Friday, March 05, 2004

Stupid, just plain stupid little essay on John Updike in Christianity Today, written by some little smartass who doesn't know jackshit about the author, his life, or literature. It's one of those articles marked by nothing but the writer's own dimness and disconnection from his subject.

First, we learn that Updike's stories steal New Yorker space from "younger, fresher voices" -- by which I guess he means those geniuses David Schickler and David Foster Wallace -- and that his novels "are not read by anyone I know." Actually, though, it's worse than that: "... except perhaps for Nicholson Baker, who so admires Updike that he devoted a fascinating book, U and I, to his Updike obsession, younger writers and book lovers do not read John Updike." Got that? This Mark Oppenheimer, whose so-called "literary consciousness," by his admission, is no older than ten years of age, and has never read a book over 800 pages, decides that book lovers don't read Updike because ... he and his friends don't.

More revelations: the only people who read Updike are those "interested in connubial trial" and that he "reached his career apogee as a chronicler of Nixon-era sexual revolution and the new freedoms of women's liberation." It might surprise Oppenheimer to learn that Updike's comet was streaking well into the 1980s, and that late in the decade Esquire magazine, in a chart comparing writers on the literary scene to heavenly bodies in the universe, put Updike at the white-hot center.

"Updike's fictions appealed, I believe," he writes, "to those who responded to the specific theme of entrapment. If you've been trapped in a marriage, trapped in a bland career, or trapped with cosmopolitan yearnings in a containing suburb, then Updike is the poet of your condition."

Here's an idea: Updike's factions appealed, and appeal, to people attracted to the extraordinary richness of his prose, who see in his books someone who can captured the inner and outer life perfectly, who don't read books based on whether or not they relate to them -- which was absolutely my case when I first read him. I was, as I remember, about 22, and marriage was years away and nowhere near my mind. The books were the Rabbit novels, which then numbered three. I found them completely absorbing and even intimidating -- he had the effect of making you wonder why anyone else even bothered to write, and he made me wonder whether I should; I mean, if you can't top this, and I didn't knew of anyone who ever had, why even try? Rabbit Redux was the clincher for me; it seemed to capture the 1960s with such extraordinary ease, taking all the struggles of the decade and mixing them into one very powerful domestic Molotov cocktail. I still think it's the best novel about that decade ever written, and -- as all the Rabbit books are -- as sure a time-capsule of the mores of their era as Madame Bovary is of mid-century France. The fact that Harry Angstrom's life was not at all comparable to mine (or Updike's, for that matter) meant less than zero; all I knew is that Updike captured this particular human life in a way i haven't seen duplicated since.

"It becomes a simple matter, then, to explain why I don't know any thirty-ish people who read Updike. Easy and common divorce rendered Updike's great theme antiquated. Nobody is that trapped any longer. If we do not like our relationships now, we quit them."

More idiocy. That Updike's star has declined is beyond question, but it has nothing to do with divorce rates; that's the kind of grasping assumption people make about eras they know nothing about. Updike's problem is partly artistic; one senses in him someone whose themes have become rather played-out and repeated. The other part of the problem is that he -- like Mailer -- simply seems to many people, and I suppose many young people, the way Anatole France seemed to the Surrealists -- a figure who rose to excellence in another time and now seems marbleized in it, out of date. Oppenheimer touches on this before quickly stumbling on another one of his clumsy generalizations: "But Updike's fiction?dense with detail, so lovingly crafted and perfectly described?is difficult to abstract from its time and place. An even more intricate writer than Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, is saved from this problem by dealing, in his strangeness, with more universal themes."

Excuse me? Nabokov? Universal? Was there ever a less "universal" writer -- a writer who hated the "general reader," the "book club," and had about as much sympathy with the common denominator as he did with Das Kapital? How bloody universal were Pale Fire, Transparent Things, Ada or Look at the Harlequins!? They weren't, although they have their fans, me among them. I suppose by "universal" Oppenheimer means Nabokov's more popular novels continue to sell where Updike's probably don't, but that has more to do with Nabokov's own singular genius.

"Updike writes himself into a time and place and problem?say, treacherous infidelities in 1973 in northern Massachusetts?with a fastidiousness congenial to lovely time pieces rather than timeless truths." The opposite is true, for reasons expressed above; in fact, what one sees in his best novels -- in which I incluide both the Rabbit books as well as Roger's Version and The Witches of Eastwick is how far they go in their fidelity to both human life and the times in which they were written. That old cliche of T.S. Eiot's still comes to mind with Updike: felt life.

I suppose I shouldn't get so royally pissed-off by such an inane article, as it does no more than reflect a general strain of thought about Updike, repeated over and over by a new generation of critics who no longer much care for his brand of exactitude, but -- only my guess here -- haven't yet found anyone to replace him. They probably don't give two shits for Cheever, either.

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