‘His fiction, in its rather grim bravado, its humour, its morbidity, its wry but persistent hopefulness, matches the shape and tint of present America.’ This was John Updike in 1961, saying of J.D. Salinger what critics since have been saying of John Updike: that here is a novelist uncannily responsive to the ‘personality’, if we can use the word, of his own culture.
Updike, it has often been proclaimed, knows what it is like to be a day-to-day, commonplace American, and knows it with good humour. Others weigh in with the ‘whither America?’ doomspeak but Updike gets to parts of his country’s psyche that most highbrow novelists can’t, or can’t be bothered to tune into. But then Updike, it is also said, is not quite a highbrow novelist – not in the sense that, say, Saul Bellow might believe himself to be, or even Gore Vidal. Vidal, all too predictably, sneers at Updike as a middlebrow provincial, by which he seems to mean that Updike timorously fails to stride forward as a global sage, or as a ‘custodian’ of threatened highbrow values. On the few occasions when Updike has pronounced on public issues he has tended to adopt a ruefully conservative position, and Vidal has poured scorn on the ruefulness.
On the whole, and unashamedly, Updike quite likes being an American, and likes it not because America the global power is something to be proud of but because America’s vast census of small, pitiable greeds and woes is what he happens to wake up to every morning. And few Americans are more awake to what they’ve woken up to than John Updike. Geopolitics aside, if you want to know how most Americans think and talk – and know it without condemnation – there is in fiction no stenographer more wittily alert than he is.
People used to say similar things about J.D. Salinger. Updike perhaps said or thought them too. Salinger’s early stories, he has testified, came upon him like a ‘revelation’ (not a word he uses lightly) and they almost certainly afforded him much guidance. He probably read them in magazines during the late Forties/early Fifties when, as a young nerd in Shillington, Pennsylvania, he spent his time sizing up the literary exits: ‘All those years in Shillington, I had waited to be admired, waited patiently ... burrowing in New York magazines and English mystery novels for the secret passageways out, the path of avoidance and vindication.’
One of these passageways led the precocious Pennsylvanian, at the age of 23, to a writing job on the New Yorker. He worked full-time on that magazine from 1955 to 1957, the years of Salinger’s New Yorker dominance, years in which editor William Shawn printed just about everything he wrote, however lengthy and however ‘heart-shaped’, as Salinger himself winsomely described his late prose style. ‘Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters’ occupied 60 pages of one issue of the New Yorker in November 1955. In May 1957, there was ‘Zooey’, which ran to more than one hundred pages. The New Yorker at this time was the boy Updike’s literary home – his ideal home, he has said – and as a ‘Talk of the Town’ wordsmith he was honing a few heart-shaped locutions of his own. We can be fairly sure that he was also keeping a warily emulative eye on Salinger, the magazine’s big cheese.
So, too, would he have studied, we can plausibly surmise, the subsequent career – or non-career – of this big cheese, and studied it, maybe, in order to avoid it for himself. The Glass family saga in which Salinger became enmeshed in the late Fifties is very different from Updike’s Rabbit sequence, the first instalment of which appeared in 1960, and the contrast is instructive, not least because Rabbit Angstrom, designedly perhaps, is everything that Seymour Glass is not. Caliban v. Ariel or some similar beast/spirit opposition is at the heart of Updike’s fiction and Salinger’s Seymour is of course all air. Was Rabbit Angstrom a beefy fictional riposte to the too spiritual Seymour? Was Updike in 1960 learning from Salinger the perils of setting loose a fictional hero who too intimately represents the author? Or is this all too fanciful? Perhaps it is. Yet I find it hard to shrug aside some sense of a direct connection. And this sense is supported by echoes and overlaps of tone. Each of these authors can call up, more or less at will, a would-be disarming cuteness of address, a somewhat chilled, self-loving geniality. Salinger reserves his cuteness for his fiction, Updike for his non-fiction. Indeed, Updike’s literary-professional demeanour, hugely prolific, well-mannered, prize-conscious, ever ready to grant interviews, write prefaces and blurbs, might almost be the planned antithesis of Salinger’s scornful withdrawal from the scene. Salinger is just like his beloved Seymour – insubstantial, disappeared. Updike, as we know him from his highly civilised and sociable non-fiction persona, is not at all like Harry Angstrom. (There is, of course, the golf, but Harry doesn’t really like golf, or gets to like it less and less. He’s in the golf club for its small-town social clout and for the chances it affords him for sizing up the wives of his co-members. Updike, on the other hand, writes charming books about the game and claims that he would have written more books – not about golf – if he had loved golf just a little less. And we believe him.)
