John Updike

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I probably spill too much virtual ink over John Updike. And yet since the blog is mine, and I'm not disturbing the peace of too many people recently, I'd like to spill some more as I talk a little about the paradox Updike represents for me.

Updike's style, the sheer strength and sinuosity of his sentences, the beauty of his prose ranks second to none in the modern world for me. Any writer I like better is already dead--Waugh, Joyce, James, Woolf, Faulkner. Updike's prose, for me, stands up to these.

The paradox is that almost nothing he has written strikes me as being worth reading once I finish it. (I except here his nonfiction--unusual for me.) At this point I have read, or started nearly all of his novels, tens of short stories (some of these I would also except from the general rule I'm about to articulate) and a handful of poems. I have never failed to finish a novel and wonder, "So what was the fuss all about?" Rabbit, Beck, Witches, Sundays, Roger, you name it, and I find myself wondering how I got left out.

The subject matter should be interesting enough--after all sex and adultery in America with a Protestant spiritual edge should be material for glazed-over reading. But I reach the end of a novel to discover that sex (at least as experienced by other people) is dull beyond redemption, pointless, and is the leading cause of divorce when it occurs frequently within marriage. How odd. That really hasn't been my experience of the matter.

So I find myself picking up another book, and once again hooked by language and entranced by sheer prose mastery. And, oh dear, it's the same thing all over again. What was the point of that? Occasionally, I feel like I have a slippery hold on a revelation, but it slips away.

I understand the Swedish Academy when they talk about American literature being too "provincial." What they actually mean to say is "too obsessed with a kind of adolescent prurience about sex that doesn't really open up meaning, message, or the art to new and interesting ideas." (Not that what the academy selects is all that much sophisticated in most cases.)

But I know that in this case, I'm just not seeing it. The prose is luscious--even some of the stories promising, and yet I get to the end and am nearly always disappointed. Is that really Updike's fault, or is it, more likely, a fault in the reader?

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Is that really Updike's fault, or is it, more likely, a fault in the reader?

I've heard it said that a sign of a mental disorder is to keep doing the same thing and keep expecting a different result.... Maybe what you're experiencing is similar to hearing an interview with your favorite sports star and realizing that the guy, in spite of his brilliant ability on the field comes off as an imbecile when talking to the camera. A sort of cognitive dissonance.

However, I don't think I've ever read anything by Updike.

Good post. I agree, and it's why I don't begrudge myself for not finishing an Updike novel. With Updike, it's the journey, not the destination. He's the anti-Flannery O'Connor.

FYI, came across this interesting tidbit today via Terrence Berres's site:

"Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was elected Pope Benedict XVI, once said that Steppenwolf is among his favorite books because it 'exposes the problem of modernity's isolated and self-isolating man'. The protagonist, Harry Haller, goes through his mid-life crisis and must chose between life of action and contemplation. His initials perhaps are not accidentally like the author's."



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 9, 2009 7:23 PM.

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