Updike, John (Vol. 13)
Updike, John 1932–
Updike is an American novelist, short story writer, poet, critic, essayist, and author of children's books. An acute observer of the human condition, Updike produces prose that is spare and rich in allegory. His characters, treated with sympathy and simplicity, are often depicted in hopeless marital and social situations. The way in which they grapple with love and, especially, lust represents Updike's central purpose: to explicate man's metaphysical strivings through an investigation of the strengths and limitations of his physical being. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Back in the second decade of this century, Herman Hesse remarked that "Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap."… In the figure of John Updike, Hesse's crisis of culture attains what we might call a culminating expression. Unwilling to exorcise the dilemma by making a game of it, in the mode of black humor widely prevalent among his contemporaries, Updike has confronted the problem of belief as directly as did Tolstoy and Tennyson a century earlier, but with the added authority of a mind keenly aware of twentieth-century science and theology…. Moving out from an intensely imagined vision of death as its starting point, this search for a belief that might provide a stay against death comprises the "figure in the carpet" that Henry James spoke of, the master theme that, threading from book to book, gives design to Updike's work as a whole and marks him as one of the leading religious writers of his age.
"Our fundamental anxiety is that we do not exist—or will cease to exist." That statement from Updike's essay on Denis de Rougemont's writings (Assorted Prose …) compresses within its narrow pith the most recurrent nightmare in Updike's work…. The dread of Death stalks softly through all of Updike's books…. (pp. 157-58)
[For example,] Couples (1968) notably places its erotic episodes against a background saturated with news of...
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[While] Updike is gifted at everything he puts his hand to, he is not equally gifted. Thus, although he is a first-rate miniaturist (his short stories are usually flawless, and his criticism can be truly remarkable …), he has failed to attain major status as a novelist. Perhaps his is a case of talent spread too thin to sustain the rigors of full-length fiction. Or perhaps something less tangible and more complicated is involved—a subtle clash between artistic ability and artistic inclination, between what John Updike is best equipped to write about and what he wants to write about. More specifically, he seeks to abandon his natural subjects—disgruntled marriages (Couples, Marry Me) and crumbling Wasp traditions (A Month of Sundays)—for darker, archetypal matters—alien accounts of wandering Jews (Bech: A Book) and militant blacks (Rabbit Redux). And these books of larger vision, despite not always being persuasive, are in fact the author's most interesting works. (p. 21)
The Coup is a very witty book about the merchandising of ideology. It is inventive in a Nabokovian way: nothing is too big—or small—to be poked fun at. The American scenes … have about them the pungency that last wafted through Lolita. It is almost as though Updike had to figuratively leave home—by impersonating the foreigner—in order to see most clearly into the frailties of home…. Flecked with sobriety...
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"The Coup" is a comedy of racial and cultural incongruities; but whereas Waugh and Theroux use a white protagonist … to clear a path for us into the Dark Continent, Updike has the fictional audacity to project a black among blacks, a militant and culturally, though not sexually, puritanical Marxist-Muslim, the redoubtable Col. Hakim Félix Ellelloû, as the commanding figure and voice of his novel. (p. 1)
[Ellelloû] is an extraordinary tour-de-force of a character, an ideologue who reminds me of one of Nabokov's mad narrators, a Humbert Humbert or a Charles Kinbote; like them he is obsessed, self-destructive, nimble and often endearing…. The African wives, too, are distinctively fleshed-out and memorable, as are the old King and Ellelloû's elegant and treacherous associate, Michaelis Ezana. Oddly, the American characters are the least successful; in their case, Updike has contented himself with satirically outlined pinups.
Updike loves to show off his special areas of knowledge, whether Protestant theology or, in this case, the geography, geology and history of sub-Saharan Africa…. Whatever the effort involved, Updike's imagination has thoroughly assimilated his erudition, enabling him to render, with sublime authority, the look and and feel of this gritty, sunstruck region.
His stylistic virtuosity is more problematic…. Never was a writer so resolutely, so irrepressibly, metaphorical as...
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Updike was in Africa in 1973, one of the years of the great drought that reduced the always barren country around the Sahara to an absolute waste land. Out of what he saw, out of many books, and out of his own head he has made the nation of Kush [as the setting for his book, The Coup]. It is an audacious creation and there must have been some magic in it too because the entire nation is there in all its splendor, farce, and misery.
With much nerve and surely with some luck, Updike invented his Africa not the way other white novelists have done. He did not dispatch a Henderson or Lord Greystoke, some Francis Macomber or one of Paul Theroux's emissaries, or even a Basil Seal or a Marlowe to suffer his shock in the heart of darkness. Updike's book is written by the dictator himself, Colonel Hakim Félix Ellelloû. The Colonel is short, prim, and black. He is appealing and wicked, and to me at least he is like Africans I have known except that Updike knows him better than ever I knew an African and I knew them for years. The Colonel is frightening and I think he must have frightened Updike too, in a way that has done wonders for his writing.
In some twenty books of fiction, poetry, and criticism, Updike has tried to bring legend to his own America. He tried to give significance to the dumpy amours of housewives and dentists by lavishing on them many more metaphors than they knew what to do with….
