Malfunctioning Sex Robot
- Novels, 1959-65: ‘The Poorhouse Fair’; ‘Rabbit, Run’; ‘The Centaur’; ‘Of the Farm’ by John Updike
Library of America, 850 pp, £36.00, November 2018, ISBN 978 1 59853 581 5
I was hired as an assassin. You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling. ‘Absolutely not,’ I said when first approached, because I knew I would try to read everything, and fail, and spend days trying to write an adequate description of his nostrils, and all I would be left with after months of standing tiptoe on the balance beam of objectivity and fair assessment would be a letter to the editor from some guy named Norbert accusing me of cutting off a great man’s dong in print. But then the editors cornered me drunk at a party, and here we are.
One woman, informed of my project, visibly retched over her quail. ‘No, listen,’ I told her, ‘there is something there. People write well about him,’ and I saw the red line of her estimation plunge like the Dow Jones. ‘Didn’t he write that thing,’ someone else said, ‘about how women don’t know how to piss, because their insides are too complicated?’ (Yes, in multiple books. It is at best puzzling, and at worst an indictment of both Pennsylvania public schools and Harvard.) ‘Please tell me you’re writing something about Updike’s 9/11 book,’ another said. ‘Can’t do that,’ I responded, ‘because I’m pretty sure I would die while reading it, and that would be another victim for 9/11.’ Taste and tact had departed hand in hand; I had been reading too much John Hoyer Updike.
In a 1997 review for the New York Observer, the recently kinged David Foster Wallace diagnosed how far Updike had fallen in the esteem of a younger generation. ‘Penis with a thesaurus’ is the phrase that lives on, though it is not the levelling blow it first appears; one feels oddly proud, after all, of a penis that has learned to read. Today, he has fallen even further, still in the pantheon but marked by an embarrassed asterisk: died of pussy-hounding. No one can seem to agree on his surviving merits. He wrote like an angel, the consensus goes, except when he was writing like a malfunctioning sex robot attempting to administer cunnilingus to his typewriter. Offensive criticism of him is often reductive, while defensive criticism has a strong flavour of people-are-being-mean-to-my-dad. There’s so much of him, spread over so much time, that perhaps everyone has read a different John Updike.
I began from a place of love, the charmed garden of his early novels, stories and critical essays. I read Rabbit, Run when I was 12 with a sense of accumulating speed and transport I have rarely felt since, though a confusion about what exactly Rabbit was doing to Janice’s ass in that fateful scene persisted into adulthood and probably did lasting damage. (Women! Let your husbands come on your ass extremely soon after you give birth or else you will drown your own baby!) I assumed he would continue in this general tradition, his landscapes delicately dotted with the dandelions of misogyny. I knew he had no idea how women pissed. Was I wrong about the rest? Had I misremembered certain splendours? It was possible. Due to certain quirks in my upbringing, I love men easily, which is either Christly or some slut thing. My antagonism toward the Great Male Narcissists, as Wallace called them, is far milder than might be expected, and mostly takes the form of my wanting to wrestle them at sleepovers, slowly but inexorably, through the use of black magic, turning them into lumberjack lesbians.
No, I had not misremembered. After the patchwork stiltedness of his first published novel, 1958’s The Poorhouse Fair, Updike unrolls himself over the landscape of his boyhood like a vast horripilating skin. Hackles rise, pupils dilate, clean cold air crackles into the lungs. Rabbit, Run (1960), The Centaur (1963) and Of the Farm (1965) light up section by section, like a countryside freshly wired for electricity. A person who reads this Library of America collection of his first four novels would get the idea that here is a genius just getting started, and would embark on the rest of his work with excitement. That is the way I began, with a greed that approached the physical. There must be more; I would find it.
