On John Updike

It was very strange to hear of John Updike’s death when I was slap bang in the middle of reading Rabbit, Run. Written back in 1960 when Updike was at the start of his illustrious career, I had such a vibrant young man’s voice in my head it was almost impossible to imagine him stripped of that innocent belief in dependable immortality. Curious, also, to think of him facing up to the religious implications that carve, like a silvery thread of stream, through the rocky layered walls of his prose. But what has been most surprising of all has been the lukewarm quality of the tributes that have been paid him. Perhaps I’m visiting the wrong sites, but the praise has repeatedly been qualified, as if admitting to liking John Updike isn’t quite the thing to do any more. Like the judges on the Costa panel who pointed out all the faults of Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture after having just awarded it the best novel prize, it’s as if critics and readers don’t want to seem too enamoured of Updike, too accepting of the world he created for fear of looking… what, exactly? Naive? Misguided? It strikes me as very intriguing, not least because there is surely no question that Updike’s prose style is one of the most supple, lucid and effortlessly evocative of the great American twentieth century males, his dialogue fiercely entertaining, his characterization sharp and astute and his embrace of a certain kind of banal, ordinary existence so complete and perfect that to read his books is to live them. So what’s not to like?

The plot of Rabbit, Run is probably illuminating here. It’s the story of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, who was once upon a time a big shot star of the local basketball team. He has been cursed with a gilded youth, and so his failing marriage to his silly, permanently sloshed wife, Janice, and his mindless job demonstrating the MagiPeel Peeler seem to him pointless and worthless. So worthless, in fact, that within the first dozen or so pages of the novel, Rabbit has failed to pick up his two year old son, Nelson, as he’s been instructed, and has instead kept on driving with the vague intention of heading all the way down south. Rabbit hasn’t got a map, not so much a chance detail as a symbolic comment that will stand true for the entire length of the narrative, and all too often his instincts let him down. At some point in the middle of the night he accepts the inevitable and lets his car head for home. ‘Home’ in this instance being precisely not where his wife and child are, but where his old basketball coach, the unlovely Tothero, lives. This isn’t a mistake either; all Rabbit truly wants is to return to a place where he can still feel his former glory, and so Tothero’s charmless but nostalgic company is where he was headed all along. He just took the scenic route to get there. That evening, Tothero takes him out to dinner with his mistress and another young woman, Ruth, who is not exactly a prostitute, just a woman who hasn’t figured out the equation that balances love with housekeeping money. And Rabbit, effortlessly forgetting his pregnant wife, his child, his old, dull job, moves in with her that same night. That’s the kind of guy he is.

The story of Rabbit is distasteful, if you will. It concerns uneducated, vulgar people who haven’t the first idea how to find hard-won pleasure in their lives, but who cling, for the most part shipwrecked, to rather uncomfortable notions of respectability. Although not, of course, Rabbit, who is living so deep down within his flesh and its imperative needs that he doesn’t have the distance required to erect a moral framework. I wasn’t at all surprised to find out that Updike was deeply into Kierkegaard when he was writing this novel, as Rabbit seemed extraordinarily like a character out of a Camus novel to me. Rabbit, Run read like a transplantation of European philosophy into a very different system of blunt realism, a form of American existentialism that concerned a recognizable anti-hero, the lone, ostensibly immoral male, who is incapable of living by any other truth than his own. But Updike adds his own twist to this portrait by reintroducing God into the narrative. God has been a niggle in the back of Rabbit’s mind, the poorly understood but radiant promise of something better and more beautiful and perhaps necessary (although he’s not sure about that). Jack Eccles is the pastor who inserts himself into the rift between Rabbit and Janice with the well-intentioned and catastrophic desire to heal it. Eccles is a tremendous character, continually walking the tightrope between heroic intervention and dubious meddling, not sure himself, really, quite what he thinks he’s doing and deeply annoying his wife with his devotion to the job that seems to go beyond caring concern to something a little unhealthy. It’s a clever move by Updike to make Eccles and Rabbit resemble one another by the end, in their dedication to their separate causes, and their shameless neglect of the womenfolk. In this novel, the men are all catapulted towards some distant, unarticulated ideal, while the women have to stay home with the mess of domesticity. But this is the sixties, so what else would you expect?