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Kush, an imagined sub-Saharan country in Africa, a poor peanut-producing territory once ruled by the French under the name of Noire, is the improbable setting for John Updike's uncharacteristic new novel, "The Coup" …, and he has taken immense pains to make the territory tangible in some dazzling passages of physical description and recreation. "The Coup" is really more fable than novel. At first reading, it seems to be a number of books in one, and veers abruptly from the lyrical to the intensely declarative to the hilarious, from character to caricature; but it has a high moral point of view, and some exotic set pieces, which contrive to move it toward the fabulous. Updike has become the most Nabokovian of writers—who else takes the trouble to make such beautifully modulated sentences, or gives prose in general the carefully observed attention more commonly given to poetry? "The Coup" purports to be the memoirs of Colonel Hakim Félix Ellelloû,… an account of the events leading to his fall, and sometimes a passionate, rueful tract on the post-revolutionary world…. (p. 65)
Updike most brilliantly contrives in language this struggle going on in Ellelloû, so that the reader is constantly aware of it. In his rather pompous piety, Ellelloû cites verses from the Koran, graceful and measured in their phrasing and wisdom. When a flat American cadence intrudes into the text, as it does increasingly, the effect is like a blow. It...
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Joyce Carol Oates
What [Updike] has to say [in The Coup] is mordant, outrageous, and bitterly self-mocking, a lengthy monologue that really is a coup of sorts, constituting Updike's most experimental novel to date. Kush is Ellelloû's fiction just as The Coup is Updike's fastidiously circumscribed fiction, a country set in an "Africa" of words. And what a virtuoso display Updike gives us! Not even [Nabokov's] Pale Fire, another inspired work by another displaced "ruler," is more darkly comic, more abrasively surreal, than Updike's Ellelloû's testimony….
Where Márquez's Faulknerian The Autumn of the Patriarch presented a bizarre dictator seen from without, filtered through the voices of a number of close observers, Updike's Nabokovian The Coup gives us the dictator in his own voice, as he sardonically and brokenly recounts the comic-opera events that led to his spiritual assassination. Nabokov's presence is felt throughout, but lightly and ingeniously, for Updike, unlike the self-indulgent Nabokov of Ada, that most relentlessly private of novels, has linked personal and authorial obsessions so gracefully with the outer chaos of Kush and the drama of the "super-paranoids" America and Russia that Ellelloû's story works quite satisfactorily as a story, without self-referential props. Updike's homage to Nabokov is clear enough, and rather touching: it is Ellelloû's "opposite number," the Soviet Colonel...
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The Coup attracted my interest because of its subject matter. Writing about the Sahel, I thought, might help transform the muffled glories of Updike's ornate prose into something leaner, or lend a gravity to his religious impulses that neither Skeeter nor the author's suburban adulterers had ever done. At times in The Coup that almost seems what Updike himself has in mind….
Nobody would deny Updike's expository gifts, despite the occasional sentence that defies understanding. When it comes to such novelistic matters as plot, character and dialogue, however, his verbosity seems to overwhelm his judgment. Sentences and whole paragraphs detach themselves from the dramatic logic of the book until it can scarcely be said after a time to have one. Consider Kutunda, an illiterate, barefooted nomadic wench whom dictator Ellelloû discovers on a tour of the drought-stricken northern part of the country while disguised as a beggar…. As an Updike character, of course, she … talks like this: "I'm sorry if I seemed preoccupied this morning, you caught me at a bad time, but I didn't fake my climax, I swear it. It was a beautiful climax, really. Only my President can lead me so utterly to forget myself. I am led to the brink of another world, and grow terrified lest I fall in and be annihilated. It's neat." Now astonishing cultural transformations are wrought everywhere in this electronic age of ours without the intervening stages...
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The stories [in Too Far to Go] are consecutive,… and the same characters, Richard and Joan Maple, and the same themes—love, domesticity and infidelity, permanence and evanescence, blood and death—appear throughout. Together the stories form a single unit, rather like an Updike novel, rather like the Maples' marriage, a luxurious slow slide from grace, a 20-year trajectory from innocence to decadence.
The Maples begin, certainly, in innocence…. But they end, like the students in the butchers' school next to the church—two emblems that figure in the first story, "Snowing in Greenwich Village"—"all bloody and laughing." (p. E1)
Richard Maple is stubbornly determined to hold on to the aura of innocence while embracing the pleasures of decadence, rather like a spoiled child….
Updike's protagonists always get the housewife up the street. It turns out she is much like the wife at home: intelligent, pretty, vaguely dissatisfied, compliant, ultimately mysterious. "They like one another," he writes in his foreword to the Maples stories, "and are mysteries to one another." Love and habit draw them together; time and boredom drive them apart….
Updike writes in his foreword, "Though the Maples stories trace the decline and fall of a marriage, they also illumine a history in many ways happy, of growing children and a million mundane moments shared. That a marriage ends is...
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So many of John Updike's characters seem to inhabit the suburbs of Splitsville and to toy with infidelity as soon as the shower presents are unwrapped that one things of them as naturally polygamous…. [It seems odd] that the gracenote of Updike's fiction should be optimism—a radiant box of corn flakes in the kitchen mess, a cascade of Calgonite offering an epiphany in the dishwasher, and so forth—because his people are not so much learning marriage as pondering a way out of it….
Leaving aside the banality of this collection's title ["Too Far to Go"] (is it the "so long, so far" line of Donne's "The Extasie" hammered into Americanese?), there are several implausibilities in the stories. I am used to Updike's married men not having jobs, just as I am used to having him send his characters into the den to watch television so that he can make "Charlie's Angels" into a theology lesson, but Richard Maple looks so damnably unemployed that one begins to think this may be the cause of all the domestic uproar. "Domestic uproar" is a wild overstatement; indeed, that is my second suspicion of implausibility…. It strains one's credibility to read divorce stories in which none of the partners say "I could kill you!" or "You'll be sorry!"
But perhaps this is the very feature that distinguished them from the common run of howling, wound-licking, look-what-you-did-to-me fictions of recent years. They are the most civilized...
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