The more I read of him the more there was, like a fable. In the morning I might revisit an early story like ‘Flight’ (1959), which sees the Updike stand-in Allen Dow referred to by his father as ‘Young America’, and musing that ‘his mother’s genius was to give the people closest to her mythic immensity. I was the phoenix.’ I would see Updike himself bristling gold with fire and feathers, and I would admire the prose in its first-suit formality, and all would be well. But in the afternoon it would fall to me to grapple with the absurdities of ‘Midpoint’ (1969), a long autobiographical poem containing observations like ‘mirrors are vaginas’ and ‘penises are eyes,’ not to mention the following lines:
Our lovely green-clad mother spreads her legs –
Corrosive, hairy, rank – and, shameless, begs
For Pestilence to fuck her if he can,
For War to come, and come again, again.
In the evening I might turn to the overwrought adulterous rhapsodies of Marry Me (1971), in which a man strokes a woman’s arm and says, ‘No one’s ever told you how cunty you are,’ and regret that the sexual revolution ever came for him at all. The project began to feel like a flamboyant completist stunt, like one of those Buzzfeed articles where someone ranks every episode of the original Care Bears cartoons. This is not the way his work is ideally read. That would be over the course of a lifetime, accompanied by countless cups of coffee, by a man exactly his own age and with the same long clowning lines and flared nostrils of a Quentin Blake drawing, smiles and cigarillos in a well-defended study, a thatch of white hair. ‘New Updike,’ he might think, with a little uptick of a tricky heart, as he came across a trifling piece in the New Yorker, a meatier story in Playboy, a new novel every few years, all backgrounded by the same infusions of radio and television and newsprint, the same social glosses in Life and Time. I am not such a man. And so, nearly deranged by the time I had commando-crawled my way to the 1980s, I started making notes like ‘drink cold cum in hell’ and ‘i’m glad that god killed you.’ I read on and on, waiting for him to become as good as he had been as a boy.
The plainness of his biography offers the consolations of the lumberyard: all that neatly stacked blond wood, a testament not just to his soundness and his industry, but to some rich green complacency in the valley that grew him. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1932 to Wesley and Linda Hoyer Updike. His parents, and grandparents, rocked him like a handmade cradle; in ‘Midpoint’ he calls himself the fifth point of their star. ‘I was made to feel that I could do things. If you get this feeling early and can hold it until you’re 15, you tend never to lose it.’
The one reverberating trauma of his childhood seems to have been the family’s 1945 move from Shillington, where he spent the first 13 years of his life, to a farm in Plowville, after his mother made a command decision to buy the house where she had been born in 1904 and return them to a place she remembered as paradise. The solitude there verged on quarantine; the close harmonies of his four elders (his mother’s parents lived with them) repeated, turned dissonant, and set his teeth on edge; the place almost certainly made him a writer. Linda, who possessed literary aspirations for both of them, and who published her own stories in the New Yorker after her son became a fixture there, had believed it would, and she was right, but he never really forgave her. It is his father’s teacherly portrait that is fixed with so much sympathy in the National Book Award-winning The Centaur, but it is his mother’s figure that walks the halls of his fiction, wearing through the floorboards in her rounds, casting illumination on the walls and ceilings. She throws her voice and her atmospheres through his keyholes; it is his mother’s eye that examines his characters’ wives, to see whether they are good enough for him. ‘He knew he and his mother were regarded as having been unusually, perhaps unnaturally close; when in fact between themselves the fear was that they were not close enough,’ he wrote in ‘A Sandstone Farmhouse’ (1990). In a fine late interview Barbara Probst Solomon asked him about his habit of painting women in his fiction, rather than inhabiting them. ‘I suppose I’m male enough to be more excited by the outsides of women than their insides,’ he began.
I don’t know. My mother was a very eloquent woman who was constantly offering to share her thoughts with me, and maybe I got an overdose of female thought early. There’s a kind of a heat about female confidences, this tremendous female heat, and you sort of run backwards and try to find some guys to play a little softball with. But, oh, there’s this sense of women being almost too much, too wonderful, too sensitive, and yet somehow wounded – wounded I suppose by their disadvantage within the society.
