John Updike Essay - Updike, John (Vol. 3)

Updike, John (Vol. 3)

Updike, John 1932–

An American novelist, short story writer, poet, and writer for children, Updike is a major literary talent. He is a flamboyant and sometimes exasperating stylist, dealing in his novels with permanence and loss, love, death, and God. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

The sensibility behind John Updike's poems in Midpoint is seldom able to take itself seriously. Its vision is comic, its laughter and irony directed at itself. Poem after poem begins in humorous bitterness and reaches toward reconciliation, if only the reconciliation of a well-turned phrase that manages to settle a matter for a moment. There are many fine, memorable poems here (Dog's Death, Dream Objects, The Angels, My Children at the Dump, Fellatio), but the achievement of the long title sequence is dubious. Midpoint is a collage…. Many sections of Midpoint are technically impressive. Verse forms are handled deftly. But the precocious, perceptive, facile John Updike we're told about, after the sound and fury, may be missing his own mark.

William Heyen, "Sensibilities," in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), March, 1970, p. 428.

In The Poorhouse Fair Updike is primarily an observer, but he is neither completely dissociated nor completely uncommitted. While he looks with ironic compassion on the entire host of fools and meddlers which he exposes, his final commitment is to the spirit of rebellion. Such commitments are in some respects negative—we are scarcely in doubt of what he disapproves. In standing on the side of rebellion, however, he supports no single character, but rather a germ which resides, with special intensity, in the three old men on whom the story centers…. The final judgment pronounced by the novel … is not directed so much against Conner [the administrator] as it is against the sterile world which has assigned the old people to a poorhouse which reduces life to its lowest denominator. Resignation characterizes their condition, but their resignation is not an acceptance of the prospect of death; it is … an acceptance of the tortuous necessity of continuing to live. Indeed, the old people revert to memories of the excitement of old wars and political campaigns and "dead" issues because of the necessity of putting some vitality, however ephemeral, into their lives….

Like many absurd heroes, Harry Angstrom [in Rabbit Run] is a questing man and, because of the nature of his quest, he is set apart from the world in which he lives. Rabbit is rejected by both his own family and his wife and her family because of his dedication to "'something that wants me to find it'."… The precise object of Harry's quest is never defined in more specific terms, although it is occasionally identified as "force." As a star basketball player, Harry was an idealist who never fouled and usually won. Unlike the idealism of Connor, Harry's is based upon devotion to an inner conviction; Conner's convictions are only the ideals of the state, unquestioningly absorbed. On its most obvious level, Rabbit, Run is a story of the angst of a young man who strives for the same perfection and skill in life that he had known on the basketball court. But Rabbit does not simply need to be a winner. The methods by which success can be achieved as a middle-class family man and car or kitchen-gadget salesman are not beyond his mastery; they simply do not interest him. Rabbit has broken away from the hypnotic mediocrity of his life long enough to realize its meaninglessness. Stepping apart from this routine, he is able to see himself, and the incredulous vision which greets him is the absurd….

Updike portrays Rabbit as a contemporary saint who cannot resist the search for truth, even when the search ironically converts him into an ominous figure of death. The reader is constantly reminded that Rabbit has a gift to give to man—and not just a sexual one; at one point in the novel he himself jokingly defines his gift as faith. Strangled beneath the net of traditional Christian Humanism, Eccles, Janice, Ruth, and Rabbit's parents cannot recognize this gift. In fact, the love and integrity which Rabbit offers is so antithetical to their world that it appears poisonous.

In his third novel Updike illustrates the far-reaching significance of the modern saint's apparently solipsistic experience. The Centaur was originally conceived as a companion piece to Rabbit, Run. Its hero, George Caldwell, is in some respects merely an older and slightly more conventional Harry Angstrom; both men had once excelled as athletes, and both are enmeshed in a narrowly circumscribed world which repeatedly diverges from the principles they value. Updike has again chosen to represent this stultifying middle-class world by a small, mid-state Pennsylvania town. While Rabbit defends his values by running, George Caldwell maintains his intentions in the face of a hostile reality by retreating into a mythological kingdom in which Olinger, Pennsylvania, becomes Olympus. George's experiences are almost wholly psychological, but like Rabbit's they constitute a significant rebellion against the meaninglessness of life.

