From writing what he knew … Updike sometimes “veered wildly away”


I REMEMBER MENTIONING John Updike to another woman, also a Ph.D. in American literature, several decades ago, who told me he didn’t write about anything she found interesting. I could barely believe my ears. His themes were sex, the sexes, and God. What else is there – except maybe children, the fruit of sex, who he does portray, and food? Well, yes, there’s war, sports, politics, and he dealt with them all – but those things are generally more interesting to men than to a woman of my not-exactly recent vintage.
    My acquaintance isn’t the only well-read woman who doesn’t appreciate Updike, but I still don’t understand why. His writing had that quality I also admire in writers like Annie Proulx: an almost androgynous balancing of the tiny details of environment and interaction that typically absorb women with a more typically (or stereotypically) masculine sweep of plot. His subject matter was also an impressive balancing act. In a writing life so prolific it must have required great discipline, he observed the advice all writers receive: to write what you know, as in his early, moving, semi-autobiographical The Centaur, the Rabbit novels, and the Maples short stories.

    But he also dared to veer wildly away from it. He had the chutzpah to inhabit a Jewish protagonist in the three Bech books, an African one in The Coup, and a 12th-century one in Gertrude and Claudius — to name just a few of the 26 novels that account for about half of his full literary output.
    The Rabbit books summed up four decades of the 20th century that I lived through, too, taking everyman Harry/Rabbit from the restlessness of the 1950s — the mood (I gather from reviews) of the new film Revolutionary Road, which sounds like a must-miss to me – to the “post-pill Paradise” of the ‘60s and the me-generation of the ‘70s until he comes to ground in the ‘80s. The concrete details that make each decade real are rendered with loving, haunting precision.
    Certain of John Updike’s lines have stayed with me for decades, like one about a man who tried to drown his sorrows in drink. “He awoke from the anesthesia to find that the operation had not been performed.” Or from the short story “Wife Wooing”: “Wooing a wife is harder than winning an innocent girl.” I would advise anyone who is curious enough to sample to pick up Pigeon Feathers, the early volume of short stories where that one first appeared.
    Or start someplace else. Any library worthy of the name should have a long, long shelf of Updike.

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