If I linger here, it is because this is the ground that gives us some of his best stories and most unusual perceptions. Here he was tormented by a sense of immensity that sometimes leaned down to peer at him through its microscope, or descended from a screaming height to chase him through the streets. He felt his smallness, a single squirm in an unbearable swarm. The slow-ticking clock on the wall took little bites of him, his eyes were bright with hayfever, his asthmatic lungs gasped for air. The halo of selfhood had descended: one minute it was wide enough to circle the globe, and the next minute it was tight enough to squeeze the breath out of him. What must he do – how must he underline and lift himself – to ensure that God did not ever let him die?
The sudden telescoping shift from the personal to the geological to the spheres that is so typical of his writing is born from this black adolescent panic. He becomes capable of expanding like a gas, flying us in an instant from an aching molar to the great groaning mantle of earth to a crater on a moon of Mars. ‘As David ran, a grey planet rolled inches behind his neck,’ he writes in ‘Pigeon Feathers’ (1962). Updike was brought up as a Christian, he would continue as a Christian, pinned to belief by the question: ‘What anchors any of us in our places, keeps us from flying off the face of the earth?’ All here, on the patch of family land that plucked him out of the run of common people. Here too, presumably, he experienced the turbo-puberty that would first exhilarate and later exhaust his reading public.
But after these adolescent years a smoothness sets in, as if he is living the dream of a life of a writer instead of an actual one. There is a departure for Harvard in 1950, and a marriage while still at school to Mary Pennington, a fine arts major from Radcliffe. There are a few years as a staff writer at the New Yorker, where he produces Talk of the Town pieces with the same facility that he produced cartoons and poems for the Harvard Lampoon. Nothing much happens, and what does happen is reliably transcribed into the work. He stutters and has psoriasis; his characters stutter and have psoriasis. While he is married to Mary, the wives in his fiction march forth as his conception of her: self-serious, clutching tight to the progressive politics she inherited from her Unitarian minister father. When he begins to feel restless at the New Yorker and moves their young family to Ipswich, Massachusetts, beach views and shingled houses and the irresistible baby toes of neighbours’ wives begin to appear. The affair with Joyce Harrington in 1962 that nearly ended his marriage is so lightly fictionalised in Marry Me that it practically floats: ‘You’re great. You’re a great blonde. When you get up, it’s like the flag being raised. I want to pledge allegiance.’ When he and Mary finally divorce in 1976 and he marries Martha Ruggles Bernhard soon after, Janice emerges in the next Rabbit book totally changed: ‘I was married to another wife,’ Updike blithely explains in the introduction to Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels, ‘which may help account for Janice’s lusty rejuvenation.’
‘Can I ask you something?’ I asked the members of my Updike Support Group one by one. ‘Do you remember Rabbit Redux? Like, at all?’ What I really meant was: ‘Am I insane?’ Had I alone been entrusted with the burden of this book’s contents? Had we forgotten, as a society, that the 1971 sequel to Rabbit, Run contains a scene of Rabbit reading The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass out loud while a black man rapes a hippy girl who, earlier, spent several pages speaking entirely in rhyme? Don’t worry: she likes it, and then dies in a fire at the end.
Rabbit Redux finds Rabbit working as a printer alongside his father, the lobotomised Janice so invigorated by an affair with a car salesman that she seems washed of all memory of drowning her own daughter, as the year 1969 gathers to a blaze in the background. Janice moves out in a cloud of pink self-actualisation, and Rabbit, understandably, invites a barely legal flower child called Jill and a self-appointed black Messiah called Skeeter to live with him. He doesn’t want to fuck Jill at first, but soon, like magic, ‘small curdled puddles of his semen … appear on her skin, and though easily wiped away leave in his imagination a mark like an acid-burn on her shoulders, her throat, the small of her back; he has the vision of her entire slender fair flexible body being eventually covered with these invisible burns.’ If you were worried that somewhere in this sweeping tetralogy Rabbit wasn’t going to ejaculate all over a teenager and then compare the results to a napalmed child, you can rest easy.
