John Updike's Dead: Do We Still Have To Pretend To Like His Books?

For the last few years, we have been treated to a bevy of columns and articles lionizing John Updike. It is certainly a tragedy that he is gone – he had massive literary potential. But since the media has been busy writing his eulogy for years, it does not seem unfair to add a note of reality: Updike was not a great writer. He was not even a very good one.

It has always puzzled me how the media selects “great writers.” I, for one, would consider Frederick Forsythe’s driving, brilliant action novel “The Day of the Jackal” far better literature than Don DeLillo’s pointless and meandering “Underworld.” I think Leon Uris’ “Mila 18” is far more compelling than the Cormac McCarthy’s purposefully obscure “Blood Meridian.” It isn’t that I don’t enjoy the occasional psychological novel – it’s tough to argue with either Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. But the gauge of authorial greatness shouldn’t be the ability to pen 600 pages of plot-less description of characters who would bore you to death or repulse you in real life.

What, then, makes John Updike such a god to the media? It certainly isn’t his writing, which vacillates from the tedious to the atrocious. His style falls somewhere between Thomas Hardy and Kate Chopin on the soporific scale. Take the opening passage from his highly-praised “Rabbit Redux”:

“Men emerge pale from the little printing plant at four sharp, ghosts for an instant, blinking, until the outdoor light overcomes the look of constant indoor light clinging to them. In winter, Pine Street at this hour is dark, darkness presses down early from the mountain that hangs above the stagnant city of Brewer; but now in summer the granite curbs starred with mica and the row houses differentiated by speckled bastard sidings and the hopeful small porches with their jigsaw brackets and gray milk-bottle boxes and the sooty ginkgo trees and the banking curbside cars wince beneath a brilliance like a frozen explosion.”

If you dug that supreme ejaculation of adjectives, there is a good shot you think that “2001: A Space Odyssey” is subtle, understated, and too short. And yet the ‘New York Times’ called this book, which focuses on Updike’s typical target, middle class conservative suburbia, a “novel by an awesomely accomplished writer at his peak.”

While I can admit Updike’s over-utilized power of description, it is clearly a gift that comes and goes. Updike actually won a lifetime achievement award from the UK’s “Literary Review” for his bad sex writing. Take this gratuitous description of oral sex from his latest epic nothing, “The Widows of Eastwick”: “She said nothing then, her lovely mouth otherwise engaged, until he came, all over her face. She had gagged, and moved him outside her lips, rubbing his spurting glands across her cheeks and chin … God, she was antique, but here they were. Her face gleamed with his jism in the spotty light of the motel room, there on the far end of East Beach, within sound of the sea.” This isn’t exactly Herman Melville. In fact, there’s a good shot that Melville would slap Updike around for writing this bit of pathetic purple pornography.

Updike’s characters range from the unbelievable to the unbelievably patronizing. First, the unbelievable. I cannot claim to have read every novel Updike wrote – few can, since he wrote 25 of them – but his major works are stuffed to the gills with characters who speak as no person has ever spoken. In “Terrorist,” Ahmad, an American, half-Irish, half-Egyptian high school graduate seduced by Islamism, states, “There is nothing in Islam to forbid watching television and attending the cinema, though in fact it is all so saturated in despair and unbelief as to repel my interest.” Ahmad is American. No American speaks like this, even an American unlucky enough to fall in with the wrong mosque crowd.

And then there are the patronizing. Rabbit is Updike’s most famous creation, the subject of four of his novels. Rabbit is an adulterous creep, a selfish hedonist who has no concern for his wife or family. And, yes, Rabbit is a political conservative; in “Rabbit, Redux,” Updike makes a point of Rabbit’s support for the war in Vietnam and his flag decal. As Updike stated in a 2004 interview:

“People ask me what would Rabbit think of 9/11, what would Rabbit think of George W. Bush, and I just can’t say … I think Rabbit would probably have the same reaction to the invasion of Iraq that he had to Vietnam, that it may be a mistake but it’s our duty to see it through. If he were alive, he’d probably be in Florida most of the year by now and he might have a stars-and-stripes sticker on his car. After 9/11, he certainly would have put the flag up.”

The rube.

Updike himself was a political liberal. In 2007, he wrote a review of Amity Shlaes’ “The Forgotten Man” in “The New Yorker,” in which he castigated Shlaes for her criticism of FDR: The impression of recovery–the impression that a President was bending the old rules and, drawing upon his own courage and flamboyance in adversity and illness, stirring things up on behalf of the down-and-out–mattered more than any miscalculations in the moot mathematics of economics.” This is tremendous nonsense. There is little doubt FDR was a great politician, a phenomenal PR man. But Shlaes’ argument – that FDR lengthened the Great Depression – does not call for a rebuttal based on anecdotal reminiscences.

Updike was a novelist, not an economist. But the politics with which he infected his craft made him a star.

The media loved Updike because Updike was unsparingly critical of the United States. He castigated it for its greed, its stupidity, its xenophobia. He saw Americans as a group of know-nothing conservatives consumed with money-lust and more typical lust. He saw everyday Americans as hypocrites who thumped both Bibles and the minister’s wife.

Updike has been hailed as one of the great American writers. When it comes to American writers, no one surpasses Mark Twain. In his famously brilliant essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” Twain took James Fenimore Cooper, author of “The Last of the Mohicans,” to the woodshed. His words fairly describe Updike:

“A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are — oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language. Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.”


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