In his dreamlike, mythological world, George Caldwell becomes Chiron, the wise Centaur renowned among the Greeks as prophet, healer, and teacher of such famous heroes as Jason, Achilles, and Aeneas…. Myth and legend would seem to serve two functions in modern literature: to suggest, after the manner of Jung, universal, archetypal experiences; or to demonstrate, by comparison, modern man's decreased stature and relevance. Updike's use of the Chiron myth serves both functions….

George Caldwell is the first of Updike's major protagonists to have joined hands with community; if Rabbit is a kind of Huck Finn, Caldwell is Updike's Tom Sawyer, but Caldwell's saintliness, moreover, is stripped of the romantic sentimentality for which Twain began to dislike Tom, more traditional than Rabbit's since it seeks social rather than asocial forms of expression. While George Caldwell's dedication to a ceaseless, exhausting struggle for value in a world from which value seems to have abnegated is "absurd," he lacks the awareness of absurdity which Camus asserts to be a crucial ingredient of the absurd experience. Dramatically, however, such awareness is provided by Peter Caldwell, who is often painfully aware of the disparity between his father's intentions and the reality which he encounters. While George Caldwell is clearly the narrative and philosophical focal point of The Centaur, the novel is also, and significantly, the story of Peter's education. When the boy has at last grasped the gravity of the threat of his father's death, "even at its immense stellar remove of impossibility"…, he has begun to understand the significance of his father's life….

Mythological references in The Centaur therefore both illustrate the narrowness and mediocrity of the modern environment and suggest the overriding, universal significance of the human struggle. It is, however, on the level of Caldwell the man rather than that of Caldwell the centaur that the novel has its greatest significance. The mythological level is provocative, but Updike quite possibly took his mythological construct too seriously. The index appended to the novel serves to make the reader too aware of a narrative device which, in the hands of a less skillful writer, would be little more than a gimmick. Any referential system of this kind must be organic to the work of art which it serves….

Clearly one of the most skillful stylists of our age, Updike has nonetheless been challenged by numerous critics for becoming so involved with stylistic technique that he fails to create either intensity or scope. The critic, to be sure, is traditionally suspicious of technical adroitness, especially (and probably unreasonably) when that adroitness is associated with a New Yorker apprenticeship. Updike has chosen to give us insights into the modern world through the commonplace; he reveals to us the drama of the common man, a representative twentieth-century type who is often either dead-beat or slob, but whose significance, Updike urges, must not be slighted. His major creative problem is to stimulate us to see this significance without resorting to the sentimental, the sensational, or the sordid.

It is here that his technical adroitness serves him in good stead. The refinements and subtleties of language ask us to pause over characters who would otherwise seem undeserving of our attention, to see drama in conventional middle-class situations which would otherwise seem singularly undramatic. Updike's hero invariably suffers from the weariness which Camus described as "Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep…." To his characteristic technical adroitness Updike adds a mythological superstructure in The Centaur to reinforce the significance of the drama he depicts. Here, too, Updike's stylistic virtuosity assists him in achieving graceful, economical transitions between Olinger and Olympia.

David D. Galloway, "The Absurd Man as Saint," in his The Absurd Hero in American Fiction, revised edition, University of Texas Press, 1970, pp. 21-50.

John Updike's Rabbit Redux, touted by The New York Times as perhaps the best American novel of 1971, is hardly that, and one does not need to have read very much of the competition to speak with assurance. It is a novel so jarring and offensive to both mind and taste that it is very likely to send many readers back to its predecessor Rabbit, Run, published in 1960, to see how they could have been so wrong. They were not…. [Rabbit, Run] was a real fictional document of the Fifties, that period in American life which lasted from roughly 1948 to 1966 or so. Considering the real virtues of that early novel, and even granting Updike's somewhat disappointing work since then, the breathtaking ineptitude of the recent one is surprising….

Updike himself it is a sad story re-told: yet another of our novelists has followed his thoroughly American urge to self-destruct as a serious writer by trying, in a phrase brought to mind by the book itself, to "shoot the moon," to have both critical and financial success, to be famous, socially significant, and an artist as well. Sadly, there simply is not enough of him to go around….

Whatever its shortcomings Rabbit, Run is very good on the simultaneous mystery and banality of self and place, on the characters' fear of loneliness and their inability to reach out. The problem of grace, the dilemma of responsibility versus freedom, all rise out of specific events, observed detail, compassion, and real emotion…. There is much to praise here; it works.