Rabbit Redux was once heralded as a masterpiece and the fulfilment of his promise – most complexly by Anatole Broyard, who at the time was passing for white. (Updike’s loving and thorough biographer Adam Begley offers the following hedge: ‘His judgment is complicated by that experience but not necessarily invalidated; few critics can have devoted more thought to what it means to be black in America.’ No further questions.) Broyard reserves special praise for the characterisation of Skeeter, who ‘goes beyond the familiar anger and rhetoric into the wild humour blacks no longer seem to allow themselves’. In practical terms, this means that he spends a lot of time pumping Jill full of drugs while looking like a lizard, and masturbating evilly to slave narratives with an arm ‘long as an eel, feeding’. ‘Daring to make a black man not just a villain but a would-be Antichrist; daring to stage the rape of a white girl by a black man; or simply daring to dip into a black man’s point of view – in the morally strident 1960s, in the heyday of the Black Power movement, Updike was taking a risk,’ Begley writes. ‘A load of coercive self-righteousness (what today we would call political correctness),’ he adds, ‘could easily have landed on Updike had Skeeter, and the graphic descriptions of Skeeter having sex with Jill, been misconstrued.’
In a chronological reading, the serious lapse in form comes earlier – with Couples (1968), the novel that chronicled the adulterous whirlwind of the early Ipswich years and notoriously made Updike a million dollars. Perhaps I am more puritanical than I realised, because the mere thought of wife-swapping in New England against the backdrop of the Vietnam War sinks my heart like a stone to the riverbed of my body; even so, I can say with reasonable assurance that the book is bad. Something chants behind the prose, even when it’s good: waste, waste, waste, waste. Sodden somehow, as if the sad Old Fashioned that Janice was drinking at the beginning of Rabbit, Run had spilled and seeped into the text. Dim, carpeted, brown, pressing our faces perpetually into the plaid of some couch. It is also the book in which Updike becomes 25 per cent more interested in feet, which is not something the world needed.
As I read I actually felt my teeth getting stronger, like a teenage dinosaur. I wanted to grab at the waist, wrench and kill – what? Some part of my own history, the story of my grandparents crawling home drunk after bridge games in the new suburban paradises my grandfather helped build, dressed in the loudest of loud checks. Updike’s reliably beautiful descriptions, always his strength far above dialogue, plot and characterisation, now betrayed my faith on every other page: how can a man who lights on the phrase ‘tulip sheen’ to describe the skin of a woman’s breast use a racial slur to describe another woman’s labia in the same book? Some cruelty in him moves to the forefront, as well as a burgeoning distaste for the politics of the counterculture whose sexual advances made it possible for him to write in extended milky detail about swingers breastfeeding one another in the bathroom.
Either way, some absolute angel lifts and moves on in the late 1960s. His biographer assigns it to the assassination of JFK – sure, why not? It seems to occur at the same time as Updike decides to turn from adolescent inwardness to history as it happens: the news is now piped from radios and corner speakers, underscored by the political conversations that flow between moustaches in bars, on golf courses, on used-car lots, and that are eerily identical to the ones we’re still hearing. He grows up, in short, but not into a real adult, just into a country club member. One of the men who run the world. There are still delights to be had – the Bech books, the Maple stories, Hugging the Shore (1983), The Witches of Eastwick (1984) and Self-Consciousness (1989) – but by and large something has flashed and is gone. In an essay on Dostoevsky, Updike speaks of ‘that penetrating badness that casts doubt over even the peaks of an author’s accomplishment’, though it is to be admitted that Dostoevsky is still Dostoevsky. Is Updike still Updike?
Flash. Rabbit, Run. The writing sounds like the inside of an athlete’s head: clipped, staccato, strategic, as nearly empty as a high-school gym, with only himself inside it. Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom is a 26-year-old ex-high-school basketball star with a wife called Janice who is both pregnant and frequently day-drunk; ‘Just yesterday, it seems to him, she stopped being pretty.’ His self-satisfaction requires him to take part in regular pick-up games with current up-and-comers to assure him he’s still got it: ‘That his touch still lives in his hands elates him.’ Rabbit, Run was conceived as a conservative answer to On the Road, and in some ways Kerouac was a better model for Updike than the rarefied writers he loved more: Henry Green, Iris Murdoch, Proust.
