Updike, John 1932–
An American novelist, short story writer, and poet, Updike is known as a stylist. He is the author of Couples, Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, and The Centaur. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Since The Poorhouse Fair, I have done my best to keep up with Updike. I have also done my best to understand why so many people I respect enjoy and admire his work. The results have not been good on either count. His short stories—which I usually find myself throwing away in disgust before I can get to the end—strike me as all windup and no delivery, and I am alternately bored and exasperated by the verbal pyrotechnics they specialize in…. To me he seems a writer who has very little to say and whose authentic emotional range is so narrow and thin that it may without too much exaggeration be characterized as limited to a rather timid nostalgia for the confusions of youth. So far as his famous brilliance as a stylist is concerned, the fact that prose as mandarin and exhibitionistic as Updike's can be universally praised seems to be an alarming sign of confusion in the general conception of how the English language functions best.
Norman Podhoretz, "A Dissent on Updike" (1963), in his Doings and Undoings (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1964 by Norman Podhoretz), Farrar, Straus, 1964, pp. 251-57.
One reason for Updike's success rests on his celebrated style, a restless, exhaustive exploration of minute physical detail. The development of that style is one sign of Updike's growth as a writer. Early stories in The Same Door (1959) strike the reader as technically flawless. Updike's eye remains fixed on the physical presence of things….
The nit-picking style catches the outside of things, the shell of corporate experience we all have by virtue of being twentieth-century Americans. Yet the inside, the characters' capacity to feel and to make us feel, escapes him. Their range of response is limited. Updike's self-conscious characters guard themselves from one another, and from the reader. At worst, the style leaves an empty husk. At best, it reveals characters only potentially interesting. One does not remember them by name, only collectively—the young husband, the student abroad, the long-suffering wife. Here it is difficult to escape the paradox that the celebrated style is a sign of weakness, the outside at the expense of the inside.
Richard H. Rupp, "John Updike: Style in Search of a Center" (© 1967 by The University of the South), in Sewanee Review, Autumn, 1967, pp. 693-709.
The community of Couples is a peculiar sub-group, spawned by World War II and already half extinct. They are the people who wanted to get away from the staleness of the Old America and the vulgarity of the new; who wanted to live beautifully in beautiful surroundings; to raise intelligent children in renovated houses in absolutely authentic rural centers. Eventually, they brewed up their own kind of staleness and vulgarity; the children were left to shift for themselves, and were lucky to grow up no worse than square; the beautiful surroundings became overbuilt; the wrong people moved in; America caught up with them. Updike's slide lecture on this crowd skewers them better than any sociological study has done, or could do….
[With] each book, [Updike] position seems a little less flashy and more solid. In Couples he has written a painful natural history of Man, and it would have been in his interests to make it big with personal tragedy. But this goes against his religion. So instead, it trails off on a note of irony, like Tender Is the Night. Existence is tragedy enough for a Calvinist temperament like his own: and nothing that happens to anyone in particular can add very much to that.
Wilfrid Sheed, "John Updike: Couples" (1968), in his The Morning After (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 by Wilfrid Sheed; © 1968 by Postrib Corp.; foreword © 1971 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.), Farrar, Straus, 1971, pp. 36-42.
In its delicacy and fullness Updike's style seems to register a flow of fragments almost perfectly toned. And yet, after pages and pages of his minutely detailed impressions [in Couples], the accumulated effect is one of waste. There's something self-consciously graceful and poetic about the long rhythms of the phrases. It's all so immensely written.
Elizabeth Dalton, "To Have and Have Not" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Partisan Review, Winter, 1969, pp. 134-36.
Though occasionally drawing attention to itself, [Updike's] prose is always precise and supple, equally adapted to fine emotional nuance and the painterly objectivity with which he limns the external world. In large-scale narrative, Updike's craft sometimes falters, but it serves him unerringly in forms as different as the light-verse jingle and the critical essay, the dramatized meditation and that quick glimpse of character or way of life that constitutes a modern story.
