I don’t want to come down too hard on John Updike. Not only haven’t I read the Rabbit Angstrom novels, but the sheer weight of his achievement – novels, collections of poetry, short stories, and essays, plays – defies appraisal. At the university library, his collected oeuvre, like the thick, mucus-green, neglected hardcovers of the collected Meredith and Balzac, intimidates the hell out of me. Here is a vocation, a job beyond well done. Art as edifice.
Marble is cold. I’ve read The Centaur and The Witches of Eastwick and a dozen short stories (the perennials “A&P” and “The Happiest I’ve Been” haven’t lost their ability to provoke discussion). As an Old Master before he was forty, Updike projected a certain complacency. Beyond the exploration of an anxiety that even when it dealt with sex rarely burned with the existential fervor that his contemporaries Bellow and Roth would have taken for granted, his novels were content to elide pain and mystery. His productivity masked a reluctance to probe beneath the surface of a situation; he substituted depth for range. The style for which he was (in)famous caulked over these aesthetic shortcomings, and was often itself a shortcoming. Michiko Kakutani cites a characterization of Jewish protagonist Bech as “recherche but amiable” as an example of Updike’s sumptuousness; to me, it’s a case of ornamentation that verges on decadence, disintegrating upon closer scrutiny. The same goes for a description of a film projector (a “chuckling whirr.” Really — “chuckling”?). Updike is often compared to John Cheever, whose own prose shone with a similar high gloss that defined The New Yorker voice, for better or worse. In the compendium of excerpts and appraisals up on the site, this bit from Cheever’s journal, in which Cheever confesses how much the younger man and his writing mean to him, illuminates the differences between the two writers:
As for John, he was a man I so esteemed as a colleague and so loved as a friend that his loss is indescribable. He was a prince. I think it not difficult to kiss him goodbye—I can think of no other way of parting from him, although he would, in my case, have been embarrassed. I think him peerless as a writer of his generation; and his gift of communicating—to millions of strangers—his most exalted and desperate emotions was, in his case, fortified by immense and uncommon intelligence and erudition. John, quite alone in the field of aesthetics, remained shrewd. Mercifully, there is no consolation in thinking that his extraordinary brilliance presaged a cruel, untimely, and unnatural death. His common sense would have dismissed that as repulsive and vulgar. One misses his brightness—one misses it painfully—but one remembers that his life was dedicated to the description of enduring—and I definitely do not mean immortal—to enduring strains of sensuality and spiritual revelations.
So the call about John’s untimely death was a fraud. I have decided, says my daughter, that it was an overambitious stringer, who saw the name on a police blotter and tried to cash in. This is a wish founded on the desirable simplicity of being charitable; one of her best characteristics. I am distempered, forlorn, and idle.
This is generous, sweet, and precise. Cheever never wrote a novel as architecturally sound as Updike, but he rarely lapsed into glibness or mere word-watercolors.
It’s hard to call his literary journalism as anything but masterful — of a kind. Odd Jobs and Hugging the Shore flaunt an impressively catholic range; he’s a pedantic but observant critic of the visual arts, and did his part to support European up and comers like Kundera and Handke. I give him more credit than Gore Vidal for awakening my interest in the perennially underrated William Dean Howells. But the limits of his expansiveness showed in 1999, when reviewing Alan Holinghurst’s wan The Spell, and I was struck by how such a tireless manufacturer of material could have no clue about homosexuality, or why there are some novelists for whom homosexuality was text not subtext.
So I’ll miss the old man. When Gore Vee-dal smirks his way to death, the last generation for whom a devotion to literature remained the only constant will have passed into history books. Updike showed how a facility for fleet-fingered filigrees could lead to financial renumeration, maybe for the last time. The world sighs, mildly, leaving no chuckle to whirr.