I don’t use teletype paper, but there isn’t an awful lot of revision when I’m writing – things either grind to a halt or they keep on moving … Kerouac was right in emphasising a certain flow, a certain ease. Wasn’t he saying, after all, what the Surrealists said? That if you do it very fast without thinking, something will get in that wouldn’t ordinarily. I think one tends to spoil not only the thing at hand, but the whole artform, by taking too much thought, by trying to assert too much control.
Back and forth he goes on a court of pages, doing the drills, making the long liquid stubborn muscles that will support him up to the end, that will automate certain movements that began as holy gestures. Proprioceptive, bouncing his eyes around corners, writing criss-crossing possibilities on the space. A span like an orangutan. ‘Naturals know. It’s all in how it feels.’
This is what Rabbit is: a carnal pleasure, something Updike has more than allowed himself. In the end he will not deny his character anything. Rabbit flees from the stony immovability of Janice and takes up with Ruth Leonard, a former prostitute, and I believe that Updike’s reputation as a sex writer rests on a paragraph that comes during their first sexual encounter:
When she has peeled off the stockings and tucked them, tidily rolled, into the crevice by the footboard of the bed, she lies flat and arches her back to push off the garter belt and pants. As swiftly, he bends his face into a small forest smelling of spice, where he is out of all dimension, and where a tender entire woman seems an inch away, around a kind of corner.
Later he will write lines like: ‘For their honeymoon breakfast he jerked off into the scrambled eggs and they ate his fried jism with the rest.’ Later he will write a scene in which Rabbit invests in gold during the gas shortage before banging Janice on a pile of krugerrands. But for now – for now – he has written this. The whole interlude with Ruth has a sunlit stillness. The world doesn’t dream of intruding, until he turns and asks her: ‘Were you really a hooer?’
When he is in flight you are glad to be alive. When he comes down wrong – which is often – you feel the sickening turn of an ankle, a real nausea. All the flaws that will become fatal later are present at the beginning. He has a three-panel cartoonist’s sense of plot. The dialogue is a weakness: in terms of pitch, it’s half a step sharp, too nervily and jumpily tuned to the tics and italics and slang of the era. And yes, there are his women. Janice is a grotesquerie with a watery drink in one hand and a face full of television static; her emotional needs are presented as a gaping, hungry and above all unseemly hole, surrounded by well-described hair. He paints and paints them, but the proportions are wrong. He is like a God who spends four hours on the shading on Eve’s upper lip, forgets to give her a clitoris, and then decides to rest on a Tuesday. In the scene where Janice drunkenly drowns the baby, it wasn’t the character I felt pity for but Updike, fumbling so clumsily to get inside her that in the end it’s his hands that get slippery, drop the baby.
Flash. The Centaur. An ungainly hybrid that takes on strange beauty in motion. The senses move through the scenes in full galloping integration, along with the tick and weight of actual time. Here is Wesley Updike, cast simultaneously as the gracious centaur Chiron and the gloomy, hilarious, hypochondriacal high-school teacher George Caldwell, half-myth and half-man like any father. His son, Peter, aged 15, is both convinced of Caldwell’s immortality and fears his death. Because Peter wishes to be an artist, and is experiencing the same awakening Updike experienced, the book is seen through surreal endless eyes, like mythological cups into which the world is poured and poured.
Updike is the little synaesthete of American literature, with a tab of acid on his tongue. Close to the beginning, as Caldwell lectures a class on the Big Bang while the principal listens in, we feel ourselves in the hot red centre of his image-maker: roiling chaos, free association of matter into fantastic form. Trilobites break out of his speech and crawl across the classroom; the disorder is stamping and fertile and frightening; the teacher barely stops himself from saying the word ‘hell’.
The story is really Peter’s, of course. Not much happens – a lecture, a doctor’s appointment, a car forever breaking down, a pulled tooth, a basketball game, an obituary – but for all the freshness of his perceptions, he might be the first life form on earth, climbing crystalline out of the slime. Updike is a master of that moment when the elements of the physical world arrange themselves around you and suddenly: click! a Polaroid of happiness. Peter, more than any of his other characters, is a bursting scrapbook of these Polaroids. The life before him is a breath he is on the verge of taking: ‘I had fallen in love with the air, which I was able to seize in great thrilling condensations within me that I labelled the Future.’
