Updike, John (Vol. 139)
John Updike 1932–-
(Full name John Hoyer Updike) American novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, critic, and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Updike's career through 1998. See also John Updike Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13.
One of the most critically respected and popular contemporary American authors, Updike is recognized as a brilliant prose stylist and keen social observer. Though best known for his award-winning quartet of Rabbit novels, Updike has amassed a large and ever-growing body of best-selling novels, acclaimed volumes of short stories, essays, and poetry since his arrival on the literary scene in the late 1950s. An incessant chronicler of post-war American mores and morals, Updike alternately finds humor, tragedy, and pathos in the small crises and quandaries of middle-class existence, particularly its sexual and religious hang-ups. His trademark fiction, largely informed by Christian theology, classical mythology, and popular culture, is distinguished for its broad erudition, wit, and descriptive opulence.
Born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, Updike was the only child of Wesley R. Updike, a high school mathematics teacher, and Linda G. Hoyer. At age thirteen he moved with his parents to a farmhouse outside of town where the newfound isolation encouraged him to convey his creative fantasies to paper in the form of stories and cartoons. Updike received a scholarship to attend Harvard University in 1950. There he majored in English, studied art, and served as editor of the Harvard Lampoon, to which he contributed writings and illustrations. At Harvard, Updike also met Radcliffe undergraduate Mary Entwistle Pennington, whom he married in 1953; they divorced in 1977 and Updike married Martha Bernhard the same year. After graduating summa cum laude in 1954, Updike received a one-year Knox Fellowship to study art at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts in Oxford, England. The next year he resettled in Manhattan and took a staff position with the New Yorker, which published his first professional story, “Friends from Philadelphia,” in 1954. Updike maintained a lifelong association with the New Yorker, within which his fiction, verse, and reviews have regularly appeared throughout his career. In 1957 he left the magazine and moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts, to devote himself to full-time writing. He quickly established himself with his first three books—poetry in The Carpenter Hen and Other Tame Creatures (1958), short stories in The Same Door (1959), and his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair (1959), winner of the Rosenthal Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1959 and numerous major awards followed, including the National Book Award for The Centaur (1963), O. Henry awards for his short fiction, a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for both Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), and a National Book Critics Circle Award for Hugging the Shore (1983). Updike was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964 and the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977, and was honored with the National Medal of the Arts in 1989.
Updike's distinct prose style, an essential feature of his fiction and discursive writings, is characterized by its vividly descriptive passages, carefully wrought in a striking, allusive, and often esoteric vocabulary that reveals the author's infatuation with language itself. Often placed within the realist tradition—a literary mode that favors precise, objective description of the real world over imaginative or idealized representations—much of Updike's fiction is presided over by a wry, intelligent authorial voice that conscientiously portrays the physical world and everyday life in lucid detail. Philosophically aligned with Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, and Paul Tillich, Updike's fiction revolves primarily around the problem of faith and morality in the modern, post-Christian world, pointing toward the necessity of transcendental belief. In addition, many of his novels, short stories, and personal essays are largely autobiographical, drawing heavily upon his formative experiences in small-town, rural Pennsylvania. The author's hometown of Shillington serves as the model for the fictional town of Olinger, a recurring setting in the short stories of The Same Door, Pigeon Feathers (1962), and Olinger Stories (1964), as well as The Poorhouse Fair, a novel describing the circumstances of the elderly in a future welfare state. Updike's adolescence and relationship with his father forms the basis of The Centaur, a semi-autobiographic novel that parallels the mythological father-son relationship of Chirion and Prometheus. Likewise, his corresponding relationship with his mother is characterized in the novel Of the Farm (1965) and in the nostalgic short stories of The Afterlife and Other Stories (1994).
Rabbit, Run (1960), the first of Updike's Rabbit novels, introduces protagonist Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a former high school basketball star and quintessential average American man who wallows in ignominy and marital doldrums after graduation. His quasi-spiritual quest for self-fulfillment and meaning is acted out in his flight from wife, Janice, and his adulterous exploits, a futile gesture of resistance that ends with his return and the accidental drowning of their infant daughter. In Rabbit Redux (1971), a sequel set against events of the turbulent 1960s, Rabbit reappears ten years older and resigned to his marriage to Janice, with whom he now shares a son, Nelson. Incorporating Homeric themes, the novel centers upon their respective infidelities and Rabbit's involvement with a teenaged hippie girl and black Vietnam vet. Rabbit Is Rich, the third volume of the series, is set amid the energy crisis and consumer excesses of the 1970s. Finding himself middle-aged and undeservedly prosperous as the head of a Toyota car dealership he inherited from his father-in-law, Rabbit reflects upon his suburban contentment with Janice, though struggles to understand his simpering, college-aged son. In Rabbit at Rest, the final installment of the series, Rabbit golfs, ruins his heart with junk food and inactivity, and contemplates his imminent death while in semi-retirement during the Reagan-era 1980s. Together the Rabbit tetralogy documents four decades of post-war American social history during which, as Rabbit's experiences suggest, the nation has lost its moral direction and languishes in cynicism, indifference, and futility.
