Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Updike dead at 76

The novelist and critic John Updike has died at seventy-six of lung cancer in a hospice outside Boston.

I have never been an Updike fan, and have criticized him repeatedly on this Commonplace Blog. See here and here and here and here. He stood for a conception of literature, an approach to both the novel and criticism, that has exercised a corrupting influence. More perhaps than anyone since the Second World War, Updike championed a highly “literary” fiction, precious, breathy, self-congratulatorily “beautiful,” that was largely an effort to dress up and give a good name to the novel of moral uplift. He was E. D. E. N. Southworth or Susan Warner with a fancy prose style. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, the New York Times obituary writer, quotes James Wood’s opinion: “He is a prose writer of great beauty, but that prose confronts one with the question of whether beauty is enough, and whether beauty always conveys all that a novelist must convey.” But I am unwilling to grant Wood’s premise.

Here is the famous scene at the beginning of Rabbit, Run in which the former high-school basketball star, now twenty-six, joins a boys’ pickup game. He is watching from the sidelines when the ball clanks off the rim and lands at his feet.

He catches it on the short bounce with a quickness that startles them. As they stare hushed he sights squinting through blue clouds of weed smoke, a suddenly dark silhouette like a smokestack against the afternoon spring sky, setting his feet with care, wiggling the ball with nervousness in front of his chest, one widespread white hand on top of the ball and the other underneath, jiggling it patiently to get some adjustment in air itself. The cuticle moons on his fingernails are big. Then the ball seems to ride up the right lapel of his coat and comes off his shoulders as his knees dip down, and it appears the ball will miss because though he shot from an angle the ball is not going toward the backboard. It was not aimed there. It drops into the circle of the rim, whipping the net with a ladylike whisper. “Hey!” he shouts in pride.If he is a dark silhouette how is it possible to see his big cuticles? The sentences are unrelated to each other, entirely self-involved. What is “air itself”? Or perhaps more to the point, when would air not be itself? When he shoots the ball, from an angle, Rabbit is its agent—he is the shooter—but when the ball is in the air, it becomes the passive object of an unseen force (“It was not aimed there”). In the next sentence, though, the ball transforms itself into a subject, and it drops. Three it’s in a row—each with a different grammatical function, making a muddle.

And this doesn’t even glance at the creep of the passage. Reading it, you say under your breath, “Shoot the damn thing already.” You expect one of the boys to dart over and swat the ball out of Rabbit’s hands. (Rabbit? He makes Shaquille O’Neal seem quick.)

But I ought to speak with respect of the dead. Updike was a helpful and sometimes even penetrating critic, given the limitations of his own conception of literature. His best novel, for my money, remains Rabbit Redux (1971). Updike had the unique ability to write with understanding about those of a different and lower social class. He may have written too much, but the fact that he kept writing suggests that he did not look upon perfection of the work as the writer’s purpose. His purpose was simply to live with words—with thoughts turned into words, as he somewhat imprecisely put it. Even if his own writing did not appeal to you, you had to wish for more such men with such an unshakable commitment to literature.

Yitgadal v'yitkadash. . . .