Updike’s Rabbit narrative, as it has unfolded over three decades, is in many ways the kind of narrative some people used to hope that Salinger might one day write, a narrative which ‘in its grim bravado, its humour, its morbidity’ would indeed ‘match the shape and tint’ of domestic America, as her post-Sixties destiny unfolded. How we would like to have tracked Holden Caulfield (now aged 63) through the decades as Updike allows us to track Rabbit. Holden on feminism, on civil rights, gay pride or even on Vietnam. Holden on oral sex. Now wouldn’t that be something! And our suspicion is that Holden’s attitudes would not have been a million miles away from Rabbit Angstrom’s. Rabbit does not use the word ‘phoney’ very often but there are times when his misanthropy reaches the outer limits of Holdenesque recoil: what is it about everybody else that keeps grating on my nerves? What’s wrong with them? What’s wrong with me?
Salinger’s problem with his Glass books, according to Updike, was that he loved his characters too well. Seymour Glass, Updike wrote in 1961, ‘defines sentimentality as giving “to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it” ’:
This seems to be the nub of the trouble: Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. Their invention has become a hermitage for him. He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation.
In this same essay, Updike ponders Salinger’s failure, as narrator, to sustain a properly unimpassioned point of view. Loving his creatures as he does, he tends not to like their friends. Thus with the interior-third-person narrative of ‘Franny’, where we are meant to view the suitor Lane Coutell through Franny’s eyes, there is – as Updike says – a constant sense that Salinger, the male author of the tale, is piling on the anti-Coutell detail with more concentrated venom than seems quite to fit with the tensely abstracted Franny. ‘Indeed,’ says Updike, ‘this impression of a second male being present is so strong that it amounts to a social shock when the author accompanies Franny into the ladies’ room in the restaurant.’
Updike believes that social shocks of this sort occur in Salinger because the author won’t leave his characters alone. He gets inside them, he puts words into their mouths, he cannot bear to set them free. He’s like a parent. Updike, in noting the restrictiveness of such authorial good will, perhaps sought for himself, in Rabbit Angstrom, a character no author could entirely love: a patriotic bigot, an opinionated philistine, a lustful misogynist and so on. Rabbit, on paper, is a bad guy, and dumb with it. And yet, thanks to John Updike, he is deemed to be redeemable. Updike kits him out with a rich inner life. Rabbit loves nature and knows how to describe it, he feels from time to time quite powerful religious stirrings, he knows how to reflect with lyric anguish on the passing years. Even his lusts, so clinically functional in practice, have within them the seeds of a celestial yearning.
There are, in other words, two Rabbits: Rabbit Alone and Rabbit in Society. And Updike daringly insists on their conjunction. He insists, too, on our belief in their conjunction – or, at any rate, in our suspended disbelief. Now and again, the conjunction too obviously fails to hold: Rabbit is felt to be stumbling beneath the weight of his creator’s input of intelligence and sensitivity, his heart-shaped prose, his smart novelist’s too eager smartness. On the whole, though, we are happy to be led along two garden paths: the one choked up with weeds, the other meticulously barbered. We are happy to pretend that they are one. We watch as Rabbit goes about his dreary, minutely detailed, small-town business; we sit in on his four-pages-a-throw path-lab adulteries, we listen to his wild, illiberal rants. And we endure, indeed enjoy all this because we know that in the end, with Updike at his side, he will permit us access to his inner self, the self that doesn’t understand what’s gotten into it. Salinger could never have pulled off such an audacious feat of perpetual near-imbalance. If Rabbit had been his, he would have had to earn his spiritual keep. If Holden Caulfield had grown up to be a small-town misanthrope and sexual pirate, Salinger would swiftly have expelled him from the page, or sent him off into the woods, full-time. Rabbit’s injected spirituality is akin to Franny’s too intent hostility to Lane Coutell: it is narrator-led. But in Updike, spirituality leads nowhere. Rabbit Alone makes very little difference to the way Rabbit in Society conducts himself. Salinger, we suspect, would not have been able to condone this deep blankness of Updike’s. He would have insisted on a Better Way. In Updike, the Better Way is closed.