The domestic reality of suburban, middle-class American life is the focus of Problems and Other Stories (1979), the short stories of Trust Me (1987), and many Updike novels, including Couples (1968), A Month of Sundays (1975), Marry Me (1976), Roger's Version (1986), and S. (1988), a reinterpretation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Each of these novels detail the marital tensions, sexual escapades, personal betrayals, professional disappointments, and spiritual crises that reflect changing attitudes about sexual behavior, relationships between men and women, and, most importantly, religious belief in contemporary society. The Witches of Eastwick (1984) addresses similar themes, but also incorporates elements of magic realism in its portrayal of three divorced New England witches who vie for the affections of a demonic dilettante. Updike has also taken up international settings and themes in several novels, such as The Coup (1978), which satirizes American and Third-World ideology through the perspective of an ousted leader of a fictitious African country, and Brazil (1994), a reinterpretation of the medieval Tristan and Isolde legend, in which an interracial pair of Brazilian lovers struggle against social prejudice in their native land. During the 1990s, Updike produced several additional novels: Memories of the Ford Administration (1992) involves a history professor whose ruminations on Ford-era politics revolve around recollection of his extramarital romps and research for a never-completed monograph about President James Buchanan; In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996) chronicles four generations of the Wilmot family, from their turn-of-the-century New Jersey origins through their successive bouts with religious doubt, mediocrity, fame, and fanaticism; Toward the End of Time (1997), set in the early twenty-first century after a devastating nuclear war with China, involves a retired investment consultant who reflects upon his perverse pleasures, mortality, and nature in rural Massachusetts.
Updike has also chronicled the literary life of alter-ego Henry Bech, a fictitious Jewish-American author, in the short story collections Bech (1970), Bech Is Back (1982), and Bech at Bay (1998). These largely satirical stories describe Bech's perpetual battle against writer's block, hostile reviewers, the demands of celebrity, and changing currents in literary theory. The central themes of Updike's fiction also permeate his numerous volumes of poetry, including The Carpenter Hen and Other Tame Creatures, Telephone Poles and Other Poems (1963), Midpoint and Other Poems (1969), Tossing and Turning (1977), Facing Nature (1985), and his Collected Poems (1993). In the tradition of light verse, much of his poetry sparkles with humor, clever linguistic turns, and sophisticated witticisms. Updike's critical reviews and essays on a variety of personal, literary, and artistic topics are contained in Assorted Prose (1965), Picked-Up Pieces (1975), Hugging the Shore, Just Looking (1989), Odd Jobs (1991), and his memoir Self-Consciousness (1989).
Updike is widely regarded as one of the dominant American literary figures of the post-war era. The high quality and diversity of his formidable oeuvre is frequently cited as evidence of his superior literary gifts and intellect. As Margaret Atwood notes, “Surely no American writer has written so much, for so long, so consistently well.” Though recognized as a master of the short story, Updike's popular and critical reputation rests largely upon his accomplishment as a novelist. His Rabbit tetralogy is generally regarded as the centerpiece of his literary career, though the majority of his novels have won favorable reviews and a large readership. Critical evaluation of Updike's work often focuses on his inimitable prose style. While most commentators praise his rich description and language, drawing comparisons to the prose of Marcel Proust and Vladimir Nabokov, others negatively view this characteristic of his writing as a symptom of self-indulgence and superficiality. “The famous Updike style,” Jay Parini writes, is “fluent to a fault, rich in metaphor, rising to exquisite heights in places, toppling elsewhere into preciousness and affectation.” According to Joseph Epstein, “Updike simply cannot pass up any opportunity to tap dance in prose.” Though Updike's affinity for descriptive language has prompted some critics to question the depth and seriousness of his concerns, others, such as John F. Fleischauer, suggest that Updike's employment of a dense vocabulary and syntax functions as a distancing technique to mediate the intellectual and emotional involvement of the reader. Many critics have also expressed objection to Updike's portrayal of women, viewed by some as specious and misogynistic; his graphic depictions of sexual activity, which have been faulted as gratuitous; and the grand historical and social backdrops of his fiction, considered by some an exploitative façade for the author's solipsistic concerns. Despite such criticism, Updike remains highly esteemed as a foremost man of letters whose prodigious intelligence, verbal prowess, and shrewd insight into the sorrows, frustrations, and banality of American life separate him from the ranks of his contemporaries.
The Carpenter Hen and Other Tame Creatures (poetry) 1958
The Poorhouse Fair (novel) 1959
The Same Door (short stories) 1959
Rabbit, Run (novel) 1960
Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (short stories) 1962
The Centaur (novel) 1963
Telephone Poles and Other Poems (poetry) 1963
Olinger Stories (short stories) 1964
Assorted Prose (essays) 1965
Of the Farm (novel) 1965
The Music School (short stories) 1966
Couples (novel) 1968
Midpoint and Other Poems (poetry) 1969
Bech: A Book (short stories) 1970
Rabbit Redux (novel) 1971
Museums and Women (short stories) 1972
A Month of Sundays (novel) 1975
Picked-Up Pieces (essays) 1975
Marry Me: A Romance (novel) 1976
Tossing and Turning (poetry) 1977
The Coup (novel) 1978
Problems and Other Stories (short stories) 1979
Rabbit Is Rich (novel) 1981
Bech Is Back (short stories) 1982
Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism...
