Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Updike at Rest

John Updike died this morning of lung cancer. He was 76.

I'm as much an expert on Updike as anyone I know, but that being said, it's very difficult to be an expert on Updike. He put out at least one book (and often several) almost every year since 1959. These books stretch across almost every genre--he has poems and short stories and novels and memoirs and even a play. I've read maybe a third of his work, so I'm not sure how qualified I am to talk about him.

He was most famous, of course, for his Rabbit series of novels, which deal with a rather unremarkable man from Brewer, Pennsylvania, and the various women he sleeps with and abuses. Rabbit is often identified with Updike himself, but this comparison has always seemed lazy and unfair to me. Updike is no athlete, for example, while Rabbit played high-school basketball and can't get over it. Rabbit is fiercely unintellectual and lives mostly according to instinct. Updike is one of the great thinkers and talkers of his generation. And so forth.

And it's an important point. My Google alert for "John Updike" brings to my inbox every day a blog or two by an angry feminist who thinks that the author absolutely must approve of his character's behavior. I don't think he does. When he received the Campion Medal, Updike said that he always conceived of his characters as object lessons from Kierkegaard and Barth--Rabbit may attract us with his personal charm, but he should disgust us with his refusal to put aside his own instincts and see the world and God as it is. Updike was, best I can tell, the only major American fiction writer to take religion seriously, and if his critics don't, they won't understand him.

Then there's the sex. Updike's work is famously dirty--its sex scenes are graphic, frequently, and (to be frank) disgusting. He won a lifetime achievement award for Bad Sex last year, and it was mostly deserved. But all that flesh served a purpose. Updike's art was fundamentally incarnational, and in presenting the what and how of sex in graphic terms, he, I think, saw himself as presenting some vision of the grace of God. Also, he was kind of a pervert. Did he go too far? Sure, especially in 1968's Couples, which has not aged well, to put it mildly.

That being said, Updike's best work still hits hard. I begin my Comp II classes with "A&P," a story from 1961's Pigeon Feathers, and this semester, the kids have really responded well to it; nearly half of them have written their first paper on the story. (And Updike died on the day I'm conferencing them about these papers, so that my grief is refreshed and renewed every fifteen minutes.) His talent for fiction declined as time went by, and I don't think he wrote a good novel after 1996's In the Beauty of the Lilies, but his criticism was strong right up until what I think was his last published nonfiction piece, a review of Toni Morrison's latest.

Sometime soon I will discuss a nonfiction piece from Updike's most recent/final collection, Due Considerations, one that feels especially poignant today, one that deals with faith's survival into the modern world. Until then, I'll suggest that his critical and academic reputation will outlast those of the people who hated him, who called him a self-indulgent racist (he wasn't) and sexist (he was, kind of).

The world's loss, perhaps, is heaven's gain, although I'm sure Updike would confess that he had no idea if that's true or not.


stanford said...

I picked up pigeon feathers at the library on the way home last night and i read A&P to my wife. I had never heard of updike but was startled at the quality of his narrative and descriptions. I wonder if you could recomend good examples of works that demonstrate your claim that he 'treated religion seriously.'

Michial said...

The two most obvious examples are "Roger's Version" and "In the Beauty of the Lilies." Neither of them comes to a wholly satisfactory conclusion on the effectiveness of religion, although "Lilies," perhaps, comes closer.

The first Rabbit novel ("Rabbit, Run") deals heavily with religion, but the reader must be careful not to assume that Updike approves of either Rabbit or the Episcopalian minister he plays golf with.

"Terrorist" is Updike's (rather lousy, in my opinion) attempt to write from the perspective of a Muslim radical. It's an artistic failure, but I do think Updike takes his mission seriously.

And of course there are Updike's many, many book reviews, collected in "Assorted Prose," "Odd Jobs," "Picked Up Pieces," "Hugging the Shore," "More Matter," and "Due Considerations." The reviews of Karl Barth in the early volumes are particularly interesting.

The final link in my "Updike Remembered" post has a more sustained analysis of Updike and religion from a theologian.

Joel said...

My Writing II class had just talked about "A&P" when he died, too. I suspect that's probably the case in many classrooms across America.