‘Cars, stoplights, twinkling shadows that were people, all merged for me in a visual liquor.’ The shine on his surfaces made me think of that wonderful line in Pnin, about how to paint a black sedan: ‘One way to do it might be by making the scenery penetrate the automobile.’ Pnin is a distinct spiritual ancestor to The Centaur: the sensitive artistic child, the lumbering clownish teacher who would have carried us with him into irreparable heartbreak if the bowl the boy had given him had broken, the pretty glass bowl in its iridescent suds, after everyone had left the party. There is an abyss that opens in the chest of the reader who believes the bowl has cracked that is not entirely healed by the news that it is whole. Old age and frailty and death are in that chasm, and huge yawning pity for the end of ourselves. The Centaur, too, takes place in that blackness, that tenderness that Peter cherishes for his father, who allows the expensive leather gloves Peter gave him for Christmas to be stolen by a hitchhiker, who on the final page may die.
These characters are inside cities, rooms, America – just as they are inside the body of God, which is a great skin of feeling without perimeter. As long as Updike’s protagonists keep to that perimeter, they are protected, and the immensity that so terrified him on the farm becomes their own. ‘As the sheets warmed, I enlarged to human size, and then, as the dissolution of drowsiness crept towards me, a sensation, both vivid and numb, of enormity entered my cells, and I seemed a giant who included in his fingernail all the galaxies that are.’ Galaxies, hometowns, a ‘patch of Pennsylvania in 1947’. Winding through The Centaur is a highway that will carry us into the future: the scenery of Updike’s childhood, immensely beautiful in his eyes, penetrates the automobile, drives the car.
Despite the challenging hybrid canter of The Centaur, despite the pitch-perfect quartet of family voices in the 1965 novella Of the Farm, it is Rabbit who remains Updike’s lasting legacy. After Rabbit, Run, the books cease to be interesting primarily for their art but become essential recordings of American life. They continue to be speedily readable – the present tense works on Updike the way boutique transfusions of young blood work on billionaires – and perfectly replicate the experience of eating a hot dog in quasi-wartime on a lush crew-cut lawn that has been invisibly poisoned by industry, while men argue politics in the background and a Nice Ass lurks somewhere on the horizon, like the presence of God.
They also take on the worst aspects of the problem novel, a form for which he was temperamentally and politically but not creatively suited. Jill, his archetypal Wise Fuck Child and recent graduate of High Kindergarten, is straight out of Go Ask Alice (1971), a bestselling YA novel that was originally marketed as a real-life account of a teenager’s descent into drug addiction. His drug writing is cop-level bad. Rabbit’s abject son, Nelson, on whom one might choose to project all the pathologies of the Baby Boomer generation, becomes a cocaine and crack addict, grows a rat-tail, and snorts an entire assembly line of Toyotas, while whining lines like: ‘They call it candy. Mom, it’s no big deal.’ And in the final book, breathtakingly, Rabbit bangs his own daughter-in-law while recuperating from an angioplasty. (She comes twice – Lord knows how the female body is tuned as quiveringly as a violin string to the fantasy of the father-in-law. They use a condom, in case Rabbit’s son has HIV.) You’re almost glad Updike drowned Becky instead of letting her grow up, because you know Rabbit would have dedicated whole paragraphs to her ass; in describing his granddaughter’s mouth in Rabbit at Rest, he writes: ‘Some man some day will use that tongue.’ Awww, Grandpa!
It’s hard not to see the grinning American skull behind Rabbit’s happiness. He is the recipient of some massive government programme so comprehensive that it plumped him in every cell, and which it is the poverty of subsequent generations to be unable even to imagine. ‘It gives him pleasure, makes Rabbit feel rich, to contemplate the world’s wasting, to know that the earth is mortal too.’ These are dispatches from the days when they could have still saved us, and the world.