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SOURCE: “John Updike: Promises, Promises,” in Commentary, Vol. 75, No. 1, January, 1983, pp. 54–8.
[In the following essay, Epstein provides an overview of Updike's literary career, fiction, and critical assessment. According to Epstein, Updike's fiction is undermined by the author's preoccupation with prose style and the subject of sex.]
In her memoir, A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton speaks of the advantages of not being considered promising. It was better, she thought, at least in her own case, “to fight my way to expression through a thick fog of indifference.” Fighting his way through “a thick fog of indifference” has not quite been John Updike's problem in his career as a novelist. From his earliest novels Updike has had powerhouse critics behind him, among them Mary McCarthy, Arthur Mizener, Stanley Edgar Hyman, lauding him, cheering him on, acclaiming his promise.
Edith Wharton also speaks in her memoir of the disadvantages of being regarded as too promising, saying of those so considered that in middle age they often “sat in ineffectual ecstasy before the blank page or the empty canvas.” This, as we know, has scarcely been John Updike's problem either, for now, twenty-four years after the publication of his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, he has published fully twenty-five more books. Yet in a curious way, just as John Updike remains boyish in...
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SOURCE: “Wicked Witches of the North,” in New Republic, June 4, 1984, pp. 28–9.
[In the following review, Godwin praises Updike's prose and wit in The Witches of Eastwick, but faults the novel for what she perceives as a lack of intellectual depth.]
Even in these “postmodern” times, the witch figure continues to excite us. Fully vested by centuries of residence in our psyches, she sallies forth with amazing vigor each time we re-imagine her. Though she assumes a variety of shapes, depending upon the needs and the bugaboos of the culture that summons her, she always brings with her the dread and fascinating certainty of change—and all the outcry and havoc attendant upon any transformation that threatens the status quo.
Witches also provide wonderfully suggestive vehicles for fictional purposes. “Let us respectfully construe the word ‘witch’ as ‘free woman,’” John Updike wrote in his review of a 1978 reissue of Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes, first published in 1926. He evolved this definition, he intimates in the review, after having recommended to a woman friend Warner's darkly subtle novel about a well-bred English spinster who becomes a witch. “Of course, that's what men like to tell us,” retorted the woman to Updike. “Either marry one of them or become a witch.”
It's my guess that Mr. Updike, being one of those...
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SOURCE: “Bitches and Witches,” in Nation, June 23, 1984, pp. 773–75.
[In the following review, Pollitt strongly criticizes Updike's portrayal of women and contemporary gender stereotypes in The Witches of Eastwick.]
After one of my male friends praised The Witches of Eastwick for its uncanny understanding of what it feels like to be a woman, I promised myself I wouldn't review it. Life is short, after all, and I was sure reviewers would be lining up to pan this silly and patronizing fable of New England divorcées who find liberation in sorcery. So far, though, critics have been deferential, with women, interestingly, making some of the deepest salaams. What are we coming to when Margaret Atwood, Canada's answer to Marilyn French, is less able to confront Updike's views of women than Newsweek's Peter Prescott, who supports barring females from the Century Club?
“The word ‘backlash’ will be spoken,” says Atwood in The New York Times Book Review, and perhaps backlash is not such a bad explanation for the book's reception. The Big Name phenomenon may be a better one. Like Saul Bellow, Renata Adler and a few others, Updike could publish his grocery lists and win accolades for terseness and domestic realism. Then, too, there's the oddly ambivalent tone of the novel itself: it tap dances so rapidly between sermonizing and archness that one risks looking...
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SOURCE: “Love Bytes,” in New Republic, February 2, 1987, pp. 41–2.
[In the following review, Enright offers a positive assessment of Roger's Version.]
How clever John Updike is! And how vulgar he can be. That the two qualities manage to coexist, each in so high (or low) a degree, in the same writer, in the same book, passes understanding.
His new novel [Roger's Version] has it wholeheartedly both ways, being about God and Sex. The initial God material is promising, and to some extent delivers what it promises, as did The Witches of Eastwick in that novel's dealings with demonology. Roger Lambert, a professor in the School of Divinity at an unnamed university, is visited by 28-year-old Dale Kohler, an earnest computer operator who believes that at last “God is showing through,” paradoxically via the discoveries of scientists. Total energy and the expansion rate of the Big Bang, he reasons, had to be in a precise ratio, a fraction off on one side or the other and either the universe would have collapsed long ago or else it would never have taken shape. The argument is developed, ingeniously and (to the lay mind) with fair persuasiveness. The odds are overwhelmingly against blind chance; ergo, there must have been a Maker.