Rabbit Redux is exactly opposite. Partly the problem is a technical one, perhaps because Updike wanted to remain consistent, perhaps because he was kidding himself. The angle of narration is maintained, but the suspension of judgment which made the narration effective is gone. Updike no longer wonders; he knows. Here is a message, a message which rises out of stiff, unyielding abstractions, out of poppsychology, and out of fashionable attitudes one must apparently share if one is to remain long in favor along the Hudson where they beat the drums. Having denied himself the privilege of telling us what his story "means," Updike aims to "show" us. Is not that how it is supposed to be done?…

One thing that has happened since Rabbit, Run is that Updike has developed a social conscience, something hostile critics were always saying he did not have. One is tempted to say, in fact, that he has nothing else…. Updike's social perceptions, hardly in evidence until this novel, have already stiffened into attitudes, para-political positions which so limit and define his imaginative response to his subject that to read the novel is to be taken on a guided tour of virtually every negative cliché that can be applied to America today…. Whatever observed particulate reality is reflected in his language (and there is a lot of it, Updike has always been strong in that), it is selected and presented so didactically that the novel takes on the texture of allegory, only without allegory's responsibility to be consistent….

It is not that Updike's implied attitudes are wrong. Most of his readers will agree with many or all of them. It is that taken in the aggregate, presented with such consistently humorless solemnity, they are oppressive, and finally, we sense, a lie. Things are simply not that bad. Image follows predictable image of ugliness, sterility, decay, hostility, and betrayal…. [Both] Updike and his early reviewers seem to have opted for what Whitehead called the "Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness," mistaking a trite list of all the things wrong with America for the real thing….

[A] kind of gratuitous symbol mongering marks the novel's most serious failure. However much we may disagree with a novelist's implied values and judgments of the reality we perceive, we ought to leave him free to use language as he sees fit, so long as he remains consistent. Through most of this novel, when he is talking about Rabbit and the world he inhabits, Updike's use of language is "realistic."…

[But] whenever certain characters and subjects intrude, Updike suddenly shifts gears and becomes another kind of writer, superimposing a second point of view on top of the first, another whole layer of reality with an implied morality often directly contradictory to the first, with which it is impossible to argue…. I am reminded of the creative writing student of a friend's, who having been praised for a short story of hers rather simply and realistically describing some adolescent crisis or other was urged to submit it to the campus literary magazine. She promised to, only after taking it home for a week end and "putting in the symbols." This is exactly what Updike has done, intentionally creating a wholly specious "second meaning," placing his "symbolic" characters Skeeter and Jill simultaneously within and outside the moral logic of the rest of the novel and creating a false dichotomy between them and the other characters, who have to muddle along on the literal level alone. To put it simply as it works itself out in the novel, some characters are morally accountable for what they do and others are not.

Eugene Lyons, "John Updike: The Beginning and the End," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIV, No. 2, 1972, pp. 44-59.

The eye of Eternity regards those twin impostors of literary fashion, Change and sameness, in the cold light of truth and sees that each one's claim is spurious. The individual writer's ripeness is all. Consider The New Yorker's and Knopf's very own John Updike. In an age of literary experimentation and post-modernist fiction, anti-stories and self-destruct prose probes, Updike's conventional, "arty," egoburdened stories still manage to hold uncommonly well, much better in fact than those of almost all of his nearest competitors. Not because they possess the freshness of novelty, not because they conserve the choicest yield of the past. The special merit of Updike's fictions is that they have—often enough to justify our continued interest—a penetrative power, a high seriousness, generally lacking in other Establishment writers.

Where these others are unable to conceal their essential shallowness, their blind compulsion to write in the absence of pretext and reason, Updike gives us visions, modulations, resonances, sensory patterns that enrich our lives and enlarge our understanding of circumstantial and motivational processes. Inflated poseur that he undeniably is at times (for example, his trivial little book of verse, Midpoint, 1969), he has added more to our literature in the last two decades than has any other American writer besides Saul Bellow.

Samuel I. Bellman, in Studies in Short Fiction, Summer, 1972, pp. 293-96.

It occurred to me that perhaps with these stories [Museums and Women] Updike has written himself into some tight corner, has moved deeper into the house, the past, the contemplative address to oneself. All the better it will be then to see him escape. He is a religious writer; he is a comic realist; he knows what everything feels like, how everything works. He is putting together a body of work which in substantial intelligent creation will eventually be seen as second to none in our time. "Do you really think he's that good?" a voice will say, has said. I do, I really do.