‘Although I’ve never taken Updike seriously as a writer,’ Gore Vidal wrote in 1996, ‘I now find him the unexpectedly relevant laureate of the way we would like to live now, if we have the money, the credentials and the sort of faith in our country and its big God that passes all understanding.’ Rabbit’s life, over hundreds and hundreds of pages, is a scene of sinister American superabundance, like a Walmart that sells both diapers and high-powered rifles; he glides among the people preaching the prosperity gospel of his own body. ‘What saints have to have is energy,’ a character observes in ‘The Christian Roommates’ (1964), and in Rabbit, Run itself, Rabbit tells Ruth quite simply: ‘I’m a saint. I give people faith.’ Give people faith, make people write well.
Critics did have the high-flying hopes for him of the sort that read more like patriotism than anything else. It wasn’t just that he showed such promise in the beginning, it was that writing didn’t seem to cause him pain, and he seemed somehow able to love everything he had ever done, though he might occasionally express gentle retrospective regret over terminology or excess. Updike dresses Rabbit in an Uncle Sam costume and marches him in a hometown parade; together, the two of them are the happiest fucking country this world has ever seen. As he writes elsewhere,
Don’t read your reviews,
you are the only land.
The quartet that begins so musically and irresistibly with the phrase ‘Boys are playing basketball’ ends with Rabbit beating a black teenager at one-on-one just before suffering a massive heart attack; he can make old-school shots, we’re told, that kids don’t even try anymore. The teenager – a drug dealer, it’s implied – nervously retrieves his backpack and abandons him. This is fiction that Reagan might read when he’s feeling sassy, closing the book and switching off the lamp without his sleep being troubled at all. Updike, in later interviews, maintained that Rabbit would have been an Obama voter. He may have been, but we know who he would have voted for next.
How am I to write about all of him, see him from every angle? It is helpful to visualise a globe: here are deserts of incomprehension, and here glaciers of stopped sympathy, and here a warm hometown seen right down to the brushstrokes. ‘It used to come floating up with all seven continents showing,’ he writes as a wistful athlete in a story called ‘The Slump’ (1968). When he is good, that’s what he is: the view of earth we recognise after feeling ourselves shot to the moon. ‘Then something happens. It all blurs, the pitch sinks, the light changes, I don’t know. It’s not caring enough, is what it probably is; it’s knowing that none of it – the stadium, the averages – is really there, just you are there, and it’s not enough.’ No, we are here too, and we are real.
Why is it so tempting to grade him on a curve? He is so attended by the shine of a high-school star, standing in a spotlight that insists on his loveability, that presents him as a great gold cup into which forgiveness must be poured. It extended even to me: as I underlined passages and wrote ‘what the … WHAT’ next to paragraphs, I felt him sad in the clouds on my shoulder, baffled, as if he had especially been hoping that I would get it. I aimed it at you, he tells me: you were that vague spot a little to the east of Kansas.
A better question might be why nothing sticks to him. (A friend pointed out that he once wrote a book called Not Cancelled Yet. Of course he did: he has a book called everything.) He is remembered as a libertine when he might be remembered as a reactionary conservative or even as a Christian – and the libertines of literature have a habit of being allowed everything. Colm Tóibín, in a 2009 interview with Bookslut, expressed a belief that Updike’s homophobia would eventually eat into his critical reputation. (‘Squinting, Harry takes the offered hand in a brief shake and tries not to think of those little HIVs, intricate as tiny spaceships, slithering off onto his palm and up his wrist and arm into the sweat pores of his armpit and burrowing into his bloodstream there.’) The same could be said of his racism or misogyny or his burning need to commit to print lines like ‘Horny, Jews are.’ But nothing of the sort has really happened. This may be because, beyond his early work, he is not actually being read.