“Whenever theology touches science, it gets burned.” Roger would rather be left in peace to unravel the quaint disputations...
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SOURCE: “Reading Updike,” in Nation, March 28, 1987, pp. 409–10.
[In the following review, Abbey gives a laudatory appraisal of Roger's Version.]
A professor of theology named Roger Lambert, subsiding comfortably into middle age, is aroused from his dogmatic slumbers by Dale Kohler, a young student of computer science. The year is 1984, the place Boston, and the subjects, always popular, are space, time, the Deity and failure. Why not? Boston has been a hotbed of Christianity since 1620; it is also the home of the Red Sox. In a world that consists essentially of nothing but patterns of organic energy (according to the new physics, now about 85 years old), the two cannot be unrelated.
Young Dale comes to Professor Lambert with a proposition: he wishes to prove the existence of God on a computer printout. Explaining his program, he gives us pages and pages of technical mumbo jumbo from the modern lore of particle physics, astrophysics and mathe-meta-physics. (“Whatever is remote from common appearances,” said Samuel Johnson, “is always welcome to vulgar as to childish credulity.”) Like so many of his generation, Dale is awestruck by science, at least in its more abstruse and abstract forms. He has nothing to say about such practical applications as the nuclear bomb—the chief gift of physics to humanity in our century.
In order to realize his project, this...
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SOURCE: “The Witches of Updike,” in New Republic, June 20, 1988, pp. 39–41.
[In the following review, Gilman provides a negative evaluation of S.]
John Updike's fiction has always suffered under the whips and scorns of outraged feminists. They charge him with an inability to portray, or even to imagine, women in other than clichéd, male-oriented ways, however high-flown their expression. He doesn't like women, they say, and is incapable of “getting inside” a female mind. I think the accusation is pretty much on the mark and from my file pluck a couple of many possible pieces of evidence. From a story called “The Lifeguard”: “Women are an alien race of pagans set down among us. Every seduction is a conversion.” From the novel A Month of Sundays: “Babies and guilt, women are made for lugging.”
Updike has said that he wrote his new novel in part as a refutation of the feminist take on him. If this is so, the sad irony is that S. is only likely to confirm it Indeed, it seems to me that Updike's fiction is, or has become, more problematic, more afflicted, than the most thoroughgoing consideration of gender bias can even touch on, let alone explain. Any broad estimation of Updike's position in the public and, to some extent, the critical mind would include these elements: he is a superb “natural” stylist; he is among the most erudite of our writers of...
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SOURCE: “‘I Have Preened, I Have Lived,’” in New York Times Book Review, March 5, 1989, p. 7.
[In the following review, Donoghue offers a positive assessment of Self-Consciousness.]
When a memoir by a writer as well known as John Updike appears, it inevitably arouses curiosity. But this is not a tell-all autobiography. It consists of six discontinuous chapters: total recall is evidently not proposed. Mr. Updike's method is Lytton Strachey's in “Eminent Victorians” to intuit a life by taking samples of it, making forays into its hinterland and asking the reader to assume that gaps between the specified items could readily be filled by more of much the same substance.
John Updike was born in 1932 in Shillington, Pa., of parents neither rich nor poor but Depression-shadowed enough to construe life mostly as difficulty. His father taught unhappily in the local high school and enhanced his income by taking mechanical jobs during vacations. His mother aspired to be a writer, and wrote an often-revised but never-published novel about Ponce de León. He did not feel deprived. “It seemed to me I possessed whatever a reasonable boy needed,” he reports, “a Schwinn bike, a Flexible Flyer sled, a Jimmy Foxx fielder's glove.” “Oh, no, Johnny—we were poor!” his father protested many years later when his son, from the security of fame and money, named those early...
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SOURCE: “Citizen Updike,” in New York Review of Books, May 18, 1989, pp. 3–4, 6, 8.
[In the following review, Hardwick provides an overview of Updike's fiction and thematic preoccupations, and praises Self-Consciousness.]
John Updike, the dazzling author, appeared, and still appears, to be one of Augustine's “fair and fit”—and never more so than when viewed among his male literary colleagues who often tend to show the lump and bump of gene, bad habits, the spread and paste of a lifetime spent taking one's own dictation. For this tall, and one wants to say still young, man, despite certain dwindling-days, September-song modulations in the composition of his memoirs, Self-Consciousness, everything seemed to fall into place. An only child, treasured by nice intelligent parents who, if not particularly well-to-do, were prosperous in respect and plausibility; born in a pleasant Pennsylvania village, Shillington, with its “idle alleys and darkened four-square houses,” its high school, movie house, stores, avenues and streets whose names will have on his pages the curved beauty of Havana and Caracas, even if they are Pennwyn and Lynoak.
Updike went on to Harvard and, as a young writer, came under the benevolent paternalism of The New Yorker, married early, had children, moved to Massachusetts, and, with an uncommon creative energy, wrote stories, novels, poems,...
