Updike, John 1932–
Updike, an American novelist, short story writer, and poet, is best known for Couples, Rabbit Run, and Rabbit Redux. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
John Updike is one of those writers around whom we have generated a flamboyance of celebrity quite out of keeping with the value of anything they have so far written. In any reasonably discriminating age a young man of Mr. Updike's charming but limited gifts might expect to make his way in time to a position of some security in the second or just possibly the third rank of serious American novelists. But this is not a discriminating age. Hence, Mr. Updike has been able to arrive with ease at the very gates of first-rank status, and considering the size and fervor of his following, he should have no trouble at all getting in….
Mr. Updike has none of the attributes we conventionally associate with major literary talent. He does not have an interesting mind. He does not possess remarkable narrative gifts or a distinguished style. He does not create dynamic or colorful or deeply meaningful characters. He does not confront the reader with dramatic situations that bear the mark of an original or unique manner of seeing and responding to experience. He does not challenge the imagination or stimulate, shock, or educate it. In fact, one of the problems he poses for the critic is that he engages the imagination so little that one has real difficulty remembering his work long enough to think clearly about it. It has an annoying way of slipping out of the mind before one has had time to take hold of it, and of blending back into the commonplace and banal surfaces of reality, which are so monotonous a part of our daily awareness that the mind instinctively rejects them as not worth remembering.
Yet there can be no doubt that Mr. Updike does on occasion write well, although often with a kind of fussiness that makes one feel that the mere act of finding words that look attractive together on the page occupies entirely too much of his time and energy. There are, nonetheless, passages here and there in his novels of excellent description, mostly of landscapes…. There are also moments when Mr. Updike seems on the verge of becoming profound on the subject of the larger issues of life, love, death, and God. But then as a rule one senses that he does not, after all, know quite what he means to say and is hoping that sheer style will carry him over the difficulty….
Mr. Updike shared with his admirers the handicap of being a good many years behind the times in his literary tastes. For example, his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, was exactly the sort of book that back in the twenties and thirties would have represented an honest and rather radical confrontation of reality, but which by the middle fifties had become so respectably and fashionably "modern" that schools of writing were proudly turning it out by the dozens. It was a book essentially of style and terribly oblique and opaque and tinily inward observations of people, in which nothing discernible happened, but everything went on with dark throttled meaningfulness just beneath the surfaces, and faint ectoplasmic wisps of sensibility floated spookily about the page. In it Mr. Updike proved not only that he could work well in an outmoded convention, but that he could, if the need arose, write to cover a lapse of book-length duration.
Rabbit, Run , although brilliant...
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in many of its superficial effects, was a botched attempt to explore certain important disorders of the modern will and spirit. It raised vital questions of freedom and responsibility that it answered vapidly. At just the point where it should have crystallized into meaning, it collapsed into a shambles of platitudes and stereotypes of alternative—rebellion versus conformity, the loving, passionate prostitute versus the dull, drunken, respectable wife—which nicely dramatized Mr. Updike's failure to come to fresh imaginative grips with his materials.Rabbit, Run might have been a deeply subversive book. Instead, it merely recapitulated subversive elements that had ceased with time and repeated literary usage to be subversive. It was spiced with a stale, High-Camp brand of Angst and a sexuality that had become merely a form of writing done with a different instrument, and, perhaps appropriately, the most viable possibility it appeared to hold out was that Rabbit probably ought to try very hard to make his peace with society, family, and God.
John W. Aldridge, "The Private Vice of John Updike" (1965), in his Time to Murder and Create: The Contemporary Novel in Crisis, McKay, 1966, pp. 164-70.
John Updike is a remarkably skilled writer, but to me he seems hardly an author at all. He is less a maker than a dismantler, though the magic of his style has won the admiration of a number of critics (including Mary McCarthy) with whom I tremble to disagree…. Yet I note that several of Mr. Updike's admirers have described him as a 'poetic' writer, and expect when used by practising poets the epithet, however approvingly intended, commonly carries an admission that something equivocal is going on which would take more of the critic's time to investigate than he feels able to afford….
Mr. Updike's writing shows at least one characteristic of major authors like Joyce and Thomas Mann: a mass of interrelations run between his various works. For instance, the Pennsylvanian location, and the Episcopalian/Lutheran and town/country complexes…. But these interrelations, rather than enriching the whole, only make one feel that Mr. Updike's work is cannibalistic, that it feeds on itself….
