it had been assigned to the class by a young English teacher who apparently didn’t know you weren’t supposed to assign such books to sophomores. There was sex in it, and angst and boredom and adultury -and sex. He got away with it, too, because none of our parents knew what it was about much less what was in it.

At the time I was vitally impressed by the power and breadth of his language. I needed to read it with a thesaurus, a thick dictionary, and a college-level grammar book within easy reach. It was, I thought then, as close as anyone was ever going to get to a perfect blending of prose and poetry. The language and the story together were like grand opera, words and music threaded to the same theme. It almost didn’t matter what the damn thing was about. You read it like you listened to John Coltrane – not with your ears but with your heart, your soul, your “being”, whatever that was.

But now I am an official geezer with years behind me, some of them hard, all of them, as sometimes happens, at the center of the troubles. I have, in other words, learned a few things, and as it turns out Mr Updike suffers as ignorance wanes.

In my 30’s I read some of Updike’s poetry and found that it set my teeth on edge. His forte is making the mundane into the sacred, the everyday into the miraculous. Perhaps my taste for such things isn’t what it once was, but when he began comparing a suburban homeowner’s annual autumn trading of window screens for storm windows in preparation for winter with ancient rituals and the fundamental urge to outrun death, I thought he was going a little too far.

I can see now, reading Rabbit at my age, that Updike has always been about going too far. From the beginning of his career he has been using his verbal gifts to endow moderately interesting-to-downright annoying characters with sensitivities and insights  their counterparts in the real world could never have possessed in a million years.

Imagine, if you will, a high school basketball star – a man committed to life as athletics – so sensitive that he can feel the skin of a fog or compare the shudder inside his car’s steering column to the shudder of a woman’s unspoken fear. On his way to church:

He hates all the people on the street in dirty everyday clothes, advertising their belief that the earth arches over a pit, that death is final, that the wandering thread of his feelings leads nowhere. Correspondingly, he loves the ones dressed for church: the pressed business suits of portly men give substance and respectability to his furtive sensations of the invisible; the flowers in the hats of their wives seem to begin to make it visible; and their daughters are themselves whole flowers, their bodies each a single flower, in gauze and frills, a bloom of faith, so that even the plainest walk in Rabbit’s eyes glowing with beauty, the beauty of belief.

And so on.

Now, Rabbit is at this point in his late 20’s, an undistinguished young father with an undistinguished and undistinguishable job who has run away from his pregnant wife and young son because, well, he felt like it, and spent the last two months with a part-time prostitute he likes because she’s fat and his wife isn’t. Now, back with his family, he experiences, what? The insight of salvation?

Gimme une break.

Without bothering to remark that Rabbit is, in almost every way, not actually like any of the people he’s supposed to represent, let’s concentrate instead on the vicious internal dichotomy, the clashing, clanging discordance that is the dystopia of Rabbit.

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 excact 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 short, Updike’s characters are cleverly inflated lies covered in heavy layers of self-consciously ornate language. “A sound and fury signifying…nothing.”