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SOURCE: “John Updike's Prose Style: Definition at the Periphery of Meaning,” in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXX, No. 4, Summer, 1989, pp. 277–90.
[In the following essay, Fleischauer examines the language and syntax of Updike's prose, particularly aspects of irony, symbolism, and literary detachment evoked in his use of descriptive vocabulary and imagery.]
John Updike has occupied a place near the center of the American literary scene for over twenty years. From the beginning, his works have attracted critical attention, most of it controversial, and at the heart of the commentary about Updike's prose has been a recognition of his distinctive style.
Throughout his career, a recognizable mark of Updike's linguistic signature has been the predictable appearance in stories and novels of striking adjectives and unexpectedly appropriate metaphors. In an October 1979 review of Problems and Other Stories, John Romano refers to both the metaphor and the “writer's word,” an adjective “so deft and efficient, paradoxically, that it's liable to distract us.” Romano cites adjectives such as “claxon” or “cruciform” and a climactic metaphor describing metal sparks from a gun barrel turning on a lathe: “Tan sparks flew outward to the radius perhaps of a peony.”
These two devices, though related, are nonetheless somewhat different in...
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SOURCE: “Rabbit Is Rich as a Naturalistic Novel,” in American Literature, Vol. 61, No. 3, October, 1989, pp. 429–45.
[In the following essay, Lasseter examines elements of naturalism, literary realism, and deterministic philosophy in Rabbit Is Rich. According to Lasseter, “The theme of entropy which dominates Rabbit Is Rich can be understood in terms of the naturalistic trap. This is a novel about limits, energy crises, hostages, and death.”]
Throughout John Updike's “Rabbit” novels, Harry Angstrom makes striking economic progress. By most American standards, he has found success in Rabbit Is Rich. No longer feeling the need to escape, as he did in Rabbit, Run, and having survived the collapse of his marriage and the fire that destroyed his home in Rabbit Redux, he now runs the family Toyota franchise and lives with his reconciled wife Janice in their new suburban home.
Although Rabbit the automobile dealer seems reasonably successful, in Rabbit Is Rich—and in the two earlier Rabbit novels—Updike recreates in many ways the grim world of American naturalistic novels such as McTeague, The Red Badge of Courage, or Sister Carrie. A specific parallel to McTeague may be noted, for instance, when Janice and Rabbit make love on a pile of gold coins and to An American Tragedy when Nelson pushes...
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SOURCE: “Angst Up to the End,” in New Leader, October 1–15, 1990, pp. 21–2.
[In the following review, Searles offers a positive assessment of Rabbit at Rest.]
For sheer output and versatility, few writers can touch John Updike. Since his 1958 debut he has given us a play, four children's books, five collections of poetry, another five of essays—and, of course, the 24 volumes of superior fiction that have established his reputation as a major American author.
Updike's latest novel [Rabbit at Rest] completes a tetralogy about ex-basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, sometimes described as the Harvard-educated author's proletarian alter ego. Each of the books portrays Harry at a different stage of his troubled, unfulfilled life. Rabbit, Run (1960) introduces the young Harry: adulterous, confused, adrift. In Rabbit Redux (1971) Harry is 10 years older and still floundering, caught up in the tumult of the '60s. In Rabbit Is Rich (1981) Harry has inherited a Toyota dealership and achieved financial success, yet genuine happiness continues to elude him. Now, in Rabbit at Rest, he is semiretired, killing time on the golf course while battling not only his perennial psychological demons, but also the double bogy of cardiac illness and looming death.
It has often been suggested that Harry's thwarted strivings are on one level...
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SOURCE: “Fifty-five and Fading,” in New Statesman & Society, October 26, 1990, p. 33.
[In the following review, Quinn offers praise for Rabbit at Rest.]
The past 30 years of American life have been pretty crowded by any standards, and will presumably continue to disgorge their historians, their scourges and their apologists. There will be many a baggy social chronicle to pin it all down, though few will match either the intimacy or the eloquence of John Updike's Rabbit sequence.
Centring on the fortunes and foibles of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, middle American anti-hero and everyman, each novel put the seal on a decade's end—the fifties in Rabbit, Run (1960), the sixties in Rabbit Redux (1971) and the seventies in Rabbit Is Rich (1981). In those rollicking, rueful comedies, Updike's talents were in overdrive, both as master of the heroic sentence and historian of the spirit. While Rabbit reeled through the years from marriage and dalliance to middle age and disillusion, Updike suggested the weight of history pressing upon the whole country, a period of transition which offered—and frequently withdrew—the possibilities of change.
With Rabbit at Rest, the sequence comes to a close, and we witness America on the slide: “Everything falling apart, airplanes, bridges, eight years under Reagan of nobody minding the store,...
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SOURCE: “‘The Adulterous Society’: John Updike's Marry Me,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 61–79.
[In the following essay, Leckie examines the social, literary, and philosophical significance of marriage and infidelity as presented in Marry Me.]
[F]iction is also a mode of spying; we read it as we look in windows or listen to gossip, to learn what other people do.