And it really is the sixties in Rabbit, Run, brought to life on every exquisitely written page. Updike is brilliant at descriptions and even more brilliant at creating a feel of the times, an atmosphere that saturates every sentence without being located in any particular word. I’ve only read a few Updike novels, but they have all had this chameleon quality, of being able to bring to mind not just a situation, but a whole, distinct era. Reading Rabbit, Run, I wondered when we’d got so prissy about our characters that they have to be fundamentally nice people. Only detective fiction allows its protagonists to be fatally flawed these days, and even then, it has to be in ways that arouse our pity. Updike comes from a sterner school; he doesn’t want a narrative awash with sentimentality. He wants a sharper, more acidic response from the reader, a pure, raw horror, at times, for Rabbit’s appalling behaviour, and also, a clear-eyed, if rueful acceptance that we are all flawed, that we all act with ugly self-serving gestures when life is brutal and unrewarding. Updike’s characters come from a time before self-awareness was essential to literary identity, and so they ask neither forgiveness nor understanding for who they are. Instead, this is car crash reading, as we watch each member of the cast add their weight to a balance that will eventually tip into tragedy. And this, I felt, was at the heart of Updike’s endeavour in the novel, to show how even dull and lowly lives could be subject to the most powerful of forces. If sex and religion come up a lot in Updike’s work, it’s because the former provides the most intransigent drive of the body, whilst the latter exerts the purest pull over the mind. And that, Updike insists, is where the conflict that fuels all narrative finds its origins, in the opposing magnetic forces that work on the mind and the body.

Rabbit, Run is not in keeping with modern styles of narrative, but that doesn’t necessarily make it old-fashioned; at the very least, Updike provides a masterclass in literary realism.  It’s true that he doesn’t always appeal to his readers, he doesn’t fight to keep us, as we now consider authors must, and he doesn’t provide comfortable, or even palatable truths for us to digest. But that still leaves him with a great deal to say, all of it now a tremendous legacy to the literature of the modern Western world.

14 thoughts on “On John Updike

  1. Interesting post–I’ve never read Updike, but the passages from his essays that I read were particularly powerful and have made me put him on the list to read. However, I tried to inspire myself to read Rabbit, Run awhile ago but just didn’t want to go there…your post reaffirms my decision.

  2. What a great post. I’ve never read Updike either, but I just bought the Everyman’s Library edition for my husband for Christmas. It has all four of the Rabbit novels in one edition with a nice introduction. I may just pick it up now. Thanks for such a good review.

  3. JaneGS – Oh that’s a shame. He’s a very gifted writer, regardless of the situation in the narrative, and you might surprise yourself. Still, I hope you’ll go back and finish the essays. Lisa – you are very welcome. I’ll be very interested to know what you think when you’ve read Updike, and also what the introduction is like in the Everyman edition. A good introduction can be so helpful, I find. Bluestocking – He wrote loads and you can start small with his essays or short stories, if they appealed. Oh my critique group – I have to confess I haven’t been to the last couple of meetings (they meet once a month) because I haven’t written anything I could take along. I should do something about that, shouldn’t I? 😉

  4. This is a perfect post on Updike, Litlove, thanks. I would only add that there’s also many occasions for bursts of grim laughter – he nails those details one recognises and equally abhors as unbearably, unflatteringly, and irrevocably human. I don’t finish his novels with fond memories of the characters, but I’m with them all the way to the bitter end – and I think that balancing act of Updike’s required an enormous amount of clear-eyed skill.

  5. I’m afraid I’ve only read one Updike novel “S.” and that was a good 15 years ago! I tend to think of him as a “guy’s author”, which is really sort of bad of me as when I do that I am cutting myself off from a lot of excellent literature (and is probably just reverse sexism–very bad of me indeed). I’ve fallen behind in a lot of online reading, so I find it interesting what you say about the tributes he’s been given. It reminds me a little of Styron who I think is one of the best 20th century American authors, though response to him seems tepid at best (but then what do I know about 20th century American authors since I seem to read so few of them these days). In any case, you’ve convinced me I do need to read some Updike. Can you recommend anything? I was thinking of starting with the Rabbit novels. And by the way I sometimes think the dislikeable characters are actually more interesting than the rest.

  6. Not to be Mr. Contrary, but… I read some Updike years ago, essays and stories. Taste is relative, and he never appealed to mine. I think one of the reasons you’re reading lukewarm send-offs is that some people are glad a tiresome realist novelist is dead. My apologies if that sounds harsh. That’s just an intuition; but most of the reviewers are of an age and mind-set that – well, let me quite Updike from an interview with the _Wall Street Journal_, available at

    http://online. wsj.com/article/ SB12330812973332 0473.html

    where this comes from:

    WSJ: None of your novels contain footnotes. What is your assessment of David Foster Wallace and others, including Dave Eggers, who use footnotes as a form of good humor and irony?

    Mr. Updike: When you’re creating a fiction stream I think it would be very distracting and breaks the illusion. The illusion is an agreement between the reader and writer that this will be like life. The emotional temperature drops when you have footnotes. But there is room in imaginative fiction for many devices.