Of this last form, he is a master. In one phrase, he can take us to the heart of a character…. At his best, Updike is the detailed realist, filling his stories with facts that guarantee belief. (pp. 5-6)
[In some of his verse, Updike is] witty…. Too often, he is merely cute. Lacking sufficient gaiety or antic imagination, Updike's verse affords few smiles. When, occasionally, he attempts serious poetry (particularly in Telephone Poles), it is scarcely more evocative. (p. 7)
Updike's heroes often discover that intimacy involves disappointment, that love is itself transitory, and that the search for permanence may hinder life…. Indeed, in the strict sense, Updike isn't a moralist. Though his characters may raise moral questions, Updike avoids unequivocal answers. One cannot extrapolate from his fiction a code of values, as one can, for example, derive the value of sensitivity from Salinger, sympathy from Malamud, courage from Hemingway. With the partial exception of George Caldwell in The Centaur, Updike's characters are likely to be true or false to themselves, more or less in touch with reality, rather than good or bad. (p. 9)
[Though] he presents all interaction as it is perceived by the participants, Updike is also not a psychologist. Seldom does he take us into a character's mind; if he does, it is never to explore the anatomy but only to establish the perception. Often, his characters have troubled souls, and Updike himself is deeply concerned with matters of religion; but his people don't experience breakdowns or conversions. (p. 10)
Because he treats ordinary people doing usual things and also avoids issuing injunctions or underlining his ideas, Updike is simultaneously palpable and elusive. Therefore, critics complain that he writes beautifully but has nothing to say, neglecting to recall that, in fiction, saying can be showing. (pp. 10-11)
The Centaur, Updike's third novel and his most ambitious exercise in personal nostalgia, is also an experimental work in which divinity is asked to accomplish what might better have been left to the author. Attempting to celebrate his father, Updike employs a mythological parallel to dignify the hero and unify the plot. Instead, the device proves pretentious and confusing…. The Centaur won the National Book Award; and although its form contradicts Updike's normal procedure, this is the author's favorite work.
… The obscurity is caused by Updike's decision to wrap his childhood memories in the august mantle of myth…. Unfortunately, mythical and actual have only tenuous links…. For the myth to work, Peter should be Prometheus, but he is surely no hero…. Most serious, it is difficult to equate the end of the myth with the end of the novel. Whereas Chiron atoned for Prometheus' theft of fire by sacrificing his own life, Caldwell does not die literally. Rather, he evidently accepts the idea of death because [he discovers that, by giving his life to others, he himself enters total freedom]. But if this is no, in what sense does the discovery save Peter? As Updike has declared, we are to understand that Caldwell will now go on enduring mortal doubt and suffering, but in that case he is merely consenting to work for his family—a laudable decision, but scarcely mythmaking…. Technically a sport, [The Centaur] must, I think, be considered Updike's most egregious example of inflation. Buried within its chinese boxes is a good short novel about the relationship between father and son and the ethics of selflessness, but that novel should not have been so difficult to find. (pp. 15-19)
In his fourth novel, Of the Farm, a tale even more limpid and natural, Updike offers a more complex consideration of nostalgia and of man's relationship to his family. Short, plotted simply enough to be classified a novella, Of the Farm is actually Updike's subtlest piece of autobiographical fiction. Though smaller in scope than his masterpiece, Rabbit, Run, it is artistically more polished, without taint of obviousness. For Updike's belief that ordinary relationships contain manifold complications, this book provides impressive evidence. In general, Updike's mimetic emphasis makes his fiction peculiarly resistant to summary; Of the Farm is the most irreducible of his works. (p. 22)
Updike's basic notion about love [is that] either it enshrines a lost past or projects an unattainable future; in the present, it withers.
So does faith. That is the theme of Updike's first novel, his only one concerned with religion entirely outside the context of love. Though set in the future, The Poorhouse Fair is only an exaggerated version of the present. If modern secularism continues unchecked, Updike implies, this is what it will come to.
Weaned from the Christian vision of irrevocable human limits, modern society confesses the unsoundness of its secularism through the institutions it has produced…. [Failing] to communicate with their elderly, modern men lose their unique chance to comprehend the human condition. (pp. 31-2)
Couples is Updike at his most wastefully evidential (one whole book, concerning the Applesmiths, is superfluous documentation). The rest is clumsily symbolic. At the finale, for example, the town church is struck by lightning, leaving intact only one emblem of God: a colonial weathercock! Though it contains a great deal of talk about God and sin, this is as close as the talk comes to providing the novel's action.
Art could have reduced the grayness, but, as Updike says, he wished to chasten his style here with circumstantiality. Circumstance we get in full measure, described in prose that vacillates between Updike's fruitiest and most flatfooted. Committing himself to banal characters, his dialogue seldom rises above their level. Occasional deviations jar like sermons in a bordello. As for the plot—when Updike gets around to it, he concocts an improbable mixture of Boccaccio and Victorian melodrama. Only verisimilitude might have supplied pertinence to this fictional Kinsey report; but in Couples fiction is a lot stranger than truth. (p. 36)
Updike always seeks to avoid moral melodrama; in Rabbit, Run, he almost totally succeeds. Formally, the book is also a success. Its present tense and short sentences perfectly convey Rabbit's physicality. Only the plot in Of the Farm is more galvanic. Even the book's repetition is functional, showing Rabbit running in ever widening circles until he realizes that escape is only a straight line out. Taut and precise, Updike's prose is here firmly at the service of object, character, and event…. [Reading] Updike brings us as close as current American fiction can [come] to "the thing itself."… (pp. 42-3)
Charles Thomas Samuels, in his John Updike ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 79), University of Minnesota Press, © 1969 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).