—John Updike, Picked-Up Pieces
The quintessentially private life that entered the novel … was, by its very nature and as opposed to public life, closed. In essence one could only spy and eavesdrop on it. The literature of private life is essentially a literature of snooping about, of overhearing “how others live.”
—Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination
The 26 April 1968 Cover of Time Magazine features a picture of John Updike. The illustration, in the manner of American realist painting, depicts Updike looking candidly out at the viewer from hooded squinting eyes. A black and white banner in the top right-hand corner announces “The Adulterous Society,” and the cover implies that Updike has identified a contemporary American phenomenon: not simply occasional or isolated adulteries but an...
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SOURCE: “The Rabbit Tetralogy: From Solitude to Society to Solitude Again,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 5–24.
[In the following essay, Wilson examines elements of social drama, historical consciousness, and tension between the desire for isolation and integration in Updike's Rabbit tetralogy.]
Frederick R. Karl in his exhaustive survey of postwar American fiction has little to say about novel sequences because, he claims, in comparison to Britain, there is a “paucity of sequential novels” in America. Our “social expectations” and “our need for movement and escape” militate against novel sequences, which, of necessity, imply “limited options.” The relative scarcity of this form, he argues, is “tied to our optimism, [and] our desire to break from predetermined forms, to free ourselves from the historical past, emerging into that purer atmosphere of pastoral, which promises liberation.” The predominant “predetermined form” from which American writers have attempted to liberate their characters has always been that of society, which, as Richard Poirier pointed out in discussing Huck Finn, has been previously conceived of “as nothing but artifice, tricks, games, and disguise.” Poirier concludes that Huck Finn “discovers that the consciousness it values most cannot expand within the environment it provides, that the self...
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SOURCE: “Magnanimous in a Big Way,” in New York Times Book Review, November 10, 1991, p. 12.
[In the following review, Amis offers a positive assessment of Odd Jobs.]
We often think in terms of literary pairs, like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, etc. But what about literary opposites? Jorge Luis Borges versus Joyce Carol Oates, Nicholson Baker versus Leon Uris, Thomas Pynchon versus C. P. Snow, Norman Mailer versus Anita Brookner. John Updike has no obvious soul mate or near equivalent, unless it be Anthony Burgess, who boasts a similarly hyperactive cortex. But he does have an opposite, and a diametrical one Samuel Beckett.
Beckett was the headmaster of the Writing as Agony school. On a good day, he would stare at the wall for 18 hours or so, feeling entirely terrible, and, if he was lucky, a few words like NEVER or END or NOTHING or NO WAY might brand themselves on his bleeding eyes. Whereas Mr. Updike, of course, is a psychotic Santa of volubility, emerging from one or another of his studies (he is said to have four of them) with his morning sackful of reviews, speeches, reminiscences, think pieces, forewords, prefaces, introductions, stories, playlets and poems. Preparing his cup of Sanka over the singing kettle, he wears his usual expression: that of a man beset by an embarrassment of delicious drolleries. The telephone starts ringing. A science magazine wants something pithy on the...
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SOURCE: “Desire under the Palms,” in New York Times Book Review, February 6, 1994, pp. 1, 26–7.
[In the following review, Kingsolver offers a positive evaluation of Brazil, but objects to racial stereotypes and elements of misogyny in the book.]
Tristão and Isabel, the hero and heroine of John Updike's 16th novel, Brazil, never quite realize the epic valor of their name-sakes of medieval legend and Wagnerian drama. They mean well, but they just can't seem to resist silk shirts and kinky sex.
The knight-errant, Tristão is strutting the Copacabana beach in his shining armor of night-black skin when he first lays eyes on pale Isabel, in her bikini and rich-girl languor. “This dolly,” he declares, “I think she was made for me.” With a razor blade in his pocket and the vague sense that he has outgrown a life of crime, Tristão makes his way to her, pledging his devotion with a D.A.R. ring previously snatched from an elderly North American tourist. Thus begins a new life of crime, for their love will force Tristão and Isabel to break all the rules of class, race and social convention. Even so, Tristão has a hard time giving up prostitutes and his razor blade. Isabel develops a habit of stealing family heirlooms to finance her marriage, and she shrugs off a lifetime of infidelity by reasoning that her spirit has remained true.
In an afterword,...
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SOURCE: “Off the Map,” in New York Review of Books, May 12, 1994, pp. 23–4.
[In the following review, Bayley offers a tempered evaluation of Brazil. “The hazards of the wilderness,” writes Bayley, “do not suit the genius of suburban America.”]
In the literary climate of postmodernism it seems not too difficult for a novelist skilled in his own trade, and knowledgeable in the history of the genre, to select an exotic country or unknown milieu, and write about it with conviction, and even with his own brand of authority. Fiction today does not recognize any predominance of truths; and it accepts an alien setting in the same spirit in which a social realist used to make himself an expert on his own backyard.