    Room, but not for footnotes. And one does wonder: What else is excluded? As a realist, he wants, like Alice Munro, minimalists, and others, to stick to “what’s there” and not be too adventuresome, or, as some people unfailingly say, experimental. The prose shouldn’t go beyond the necessary, extravagance is wasteful and show-offy, everything needs to be neat and trim like an suburban garden.

    Many of the reviewers, I’m betting, have read Wallace and very much enjoyed _Infinite Jest_ and its footnotes, as well as its attitude, and its formal qualities. So there’s this old guy who clearly – and this is only my gut here – removing Wallace from the mainstream, implying that there is a proper way to write, and exhibiting a view of literature that is old-fashioned, a dead-end long ago. So what does one say about him?

    In that interview Updike also says, when asked about William Gaddis’ _The Recognitions_, that he finds no “joy” in it, which doesn’t make him picky, but an absolutely lousy reader for that book. He can’t see the delicious humour, the uplifting lyricism, the delight in baroque sentence structure and fantastic conceits, the realistic portrayal of certain artsy types (and that is surprising, from someone who beats the drum for realism). Here Updike is out of his element (not his depth; he was an intelligent writer, had lots of craft, and his books appealed to people for many reasons), which gets converted into: That kind of writing is not joyful – or there shouldn’t be footnotes – or something else. He is constitutionally incapable of recognizing that there is something wrong behind the statement: “The illusion is an agreement between the reader and writer that this will be like life. ” Where did this agreement come from, what basis does it have in reality, and why does Updike think it’s _the_ agreement? Why does he think there is only one illusion? On the surface this is presumptuous, but more seriously, it’s factually unprovable. It’s an assertion phrased like a diktat.

    Novels aren’t like life. If you buy _Rabbit, Run_, then that book becomes part of your life in the physical sense, and it also enters your head, or heart, or soul, or is rejected. It is in your life as an object and also as part of your inner worldy. But it’s not “like life.” Art is art, life is life, nothing is like either, and Updike’s view of what life is is not at all like Wallace’s or Gaddis’ or yours, Litlove, or mine, no matter that we may agree we walk the same planet, admire the same constellations, etc.

    Maybe to reviewers who have a preference for fiction that embraces, or recognizes, indeterminacy, there is something old-fashioned about Updike. His religious beliefs may also bother. But I think that his aesthetic of realism separates him from contemporaries like David Markson, Paul West, and Joseph McElroy, the somewhat younger Gabriel Josipovici, and the also dead Wallace but very much alive Ben Marcus, and others, who portray worlds without centres. For them, and their fans, realism isn’t anything but a label for conservative, reactionary, and small-minded writing that always colours within the lines.

    But this is just speculation.

    Having written all that, I thought to look up Frederick Karl’s _American Fictions: 1980-2000_, which talks about how Updike “used Rabbit for his suburban rathole’s view of the country.” For Karl, Updike assumes that “Rabbit ‘owns’ the country.” And further: “Yet going beyond that [Updike’s view on politics] is the assumption of hegemony: that he, Updike, somehow speaks for America, whereas the other writers-Jews, blacks, women in the main-did not… Updike’s proprietorship-his Lutheran background, his marriage into a Unitarian family, his Christian remnants of religiosity, all-is clear: marginal in his early years, he has embraced the country as Christian, white, male…”

    Some of this might be playing into what you’re reading. And my apologies for another overlong blog post to your very good post.

  7. I haven’t read Updike, though I don’t have a reason why not. As to the tributes and their state of dissatisfaction, they seem to fit nicely with the demands of the moment philosophy (I think I mean attitude), which pervades culture and most other things these days. Instead of taking things and seeing what they have to say and how they might apply, today the test is to see if they fit our requirements. If not the thing is flawed. The Costa people were probably worried about their decision and have put in clauses to limit their indemnity against current sentiment. I see Mr Webber is limiting his indemnity over the Euro sing song. He might have been wiser not to have involved himself in the first place. Is there a connection here? Still tomorrow is another fray.

  8. What a wonderful tribute to Updike. I agree that “he doesn’t always appeal to his readers, or fight to keep us”–and that’s okay with me. I sometimes found his subject matter distasteful, but I always admired the way he wrote.

  9. Doctordi – thank you very much! You’re quite right about the grim humour: Updike can be very funny. I also really like the way you describe your experience with the characters. It was mine, also.

