John Updike, RIP

John Updike, one of the last century’s greatest writers, died earlier today. I’ll have more to say about him shortly in a more formal obituary, but for now I’ll record simply my sense of the largeness of his achievement, something I tried to grapple with in an earlier post:

Great writers make demands on our time and energy which is why, to be absolutely frank, they can be so annoying.

Readers of John Updike will know what I mean when I say that the man, who has all the virtues a writer could want, is just too much. He’s too glib, too polished, too prolific, too kind-hearted, too equanimous, too wide-ranging, too tolerant, too knowledgeable, and, if this can be considered a fault, too good to be true. He’s so consistently and abundantly and unceasingly excellent you often want to throttle him. Of his 33 books of fiction, I’ve read 10; so I feel like I’m only on the foothills approaching Everest. As far as I can tell from my sea-level vantage point, he’s never written an inelegant sentence (although he is at times florid). He has a painter’s eye for the surface of life combined with an ear that any dramatist would envy, and, best of all, he has an exceptionally acute grasp of psychology, particularly the knotty emotional-dynamics that play out in contemporary family life.

Even Updike’s failures, say the bizarre middle section of Rabbit Redux where the ordinary-Joe American hero shacks up with a runaway hippy and a black radical, testifies to a strength, his literary daring: rather than staying safe in the suburbs (a locale that he knows better than any writer alive) he’s constantly taking risks by tackling characters and environments far outside his comfort range.

Aside from his primary achievements as a novelist and short story writer, he has merit as a poet (unfashionably formalist and always readable), art critic (where his eye-opening eloquence puts the professionals to shame), memoirist, and literary critic (more than a million words of book reviews for The New Yorker). Except for poetry, he takes these tasks less seriously than his fiction. “Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea,” Updike wrote in the introduction to one of his brick-thick essay collections. Yet even in these secondary efforts, the bastard is a master: I can’t think of anyone who has written as sensitively as Updike has on Kierkegaard, Borges, Nabokov and Phillip Roth. Reading his essays I’ve often wanted to beg him to just stop, to stop it, stop showing off, stop putting us all to shame.

3 thoughts on “John Updike, RIP

  1. I discovered his work in the mid-80s when I was travelling a lot and living in Africa and South America. Always wanting something to read on the plane, I found without fail that the only literary writers one could always find in all airport bookstores (at that time) were Updike, Philip Roth, Gore Videl and Tom Robbins. I read maybe a dozen of their books while in airports or on planes. While Roth is my favorite of the airport gang, I liked Updike and especially his literary semi-portrait of Norman Mailer, Bech, a Book and Bech is Back. That says something–Updike’s prose goes down smooth and rich like very mellow aged whisky, but I prefer a more throat-grabbing slug of bourbon. In the Bech books, he writes about a writer of the later sort.

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