I suspect it also has something to do with his own body of criticism, which is not just game and generous but able, as his fiction is not, to reach deeply into the objectives of other human beings, even to see into the minds of women. If you were one of his characters, you might be ugly in the morning, he might ask if you were ‘really a hooer’, but if he were reviewing you he would read every word as one of the faithful. (God forgive me, John Updike, I did not read Terrorist.) There is a story called ‘Archangel’ (1960) that stands out as one of those cornucopic passages of the Bible, spilling beryls and spinels and corundum. His criticism is the same: engaged in endless holiday production, moving people in and out of itself like a party, what we used to call gay. He is pupilish and professorial all at once, and his valuations are often correct to the penny. There’s a reason he’s the definitive word on so many writers, the diamond glinting from the jacket. It is all things good about him, until you get to the review of a book called Black Suicide, say, and have to lay your head on your desk for approximately an hour, or find a passage like this one:
My pussy alters by the time of day and according to the mesh of underpants. It has its satellites: the whimsical line of hairs that ascend to my navel and into my tan, the kisses of fur on the inside of my thighs, the lambent fuzz that ornaments the cleavage of my fundament. Amber, ebony, auburn, bay, chestnut, cinnamon, hazel, fawn, snuff, henna, bronze, platinum, peach, ash, flame and field mouse: these are but a few of the colours my pussy is.
Well, I suppose that’s cornucopic too, in its way. One wishes not so much for an editor as for a brutal anti-American waxer to swoop in.
At times it felt that each sentence carried me further from understanding him. At other times it felt that I had never read anyone with such animal attention, all reflexes relocated to the tip of my pen. It was like wrestling an angel with a massive erection, who towards morning marks you in another way. ‘Penis with a thesaurus’ may be the punchline of the David Foster Wallace piece, but the quieter takeaway is that Wallace was a fan. A failed em dash in one paragraph gives us the accidental line ‘beautiful flashes of writing-deer,’ and before I understood, I thought: yes, that is what they are like. Beautiful flashes of writing-deer. In the end Wallace loved the sinner, as Updike wanted us to love Rabbit Angstrom. And part of the problem with our 360-degree view of modern authors is knowing where to put any of it. Wallace’s vivisection of Updike’s misogyny seems calm and cool and virtuous, and then you remember that to the best of anyone’s knowledge Updike never tried to push a woman out of a moving car. ‘I cannot greatly care what critics say of my work,’ he said. ‘If it is good, it will come to the surface in a generation or two and float, and if not, it will sink, having in the meantime provided me with a living, the opportunities of leisure, and a craftsman’s intimate satisfactions.’
If he is a minor novelist with a major style, as Harold Bloom has it, then what is style? We speak of it as superficial, as a gloss applied to plain surfaces, but a sheen can become inherent, architectural, like the sheen on pigeon feathers. He hit blue heights in those early years and his design is what carried him; I am not sure what was true of him then that would later cease to be true. There is something very precious pressed in this collection, and it is that edge-of-the-seat feeling that he’s just getting started, that it might still happen differently, that he’ll never have reason to write the sentence, in his alter-ego Henry Bech’s voice: ‘Writers are not scholars but athletes, who grow beerbellies after thirty.’
A man, of about Updike’s age at his most fictionally offensive, came and sat on the park bench next to mine as I read ‘Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car’ (1961) and cried about David Kern helping the cat die; a packet of sugar fell from the man’s pocket as he passed. He bellowed of business into his phone and then dropped it in his lap and smiled at me. He was going to ask what I was reading, but my face forbade him – we are less undefended now than in his day. Too bad. I could have told him that Lorrie Moore once lingered so long over these pages that they gave her a papercut. It’s still a good story, I ought to have said.
‘Naturals know. It’s all in how it feels,’ Updike writes in Rabbit, Run. ‘It seemed silly for the crowd to applaud or groan over what you had already felt in your fingers or arms as you braced to shoot or for that matter even in your eyes.’ All right then, an athlete. He braced and the shot went up, the one no one even tries any more. What he liked was the movement of his own arm, which kept the present world going for a while like a basketball. He was so sure it was going in; what we watched, the whole time, was his sureness. No one was looking at the basket at all, not till the buzzer rang. Afterwards the athlete thanked God, as before he had wept for the anthem, and was ushered off the court with the name on his jersey glowing white in the darkness of his disappearance. And a bad-natured ex-girlfriend sat high up in the bleachers, long after the lights had been turned out, the words ‘Were you really a hooer?’ still ringing in her ears, though still feeling a pleasure in having loved him, a pleasure in writing about him well.