    Danielle – No, I think you’re quite right; the way he enters into the heads of his male characters is destined to appeal more to men, just as some writing by women presents a female experience that only a few men would wish to share. I’d actually recommend you start with an Updike novel called Marry Me. I read it a while ago now, but was surprised how easy and accessible it was. It’s not a well-known novel, but I found it a very good place to start. Now Styron is someone else I’ve never read. If only there were more time.

    JB – first of all thank you for sharing your knowledge and insight here. Your comment makes a fine counterpoint to my post and offer a useful alternative opinion to anyone who’s here reading. I hope you don’t mind if I defend Updike a little here, and say that just as he doesn’t make the best reader for Gaddis, then maybe, equally, there are anti-realist readers who don’t make the most of his work. I can’t quite sit comfortably with the idea of Updike as a writer who is not interested in experimentalism. One of his biggest influences was James Joyce, and I think that’s very clear to see in Rabbit, Run. Updike may not experiment formally, but he was right there with other modernist explorers of the stream-of-consciousness, which was daring in its own way for a writer in 1960. I think ‘constitutionally incapable’ is a little harsh, not least because I don’t see that Updike is necessarily suggesting that the agreement between reader and writer is ‘the’ agreement. Instead he calls it ‘an’ agreement – one that lasts the span of the novel and is repeatedly renegotiated with every entry into fiction. And Frederick Karl’s words worry me for a similar sort of insistence that Updike’s world is the only one. I don’t see anywhere that Updike himself claims this. Like most authors, he made one particular milieu his own, and to dismiss him for the fact that it concerns white, Christian males is just a reverse form of racism (although I don’t like that word – it’s too strong, but I can’t find a better alternative for the moment). Come to think of it, Gaddis’s world is no less white, Christian and male than Updike’s is. For myself, I don’t think it’s something that literary critics have a right to be picky about; you can’t be fair to a writer saying, if I were you, I wouldn’t have started from here. No writer can do everything, be everywhere, satisfy all tastes or explore all possible realities, and so you can only judge them in terms of what they do achieve, not just what they don’t. Of course, readers have the simple choice of putting the book down if they don’t like it, and that’s fair enough. In fact, I’d recommend it! 🙂

    Bookboxed – funnily enough I was thinking of you just this morning and wondering how you were. Thank you for articulating what was playing around the edges of my mind without my being able to grasp hold of it. That is exactly what I mean. I feel uncomfortable with critics saying, but it doesn’t do what I want a book to do. That seems a wholly unfair approach to my mind.

    Gentle Reader – I thought the Updike poem you posted was a shiver-inducing tribute to him. I felt the same way you did – often repulsed by his characters and their situations, but engaged with them and determined to see how they all turned out.

  10. I’m interested in your point that Updike created the kind of characters we don’t like to see in novels these days — how very limiting to be a culture that doesn’t like books without likable, appealing characters! I think it’s very interesting to contemplate thoroughly unlikeable people (very different from encountering them in real life!) and to think about what that says about human nature.

  11. I’m interested by the same point Dorothy is. You’ve made me wonder if it his unlikeable characters that put me off of him. And if that is the case I find myself feeling a bit guilty about it since it implies a bit of closed-mindedness on my part. I will have to give him another chance especially because of what you’ve said here and a comment from someone on my blog who said the Witches of Eastwick is not the best book to judge him by. I have heard that he was a brilliant art critic. Have you read any of his art criticism?

  12. Dorothy – your remark about the difference between encountering unsympathetic characters in life and in books is still making me laugh! I feel exactly the same – I don’t mind them under glass, as it were, but I’d run a mile in reality! So many of the memorable characters of literature are fatally flawed – I wonder if that’s more acceptable than being unpleasant or charmless in a very ordinary way?

    Stefanie – oh you should never feel guilty. I think readers are always right about their reading experience – what else could they possibly be? I know myself that some authors on some days will persuade me to be interested in unsympathetic characters, and then other authors on other days will not. I think it takes a slightly different reading stance, as it were, to be intrigued by human flaws, perhaps one that a reader has to choose more consciously, particularly in the absence of high comedy, which is what normally makes such folk palatable. I have never read Updike’s art criticism (although I’d like to) but what I’m most curious about at the moment are his essays. Hardwick’s novel I couldn’t get on with, but I adored her essays. Updike may be better in non-fiction for you in a similar way. Oh and one last thing, I would recommend Marry Me, again, as a good, accessible Updike novel. I was surprised how easy and pleasurable it was when I read it.

    Emily – what a great post by your former colleague! Written with so much love and admiration – thank you for sharing that. I do keep recommending Marry Me as an Updike novel that’s more palatable to women readers than some, if you wanted somewhere to start. But honestly, it would be easier if there were more hours in the day, right?

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