It feels like a tired subject in my head because I’ve written at least three posts about John Updike this year alone but, as with so many posts in so many notebooks, I never got around to typing em up (lucky you!) and so while the topic of a dead and nearly-forgotten postwar novelist might bore you, it’s nice to know I at least haven’t exhausted you with it.
So lemme do that now.
Because my fascination with John Updike isn’t literary so much as morbid and personal, maybe Jungian(?), because the dude achieved something like the sort of literary success that (let’s just be frank about this) I’d like to have (minus the misogynist notoriety) and while he was always wearing a suit in his interviews and smiling wide and touching his face in a bashful way, and even though what he writes about more than anything else is the mundane goings on of middle-American suburbs, there’s something incredibly vile about what he writes: misanthropy, misogyny, priapism–the gang’s all here.
But the vile stuff is rendered in gorgeous prose.
What hypnotizes me about Updike and keeps drawing me back to his work is that, while being perhaps the most decorated novelist of his generation…his novels seem to be mostly pretty terrible—but they’re also amazing because of how beautifully they’re written! It’s like he’s got lots of skill, but no talent (if that makes sense); maybe it’s the other way around.
My point is that he often writes the most impossibly beautiful, florid prose, but with no sense of pacing—which translates, in my reading, to entitlement, the author’s knowingly stolid prose telling us that he doesn’t need to employ any narrative tricks to seduce the reader, to keep them hooked, because he’s John Updike, goddamn it, and you’ll read what he gives you. I suspect he would describe his work as a kind of misshapen flower that he’s planted in some innocuous place, underneath a forgotten wagon in Missouri somewhere, and that those who care to appreciate it may pop around the corner to look at it when they please—but I think there’s a self-awareness about the beauty of his prose, like the gleam of a dull cube-shaped building made of shiny materials, that says to the reader, “Sit down and let me talk,” as opposed to a more inviting author who says, “Hey, look over here for a moment:”
Updike bounced back onto my radar in 2020 because I’ve got a bunch of his novels on my shelf and while I very often start an Updike book, I very seldom finish one . I finished Roger’s Version and S. and My Father’s Tears and A Month of Sundays. I think there’s another one. But I can’t reach the end and feel that, while Updike’s pacing and the general monotony of his subject matter is largely to blame, part of it’s on me. And so on an idle afternoon during the pandemic my eye wandered over to the Updike shelf and I decided to try reading his novel Memories of the Ford Administration again (a book whose very title sounds like an old man hacking phlegm and putting on his glasses before reading yesterday’s news to a captive audience). My copy is a battered old pocket paperback whose spine suggests a dogged owner before me who made her way to the end. I’ve had this book on my shelf for nearly ten years and I’ve jumped into it maybe half a dozen times, enchanted, with each visit, by the prose of the first fifty pages—and yes I’m even hooked in several spots by the chauvinistic sex talk (which is off the charts here, rivaled perhaps only by Month of Sundays). This isn’t in the first fifty pages, but it’s an example of what I’m talking about.
Once, I remember, our two-backed beast with its single pounding heart and coating of perspiration twisted and crawled itself clear off the bed, so that we fell to the foot on a wad of tossed covers, and rather than rearrange herself on the mattress my perfect love partner tucked back her black hair so a gleam of face showed in the faint light from the street and found my prick with her mouth and despite my squeamish, chivalrous, insincere efforts to push her off relentlessly sucked and hand-pumped me into coming, into helplessly shooting off (like fireworks in a chaste Fifties movie as a metaphor for sex) into a warm wet dark that was her tidy little head.Memories of the Ford Administration
That’s one of the more florid examples. Along with ruminations on it that are captivating without really taking us anywhere or revealing anything about the character.
Bodily fluids had no deadly viral dimension in the dear old Ford days; one dabbled and frolicked in them without trying to picture the microscopic galaxies within, the squadrons of spherical space ships knobby with keys for fatally unlocking out cell walls.Memories of the Ford Administration
The writing’s impressive enough in places like there to make you overlook or forget some of the uglier underpinnings until you snag a toe on the occasional, flatter ugliness.