In Henry Bech, conglomerate Jewish man of letters (Bellow, Mailer, Malamud, et al. are variously suggested), Updike has finally found a central character who isn't an obvious version of Updike. Given the personal transformations demanded by role playing, this event (a collection of stories about Bech, not a novel) may signal that Updike is through as a writer who embarrasses us with his adolescent eagerness, about sex, about style, about life. Playing Bech, Updike loses his fanciness and his self-consciousness; in plain style he makes sex true and discovers the world outside Olinger and Tarbox, as American Bech jets about the world. Perhaps this somewhat Jamesian theme will be Updike's salvation, for it seems to fit his sophisticated gifts. But all the praise [Bech: A Book] has received should not lead one to liking it because it is Jewish like Bellow, et al.; if that happens, then Updike's joke is on us, for it is clear that Updike, having finally learned the difficult art of literary ventriloquism, still gives us, particularly in the passages on the writer's craft, Updike and Updike's particular problems, albeit with hooked nose and Brooklyn accent rather than Roman profile and Wasp tonalities.
James Aronson, "Reservations" (© 1970 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; first published in The Antioch Review, Vol. XXX, No. 2; reprinted by permission of the editors), in Antioch Review, Summer, 1970, pp. 262-63.
[When] Updike brought out a collection of stories in 1970 about the imaginary Jewish writer Henry Bech, the critics loved it. Though many had reviled him for trivia, they lapped it up when the literary world they knew and loved became the focus of such elegant satirical attentions. "Bech" was proclaimed Updike's best book. But almost everybody knew the serious case against him was closed. He was precious, facile, pretentious. When he wrote about rural family life he was too small, they said, except when he dragged in all the highfaluting mythological nonsense in [The Centaur]—which was too big. When he wrote about suburban sexual behavior he was merely sociological and much too long-winded. Only in [Bech] did he keep his place as a country cousin with a charming eye. But he had nothing to say. Just a boyish cry of "Look ma, no hands" in the prose….
As a short story writer … Updike often gives the impression of a man who is warming himself up for a longer race. Too many stories feel like expensive limousines idling. The focus shifts away from individual stories, scenes and characters and back to the writer and his verbal skill….
[It] is the landscape, the changes in weather, the surface of material things, the collective fantasies and feelings of a community that are the chief objects of Updike's attention. His complex metaphors strive to link these elements together. His goal is to achieve a deliberate, generalizing impersonality and distance….
What distinguishes [Rabbit, Run] from all of Updike's other work (until the appearance of its sequel) is its dynamic balance between description and narrative energy: as Rabbit escapes from one enclosing situation to another, the pace never flags and yet the physical and psychological details have never been more sharply in focus. The minutiae of the Eisenhower age—the paradigmatic Mickey Mouse TV show, the religious revival, the all-American glamor of high-school heroes, the cramped apartments of small town sweethearts who married too young, the hallowed authority of athletic coaches and parents—all are perfectly there.
But the verisimilitude is more than skin deep. Updike meticulously conveys the longings and frustrations of family life, the interplay of love, tenderness, aggression and lust with self-esteem, the differences of feeling and speech from class to class and generation to generation. The prose speeds along with grace and strength; the present tense has given it dramatic immediacy and yet permitted a rapid flow of psychological nuance….
In [Rabbit Redux], for the first time in his career, Updike deals in a large way with public subjects: violence, the Vietnam war, black revolution, drug addiction, middle American anger and frustration, hippie life-styles, the moon shot….
With great narrative facility he has integrated these volatile elements within a realistic novel of suburban life in 1969. In outline, the book may seem populated with clichés, but on the page they are redeemed by Updike's accurate evocation of people's voices and feelings as well as his description of physical details. Updike has always written about the inner surface of banal experiences; in [Rabbit Redux] he shows highly familiar subjects in all their human particularity….
In [Rabbit Redux] all is ambiguous, dialectical and yet, finally, novelistically resolved. There are no "Updikean" curlicues of style or yawning gaps between symbol and event. All is dramatized. There are some structural faults, and moments when characters don't ring true. But I can think of no stronger vindication of the claims of essentially realistic fiction than this extraordinary synthesis of the disparate elements of contemporary experience. [Rabbit Redux] is a great achievement, by far the most audacious and successful book Updike has written.
Richard Locke, in New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 14, 1971, p. 1 ff.
There is a great deal in Rabbit Redux, but only because John Updike has put it there. There is more activity than purposefulness: an intricate scheme of parallelisms with the moon shot; a rich (but in the end funked or slighted) sense of possible parallels between oral sex and verbalism or certain verbal habits; likewise a sense of parallels between the job of linotyping and the job of writing. The book is cleverer than a barrel full of monkeys, and about as odd in its relation of form to content. It never decides just what the artistic reasons (sales and nostalgia are another matter) were for bringing back Rabbit instead of starting anew; its existence is likely to do retrospective damage to that better book Rabbit, Run.
Christopher Ricks, "Flopsy Bunny" (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1971 by NYREV, Inc.), in New York Review of Books, December 16, 1971, pp. 7-9.