In this spirit the English novelist Julian Barnes had a go at modern Bulgaria, and now [in the novel Brazil] John Updike has forsaken—one assumes temporarily—middle America, to explore the untapped fictive potential of Brazil, its jungles, beaches, and favelas. The results are as vivid as one might expect, and make quite an impact, although the reader may find that this diminishes abruptly with the book's ending, vanishing like the magic of the lost cities of the old jungle films. The Updike novel has taken a holiday in Brazil, and learned an impressive amount about the idiom and the atmosphere of the vast country; but a holiday it was, and the...
(The entire section is 2545 words.)
SOURCE: “All His Wives Are Mother,” in New York Times Book Review, November 6, 1994, p. 7.
[In the following review, Parini offers praise for The Afterlife and Other Stories.]
A writer as prolific and variously gifted as John Updike is bound, eventually, to frustrate readers. How does one absorb a body of work that includes 16 novels, 6 volumes of poetry, 5 fat compilations of essays and reviews, a memoir, a play, 4 books for children and now—after a pause of 7 years—his 11th collection of short stories? Were all this writing mediocre, one might still wonder at its mere volume. What is perhaps more striking is that so much of it is good, even dazzling.
I remember stumbling on Pigeon Feathers, his second (and, for me, finest) book of stories, 30 years ago I was a teen-ager in a small Pennsylvania city not far from Mr. Updike's Reading, and it thrilled me to see the texture of my life so lovingly transcribed, subjected to such intelligent scrutiny. Although in his later fiction the author has strayed as far afield as Africa and Brazil, in The Afterlife, his new collection, he is often lured back to eastern Pennsylvania and the world of Pigeon Feathers.
William James once remarked that his brother, Henry, chewed more that he bit off; the same might be said of Mr. Updike who, to put it more flatteringly, tends to focus narrowly, almost...
(The entire section is 1679 words.)
SOURCE: “Grand Illusion,” in New York Times Book Review, January 28, 1996, p. 9.
[In the following review, Barnes offers a positive assessment of In the Beauty of the Lilies.]
Domestic and epic, intimiste and magisterial, In the Beauty of the Lilies begins with a sly misdirection. D. W. Griffith is filming “The Call to Arms” on the grounds of a mock-medieval castle in Paterson, N.J., in the spring of 1910. Mary Pickford, short of sleep and over-costumed for a hot day, faints. This scene takes two pages. But Griffith, Pickford and the Biograph Company never reappear in the novel, they are images raised to be wiped. Instead, cut to:
“At the moment when Mary Pickford fainted, the Rev. Clarence Arthur Wilmot, down in the rectory of the Fourth Presbyterian Church at the corner of Straight Street and Broadway, felt the last particles of his faith leave him. The sensation was distinct—a visceral surrender, a set of dark sparkling bubbles escaping upward.”
This champagney transformation of Clarence Wilmot leads into a densely compelling account of the freedoms and terrors involved when a man of the cloth feels, and submits to, “the calm, merciless, impersonal truths” of irreligion. It is not until the pagination is in three figures that the cinema is mentioned again. Yet Mary Pickford has been there all the time, a questioning bubble in the...
(The entire section is 1337 words.)
SOURCE: “God Goes to the Movies,” in Nation, February 12, 1996, pp. 25–8.
[In the following review, Scott offers a positive evaluation of In the Beauty of the Lilies.]
The title of John Updike's seventeenth novel is foreshadowed in Self-Consciousness, the memoir he published a few years ago:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea—this odd and uplifting line from among the many odd lines of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” seemed to me, as I set out, to summarize what I had to say about America, to offer itself as the title of a continental magnum opus of which all my books, no matter how many, would be mere installments, mere starts at the hymning of this great roughly rectangular country severed from Christ by the breadth of the sea.
Whatever this means, it gives a sense of the intended scope of the new novel, as well as of the dimensions of Updike's ambition over the course of his career. Apparently he has not merely been chronicling, in prose of unsurpassed loveliness and verve, the erotic predicaments and spiritual conundrums of American suburbanites: He has been singing America itself. And if In the Beauty of the Lilies is just an installment in the continental magnum opus, it would seem by its title to be the part that stands for the whole. In any case Updike...
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SOURCE: “Memento Mori—But First, Carpe Diem,” in New York Times Book Review, October 12, 1997, pp. 9–10.
[In the following review, Atwood offers praise for Toward the End of Time.]
Toward the End of Time is John Updike's 47th book, and it is deplorably good. If only he would write a flagrant bomb! That would be news. But another excellently written novel by an excellent novelist—what can be said? Surely no American writer has written so much, for so long, so consistently well. Such feats tend to be undervalued. They shouldn't be. Walking across Niagara Falls blindfolded on a tightrope for the 47th time is certainly as remarkable as having made it across the first time, more remarkable perhaps, but the viewer's response is all too likely to be not a delighted “How praiseworthy!” but a jaded “What else did you expect?” And at 65, Updike isn't even old enough to be told he's performed very well for his age.