Mr. Updike, it seems to me, has the talents of a good nature poet, not of the Wordsworthian class, but one of those who 'rest in Nature, not the God of Nature'. His cornfields and his cars (he is the laureate of the second-hand automobile) have much more presence than his people. Though long ago he found a way of writing, as yet he doesn't seem to have found something to write about. But he still has time.
D. J. Enright, "The Inadequate American: John Updike's Fiction," in his Conspirators and Poets: Reviews and Essays, Dufour, 1966, pp. 134-40.
The first chapter of [Updike's The Centaur], culminating in the father's virtuoso mad lecture on the history of the universe, is superb. I can think of nothing in fiction to surpass it since the Nighttown scene in Ulysses…. Some parts of this episode suggest the Alice books, some parts The Circus of Dr. Lao, some parts the work of Nathanael West. Everywhere it proclaims the influence of Ulysses, from the largest mythological correspondence down to the smallest mad transformation. Despite this, the chapter is at no point derivative or stale; it is a pyrotechnical display of unique originality and power.
Stanley Edgar Hyman, "Chiron at Olinger High," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 128-32.
To recapitulate what we already know or suspect about [Updike, the] author of preternaturally scintillant but thin and arrested fiction: we find an obsessive fixation upon the past, a compulsive rehearsal of the data of adolescence and young manhood, a cult of the family and of victimized sensibility, a spinning out of a legend of quest and initiation in which rococo states of consciousness and refined conditions of memory come more and more to replace imaginative event and action. And one more fatality, that which underlies all the others—an avoidance, accomplished with a scrupulous cunning and highwire grace that resembles a brilliant neurotic maneuver, of the supreme task and burden of literature: the appropriation and transfiguration, in one way or another, of suffering, struggle, conflict, disaster and death….
[The] point about Updike, the quality of his work which makes me bring the standard [of literature] into operation, is precisely the fact that he shuns the major sorrows and calamities while pretending to deal with them, that he glosses them, coats them with "fine" writing and disarms them by turning them into nostalgia and soft wisdom. And he does this in the face of his prédilection d'artiste, which keeps tugging him to the edge of the forbidden scene for a dreadful peekaboo look….
[The] mythological aspects of [The Centaur] constitute an inept bravura enterprise, but one which is at least specific, locatable and possible to dismiss. What can't be dismissed, in order to get at something else, is the entire texture of the book, the quality of its engagements with the issues and experiences it has proposed for itself, the way in which it explores, dramatizes and finally memorializes them in a work of art. And in this central respect, despite the high sheen and delicacy of Updike's prose—or rather,… as a result of that—all is deflected, daunted, genteel and cold, all is "writing."
Richard Gilman, "John Updike," in his The Confusion of Realms (© 1963, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1969, pp. 62-8.
John Updike's work is like a striptease: in each book, he shows you some part of his talent. As you open one after another, you wonder Will he go all the way this time?
Though he is exasperatingly coy, it is clear that Updike can go all the way. What is not clear is why he doesn't. One sometimes gets the impression that, in his WASP independence or security, he simply does not choose to extend himself. He lacks the compulsive drive of, say, Jewish writers like Bellow or Malamud. He doesn't have the cosmic habit of men who have been impaled on history's pin for thousands of years. You might even call him a genteel writer, as one might say a gentleman farmer.
In Couples, Updike tried to drop his gentility, and critics who had been exhorting him to open up had second thoughts…. In Bech: A Book, he has moved even further from his early estheticism. In fact, he has done just about everything but change his religion….
Bech is one of Updike's best creations. Lugubrious yet full of hope, toughminded yet tender to the point of panic, depleted yet dizzy with the sheer poetry of things, he is at least as authentic as Herzog or Portnoy—and more appealing. For the first time, Updike the esthete has given us a full-bodied hero, hairy and heavy-set with humanity.
Anatole Broyard, "All the Way with Updike," in Life (courtesy Life Magazine; © 1970), June 19, 1970, p. 12.
The seven episodes [in Bech: A Book] interlock and enrich one another; Updike may be an architect, above all else. His sense of place is hard and sharp, at times fantastic: the exotic is made familiar, the familiar is somehow transfigured. There is throughout an emotional exactness, a precision of observation, Updike's special knack of pinning the fugitive moment. The dialogue contains real wit and depth and pathos, particularly as Bech labors to make contact with his East European hosts and counterparts, whose minds often outstrip their English…. The excess of Couples, where more sheer writing was crammed into a page or paragraph than some stomachs could bear, is not much in evidence. Bech is a book, all right, full of instruction and pleasure.