“Each woman’s reasoning seemed irresistible when I was within her gravitational field, and quickly evaporated when I free-floated…”Memories of the Ford Administration, by John Updike
I finally finished the novel early in the summer and it’s awful, one of the worst I’ve ever read, but its pages are fantastic. Like a person whom you know is rotten to the core and totally detestable—and yet somehow charming whenever you cross their path. (That phenomenon reminds me of Marc Maron, host of WTF podcast, expressing his willingness to interview Donald Trump, whom he claims to understand more than others because Trump, he says, is so much like Maron’s own father; possessed, says Maron, of a kind of toxic charisma whereby, despite his conspicuous self-centeredness and yes perhaps evil, he can nonetheless make a person feel like a million bucks whenever he talks to them, make them feel like the absolute center of his attention, of the world. It’s a seduction against which Maron feels he might be inured.)
After reading the novel I fretted about Updike for a while and then forgot about him but now, at the behest of Steve Donoghue, I’ve got an e-copy of More Matter, one of Updike’s “occasional writing” collections.
Turns out there were many occasions for writing.
Scattered through this volume are meditations on books and movies and his own terribly uneventful life—and that last part is what hooks me.
History, unlike fiction and physics, never quite jells; it is an armature of rather randomly preserved verbal and physical remains upon which historians slap wads of supposition in hopes of the lumpy statue’s coming to life.Memories of the Ford Administration, by John Updike–a passage by which I think the author’s trying to argue himself away from the burden of more cogently tying his narrative together.
Updike doesn’t appear to’ve done anything in his life except read and write and play golf. I read Adam Begley’s biography of the guy a few years ago and I remember being kind of impressed by the amount of traveling he’d done, but otherwise…
One of the things I distinctly remember from first picking that biography up off the shelf was my surprise at its length, a mere 600 or 700 pages, this idea that the life and career of a man who’d authored some hundred-odd volumes could be so effectively contained while still calling itself comprehensive.
But the reality is that his biographer, Begley, had no need to really expound on each of Updike’s many (many) books, or to explore them for nuanced suggestions about where his head and heart were at a given point in his life, and I think that’s because, really, Updike’s books are largely the same. They’re about marital discontent. Suburban promiscuity. Academia. Golf. Travel. Every now and then, for lack of gripping life subjects to explore, he picks up the notion of writing a book set in 1600s Denmark. Or he tries his hand at writing about a young Islamic terrorist because he was contemplating 9/11.
I think Updike, after the age of like 30, becomes a portrait of the thing novelists are supposed to dread but, being human, are likely to embrace when it comes to them: contentment. A contentment that doesn’t put out the flame of curiosity but does curtail the realm of your life’s experiences. Also: a turbulent love life, a life of rough travel, of hopping from one odd job to the next–those are the experiences that ignite emotions, emotions that need to be worked out in one’s art. Updike, on the other hand, had an imagination that, in the contentment of his mid and late life, was richer in complex ideas than feelings.
A guy who led a life of little drama isn’t gonna demand too much explaining.
And, naturally, the life story of a guy who wrote so many books is bound to be the story of a man behind a desk.
But shit: what I guess pulls me in so hard and makes me quarrel with Updike, with the idea of him, is the question of how many valuable pages a person can get out of their one simple life.
Earlier in the pandemic I discovered and fell seriously in love with the author Jim Harrison’s food writing, particularly a volume called The Raw and the Cooked.
Harrison, in writing this column as a “roving gourmand,” doesn’t really talk so much about food. He talks about himself. About his traveling and his hunting and his long walks and his spiritual inspirations and his gout. About how, in his bygone days of cocaine abuse, he’d lament the shriveling of his “weenie.”
It’s all so naked and aimless. Charming and fun.
A few weeks ago, passing through my grocer’s, I bought a packet of dehydrated French’s pork gravy. The label noted that this gravy was award-winning. Since I have never won an award, who am I to question this gravy?The Raw and the Cooked, by Jim Harrison
Updike’s occasional writing, on the other hand, is packed with linguistic ability, but very little charm.
And yet I don’t think Harrison’s life was much more eventful than Updike’s.
So why is Harrison’s occasional writing so much more enjoyable?
I think it’s largely because Harrison knows that it’s himself that his readers show up for, the persona and the voice that readers like so much; Updike, on the other hand, might have known that he didn’t have much of a persona in his nonfiction, that he was more of a floating and surgically scrutinous eyeball, and that what his readers were showing up for was the demonstration of skill, and perhaps for the insights of somebody who spends his life reading and thinking.
It got me finally articulating the thing that maybe we all understand intuitively, which is that literature isn’t a celebration of language, but of the human connections fostered through language. That it isn’t the bigness of vocabulary and brains that holds a reader, but the bigness of heart.