Age is nevertheless the burden, this time, of his song. The title's “end of time” may be that of the United States of America—the book is set in the third decade of the 21st century, after a devastating war with China has disassembled the great Republic, which nobody seems to miss much. The almighty dollar has been replaced by a local scrip, economic refugees are now sneaking into Mexico instead of out of it, sci-fi creatures called metallobioforms roam...
(The entire section is 1536 words.)
SOURCE: “Deer John,” in Nation, November 3, 1997, pp. 62–3.
[In the following review, LeClair offers a positive assessment of Toward the End of Time.]
After putting Rabbit to rest, John Updike ranged far abroad in Brazil and drilled deep into history in Memories of the Ford Administration and In the Beauty of the Lilies. While these were adventurous novels, I think Updike missed his long-running index to the American present and decided that Rabbit's end was untimely. In Toward the End of Time, Updike replaces the once poor, finally rich and always sex-obsessed Rabbit with a similar character, Ben Turnbull. At 67, Turnbull has outlived Rabbit by eleven years but in that extra time has lost emotional contact with his numerous progeny, developed prostate cancer, been deprived of golf and come to suspect that his wife wants him dead.
About once a decade some well-intentioned editor sends me a novel with a timed-release futility that depresses me for the next ten years. In 1974, when I still had children to nurture, it was Joseph Heller's Something Happened and its self-loathing, child-killing Bob Slocum. In 1979, when my parents were going over the hill, it was Max Frisch's Man in the Holocene with its eroding mountain and failing old man. Now that I've just started playing golf, I'm beset by Toward the End of Time. If you're a man,...
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SOURCE: “Bullets of Milk,” in New Republic, November 17, 1997, pp. 38–42.
[In the following review, Boyers gives an unfavorable assessment of Toward the End of Time.]
John Updike's new novel [, Toward the End of Time,] is set in the year 2020, not long after a brief but devastating war in which millions of American and Chinese citizens were killed. We see none of this killing, and we are told nothing of the causes that led to the war or that brought it to a close. Occasional references are made to the resultant aftermath to a collapsed national economy and deteriorating office buildings, to a “depopulated” Midwest and abandoned neighborhoods; but we do not tour those neighborhoods or feel in any way the effects of the reported disaster. A passing reference to Chinese missiles, or to Mexico as a golden land of opportunity, will remind us that something consequential has happened, that the world out there is a place different in many ways from the world of 1997. But in virtually every respect the local world in which Updike immerses us is our—or rather, his—familiar world. It is not at all surprising to the reader of this novel that for Updike's eloquent alter ego, Ben Turnbull, “the collapse of civilization” amounts to little more than an inspiring rise in “the quality of young women who are becoming whores.”
A retired investment counsellor with a large...
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SOURCE: “Settling Old Scores,” in New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1998, p. 7.
[In the following review, Shapiro offers a positive assessment of Bech at Bay.]
One's spirits, however initially well disposed toward one of America's more carefully tended reputations, begin severely to sag under the repeated empathetic effort of watching Mr. Bech, page after page, strain to make something of very little.
I didn't write that. An English critic named Raymond Featherwaite, who appears in “Bech Noir,” the wildest story in this volume [Bech at Bay], did. And John Updike sees to it that in revenge for this cursory dismissal of his alter ego, the novelist Henry Bech, Featherwaite is crushed to death under the wheels of a New York subway car. Featherwaite, whose end is swift, is luckier than other reviewers who had nasty things to say about Bech's fiction: one is poisoned, another driven to suicide, a third has his oxygen supply cut off. I began to have doubts about taking this assignment when I discovered that next on the hit list was “a guy who teaches at Columbia … an English professor, or whatever they call it now, who really got my goat in the Book Review.”
Bech at Bay is the third, and probably the last in the Bech series. Sixteen years have passed since Bech Is Back (1982) and over 30 since Updike started publishing the stories that...
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Allen, Brooke. “Updike Redux.” New Leader (1–15 December 1997): 13–4.
Positive review of Toward the End of Time.
Boswell, Marshall. “The Black Jesus: Racism and Redemption in John Updike's Rabbit Redux.” Contemporary Literature XXXIX, No. 1 (Spring 1998): 99–132.
Examines Updike's complex presentation of racism, original sin, and white guilt in Rabbit Redux.
Bottum, J. “Social Gospel.” Commentary 101, No. 4 (April 1996): 64–6.
Unfavorable review of In the Beauty of the Lilies.
Cooper, Rand Richards. “Bungle in the Jungle.” Commonweal (8 April 1994): 18–20.
Unfavorable review of Brazil.
Corwin, Phillip. “Oh, What the Hex.” Commonweal (1 June 1984): 340–01.
Tempered review of The Witches of Eastwick.
Danto, Arthur C. “What MOMA Done Tole Him.” New York Times Book Review (15 October 1989): 12.
Review of Just Looking: Essays on Art.
Davis, Hope Hale. “Distaff Doormat.” New Leader (18 April 1988): 20–1.
Unfavorable review of S.
Denby, David. “A Life of Sundays.” New Republic (22 May 1989): 29–33.
(The entire section is 574 words.)