Rabbit, alas, is dead – or may be dead. When last seen, he was murmuring: ‘Enough. Maybe. Enough.’ He lives on, though, in Updike’s latest book, in the character of crumbling Ben Turnbull, a retired Massachusetts banker and amateur time-traveller. The time-travelling is there because Ben’s tale is set in the year 2020. There has been a nuclear war (against China), millions have been killed, and the United States is no longer united. The federal government is in ruins: California is an independent state and Texas now belongs to Mexico. Dollars have been replaced – in Massachusetts – by ‘welders’ (named after a fabled prewar governor). The world, like Ben, is drifting to a close.
Yet in spite of all this far-flung chaos, Turnbull’s suburban life seems not to have changed much. He still takes himself down to his mailbox every morning, inspecting (in botanist’s detail) his wife’s flowers on the way, and there picks up his still-published Boston Globe and New York Times. It is from these that he learns about the state of things elsewhere. Learns, and is unmoved: his own days are as wretched as they have been for a long time – ‘my professional usefulness over, my wife more of a disciplinarian than a comfort, my body a swamp in whose shimmering depths a fatal infirmity works’. These depths are the book’s chief subject. Updike gets some goodish jokes out of America’s post-nuclear predicament: US illegals trying to get into Mexico, shortened novels by John Grisham (‘that 20th-century master’) taught in schools, law and order maintained by freelance protection gangs which are eventually supplanted by Federal Express. For Ben Turnbull none of this greatly matters, except that it echoes his own ruin: he is 66 and has a probably terminal cancer of the prostate. His own small town functions as it always did, Updikishly, but Ben no longer feels connected to the civic mainstream. Nor even to the cosmic timestream. Thanks to his diligent – and shared with us – perusals of Scientific American, he has developed the knack of slipping off into alternative time zones: sometimes he becomes an Egyptian grave-robber, sometimes a soldier or a monk. Also, from time to time, he is able to conjure an alternative sex life, his own being more or less in stasis. Cue the routine Updike sexual close-ups, the ones we’ve learned to skip.
These alternative realities are about as convincing as the book’s post-nuclear stagecraft. They seem glued onto the main business, which is to lament, unsparingly, the unsparing horrors of old age. Like Rabbit, Ben is an unlovely kind of guy plus depths and sensitivities laid on by the attentive Updike. Some of his nature descriptions are wondrously first-rate, as composition, and so, too, are certain of his several soliloquies on what it’s like to be, well, past it. There is perhaps a surfeit of that Updikean fine writing which Nicholson Baker parodied so well – ‘the blank seemed, in its blankety blankness, and blanketed blinkness, almost blonky in the late afternoon blonk’ – or, to put it in Updike’s own words, too much verbaceous dwelling on ‘her green sheath, with its split exposing a golden-brown sliver of thigh ... her discreetly but undeniably steatopygous buttocks with enough smugness to declare their cleavage’. Ouch! we tend to say at moments of this kind and Ben, for all his debility, has rather too many ouches left in him for my taste – and for his. Still, this is Updike, we’re also inclined to say: the price we have to pay.
To pay, specifically, for scenes of heart-piercing pathos like the one in which Ben, wearing Depend nappies after a prostate operation, sits facing his infant grandchild, also nappy-clad. The kid keeps on (deliberately) spilling her food and when she does it a fourth time, Ben explodes:
‘Stop it,’ I said to Jennifer, and to Roberta (the child’s mother], whiningly, ‘Why does she keep doing that?’
The baby, who had recently had her first birthday, was not used to being shouted at; her mouth formed a tiny circlet, with a bubble in it, before her lips downturned and she began to cry, and then to sob and sniffle.
Roberta comforted her. ‘Oh, Precious,’ she said, ‘Grampy didn’t mean it; he’s just forgotten what little girls are like.’ To me she explained: ‘Daddy, it’s just her way of getting used to space.’
Ben, of course, is getting used to time, and getting used to his Depends, which he will not live to outgrow. It is a mordant, tender scene: Updike at his very best. And at his best, Updike needs his Rabbits just as much as they need him.