William H. Pritchard, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1973, p. 240.

[Little] attention has been given to particular artistic analogies in [Updike's] work beyond acknowledgment that an interest in art is part of Updike's biography.

This essay suggests, at least speculatively, the possibility of a shared ethos, both spiritual and aesthetic, between Mondrian and Updike. If the fictional content of Updike is genre-like, his handling of it often partakes of a method grounded in abstraction of a manner analogous to Mondrian, pointing toward a philosophical frame which may be explained in terms of Dutch art.

Both Mondrian and Updike reveal in their development a desire to pursue what in Mondrian is called the "always further," the quest for a complete and even universal vision through an absolute artistic outcome. Both men affirm something of a mythic pattern that human society at a given moment is a spatial expression of an equilibrium between the individual and the universal. Perhaps, also, the desideratum pursued by many Updike protagonists may be better understood according to Mondrian's faith in dynamic equilibrium propounded in his essays and manifested in paint….

Updike's own procedure for securing a state of equilibrium frequently involves a complex interaction between past and present which blurs the distinction between the two periods and obscures causality in its temporal sense but gives instead a kind of spatial paradigm. Significantly, Updike tends to equate mythology with equilibrium in Of the Farm….

Updike is a novelist of iteration and parallelism, repeating key scenes by way of backward and forward illumination. Frequently, repeated scenes are presented according to a paired scheme, as in Rabbit, Run. Events leading up to the climax of this novel are repeated in nearly reverse order from the climax. Throughout the first part of Rabbit, Run Harry Angstrom meets people who offer him various kinds of help and comfort but usually in accordance with horizontally directed charity and ethical systems; after the climax where his wife accidentally drowns their baby, he again encounters each of these people who reduce him even farther on a declining plane….

Couples offers possibly the richest source for understanding Updike's indebtedness to Dutch art and aesthetics generally, and Mondrian specifically. Piet Hanema's love of snug, right-angled things can be seen also in the author's fictional town, Tarbox. The couples themselves live in suburban catacombs as a number of marital units blocked against and interacting with one another. Although ten couples figure in the novel, Updike concentrates asymmetrically on three couples in particular—the Hanemas, Whitmans, and Thornes, the primary colors, as it were. As couples each duet is striving for a satisfactory equation between the universal and individual within marriage, but the rampant extramarital affairs betray the extent of failure in this pursuit. Unfortunately, for them, as for the antecedent Harry Angstrom of Rabbit, Run, equilibrium through sexuality proves disappointing. Life for the couples is too often a search for objects and people for practical or selfish use and indulgence, that is, a horizontal economy rather than a categorical imperative….

Updike's reliance on minute details and his penchant for symmetry separate him from the austere Mondrian; nevertheless, his aesthetic structures and the moral values of his protagonists, derivative possibly from a shared Calvinism, relate Updike to the achieved simplicity of Mondrian, especially with reference to the metaphoric balancing of horizontal and vertical.

Edward T. Jones, "An Art of Equilibrium: Piet Mondrian and John Updike," in Connecticut Critic (reprinted with the permission of Edward T. Jones), March, 1973, pp. 4-10.

[Museums and Women] is not as good as The Same Door, The Music School, or Pigeon Feathers, earlier collections of Updike's short stories. The language has lost its verve and evocativeness; the plots are, if possible, less pronounced; the images less sharp, less sufficient to move the story along, and the subject matter more limited than ever to the bubbles of middle-class existence. Perhaps the point of view has become more sophisticated, if occasionally seeing a story through the eye of someone other than the first person narrator can be called more sophisticated, but even here the omniscient narrator, when he is used, still sounds very much like the usual first person narrator, that is to say, like John Updike, and the same old Updike at that.

Sex is still the obsession of the characters, but they do not seem to enjoy it very much, whether it is in bed or in the car or in the bathroom or wherever they find its urge overpowering them; and in contrast to the earlier stories, sex rarely transcends animal passion to become a profound or deep experience. Updike seems to be telling us for the hundredth time that the world is dehumanized and that people have become commodities to be managed, manipulated, used for one's own purposes, with the result that men have become lifeless, hard, brittle, and their life ultimately absurd. But this reader, at least, senses that this theme, at which Updike was once effective, is worn out, stale, that he is reading the same story he has read before, and that increasingly the variations are becoming more strained, more contrived. To feel that one has read before a story with the same characters in the same insipid circumstances in only thinly disguised variations and to feel that the writer knows it, too, is not aesthetically satisfying.

