Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike--27 January 2009

My favorite volume of Updike is The Early Stories. I cherish the Tarbox tales, and still think his best form was in the short story. That, or in "Talk of the Town," of which some are collected in Christmas at The New Yorker. I like Updike for the same reasons I like Cheever, it seems: both are "religious writers," but you don't know that unless you know that; and both excelled at the short story, even though both wrote a number of fine novels.

I had, and read, the Rabbit tetralogy, but if what's kept is any indication of what's favored, I have them no more. Likewise the trilogy based loosely on The Scarlet Letter. I had (and read) S. and "Roger's Version," and particularly liked the latter's discussion of a very technological (and almost quaint already) attempt to establish a mathematical proof of God. This description is pretty much the novel as I remember it:

A born-again computer whiz kid bent on proving the existence of God on his computer meets a middle-aged divinity professor, Roger Lambert, who'd just as soon leave faith a mystery. Soon the computer hacker begins an affair with professor Lambert's wife -- and Roger finds himself experiencing deep longings for a trashy teenage girl.
The utter failure of that attempt, in a conclusion as almost final as Godel's proof of incompleteness, was somehow reassuring to me the first time I read it. But, again, neither volume is on my shelf, and I never tried to read the third leg of the set; so perhaps that is commentary enough on their literary value, at least for me.

I never read all of his more famous novels, including Couples. But sexually explicit Updike sounds not only like a contradiction in terms to me, but also like trying to describe a college text on human sexuality as "titillating." S. convinced me Updike was not a writer who could imagine a woman's point of view, and while almost every novel included lots of philandering (not just by Harry Angstrom), it was never the pornographically engaging kind, but more the flatly descriptive and distinctly unalluring act. No one really wants to be objective about their sexuality, but Updike was too good a writer to make his ordinary characters suddenly into porn stars. It was never what you read him for, and sometimes you wondered if he wouldn't rather leave it out altogether.

My favorite Updike novel remains The Witches of Eastwick, for reasons I can't explain or even remember. Probably for that reason I never thought of reading the sequel; but perhaps, if only for sentimental reasons, I will now. But only perhaps; mostly Updike's novels made me consider that the form was already spent, that by and large it really was just an overlong short story, and unless writers follow the form of a Joyce or a Proust, there really isn't much point in doing one, or in reading one, for that matter. Both Cheever and Updike had that problem, it seems to me, one they never could quite face: where a short story is concise and lucid, a novel soon becomes rambling, windy, and lost on its way to who knew where anyway.

I think I'll have to read a few Tarbox stories tonight, if only to honor his passing.

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