A sense of weariness, even of whining, permeates the stories, and though Updike, like so many contemporary writers, would like to have us believe that the whine is really the wisdom of a modern Ecclesiastes reminding us that "vanity of vanities all is vanity" in Tarbox, I am not convinced. Even when the old whine is placed in new wine skins as in his stories in the section entitled "Other Modes"—where prehistoric animals in the Jurassic period reenact the same intrigues, carry on the same inane conversations with the same futility and ennui at the same old cocktail parties of middle-class human families—I find the drink Updike serves to be flat, tasteless, even uric. The modes are different only because the time and place have been changed….

Updike has not entirely lost the sense that life is mysterious, that love is ineffable, undying, and forgives much. He can describe a day which is memorable, separating it from all other days of a family's life, because a pet rabbit was dying, that men have memories impossible to keep, yet impossible to discard. But these days, these moments, these memories are, I'm afraid, becoming more and more rare in his too frequently told twice-told tales.

Elmer F. Suderman, "Alas—Updike's Twice-Told Tales-Poor, Uric," in The Carleton Miscellany, Spring/Summer, 1973, pp. 153-55.

Precocious, original, distinctly not a loner, a writer in the postwar suburban style who associated himself with families, townships, churches, citizens' committees, Updike became a novelist of "society" in the Fifties, the age of postwar plenty and unchallenged domesticity for both sexes when many once-poor Americans, moving to the suburbs, felt they were at last coming into their reward. Domesticity is a dominant subject of Updike's world—and so is the unavailing struggle against it, as in one of his best novels, Rabbit, Run. But there is in even the lucid emotions of Rabbit, Run, in the filial tenderness of The Centaur, a kind of brilliant actionlessness, a wholly mental atmosphere. Updike, thanks not least to the marvelous movement within postwar society and its unprecedented interchange of classes, backgrounds, social information, is an extremely adroit and knowledgeable observer of society and its customs. He likes to put Presidents into his work as a way of showing that President Buchanan (ancient history) and President Kennedy (the Sixties) are the real landmarks. But such historic moments just serve to date the personal mythology in his characters' minds; they are never forces. There is no struggle with American society; its character is fixed, though nothing else is.

Updike's characters represent many things to him; he glosses all his own novels. And because Updike fancies them as many-sided and intellectual designs, they are unusually distinct and memorable among characters in contemporary fiction. They always mean. Updike's fiction is distinguished by an unusually close interest in every character he writes about. But these characters who represent so much never struggle with anything except the reflections in their minds of a circumscribing reality that seems unalterable. Updike is a novelist of society who sees society entirely as a fable. It stands still for him to paint its picture; it never starts anything. On the other hand, it is always there to say "American," now and in the future—Updike's first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, started with the future as tyranny, institutions that are there to say that institutions always take over….

Updike is in the best sense of the word an intellectual novelist, a novelist of paradox, tension and complexity who as a college wit in the Fifties learned that we are all symbols and inhabit symbols. His easy mastery of social detail never includes any sense of American society as itself a peculiar institution, itself the dynamo, the aggressor, the maker of other people's lives. Society is just a set of characteristics. Society—our present fate!—shows itself in marvelously shifting mental colors and shapes. Brightness falls from the air, thanks to the God on whose absence we sharpen our minds. But Updike's own bright images of human perception fall along a horizontal line, metaphors of observation that connect only with each other. The world is all metaphor….

Everything seems possible to Updike; everything has been possible. He knows his way around, in every sense, without being superficial about it. His real subject—the dead hand of "society," the fixity of institutions—has gone hand in hand with the only vision of freedom as the individual's recognition of God. This is a period when, as Updike says, "God has killed the churches." There is no nemesis: just an empty space between those untouching circles, society and the individual. Updike has managed to be an intellectual without becoming abstract; in an era of boundless personal confusion, he has been a moralist without rejecting the mores. If poise is a gift, Updike is a genius. If to be "cool" is not just a social grace but awareness unlimited, Updike is the best of this cool world. All he lacks is that capacity for making you identify, for summoning up affection in the reader, which Salinger (now "poor Salinger") expressed when in The Catcher in the Rye he had Holden Caulfield reserve his praise for authors who make you want to call them up.

Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 120-24.