But Bech himself is a problem. The merest Spanish lady's maid in London emerges more vividly than he. Forewords and appendices don't alter this…. Bech's anguish, his ruminations, seem free-floating humors, genuine, eloquent griefs in search of a character. His politics, which are addled, also seem grafted on….
Bech himself takes no direction at all: his artistic anonymity disqualifies the importance of his art. That particular failure of realization is a telling symptom.
Updike looked up from his desk, confronted the Zeitgeist, and almost gave us the portrait of a good, busy man of letters worrying, right out front, about the craft, the role, the rewards. But he backed off and settled for the same trappings of the trade, the same tools and disguises whose authenticity and relevance he questions.
Ivan Gold, "'You Really Gets'," in Nation, June 29, 1970, pp. 791-92.
Henry Bech is John Updike's author-hero, and he is largely a dismal veil behind which Updike speaks with suitable cynicism about the contemporary literary scene. Why he could not have spoken directly of the scene is not clear, for the fictionalizing is half-hearted. One gathers that Bech's peregrinations are Updike's own; the fiction is largely frosting. Part of the frosting is a labored bad-joke bibliography of Bech's works, and of critical articles about Bech—six pages worth.
What Updike has to say about literature, when he's not trumping up modest love affairs for Bech, is that the literary life has become a depressing racket wherever it surfaces as public life, so that the prominent writer (Bech, Updike) feels constantly drawn to silence and privacy….
Without the falsity of the character Bech the book would have merit as a brooding self-analysis by a writer who has made it and wonders what making it means; for despite the fakery the book is obviously driven by a man with serious thoughts and feelings. It remains, however, wide open to the very criticisms Updike puts in the mouth of Bech's fictional worst critic, a nasty SOB who complains that Bech puts a screen between himself and the world. One can't blame Bech or Updike for putting a screen between himself and the various SOBs we are introduced to in this book, but if there is a life of interest behind the screen, Bech: A Book doesn't reveal it.
The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1970 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), July 11, 1970, p. 27.
I wish … that Aldridge [in his review of Bech: A Book, Saturday Review, June 27, 1970] had emphasized the positive aspects of Updike's new book, which is a truly surprising work to have come from him—clever but not sterile, warm and engaging and deeply cynical, but not deadening. It treats the life of the imagination and the intellect with great respect, and yet it dramatizes the fearful limitations of such a life with as much zest and as much beauty as Saul Bellow did in Herzog.
Joyce Carol Oates, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, July 25, 1970; used with permission), July 25, 1970, pp. 24-5.
Bech is not a major work, but it may be a book of considerable significance to Updike's development in the second half of his career…. The book contrives, while entertaining us all the way, to say a great deal about an artist's relations with the world—relations with women, with fellow writers, with critics, with publishers, with foreign littérateurs, with youth….
Bech, then, is a good and craftsmanlike and funny book. It is relaxed, not intense; slender, not massive, either in its physical volume or in the specific gravity of its contents. Yet it can tell us several things about Updike's directions and purposes in the second half of his career, which he declared officially open in Midpoint, his recent book of poems.
First, I think we can say that Bech, at least in part, represents a reprisal, and a healthy one, against the literary establishment. It is not a polemic of protest, but an effective and artful send-up. I'd suspect that Updike has accomplished his retribution for recent wrongs and is now free to move on to other fields.
Second, as I've suggested, his mind and viewpoint seem as clear, his style as fluid and flexible, his lyric tone as elegant, as they ever were; perhaps more so. This augurs well for his next books.
L. E. Sissman, "John Updike: Midpoint and After," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1970 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), August, 1970, pp. 102-04.
In Rabbit, Run, John Updike presents a grown man with the same problems as those of the adolescent Holden Caulfield, but he does so with less approval of his protagonist and more compassion for the blind than does Salinger. Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom cannot face up to the conditions of being human, the conditions of time, change, responsibility, nothingness, and the demands placed upon him by other people. The title indicates Harry's means of dealing with his situation: as Holden tries to do, Harry runs—at the beginning of the novel and at the end, literally….
The abyss is nothingness, and for Rabbit nothingness is literally adulthood…. Maturity means smothering what he regards as his true self by surrendering absolute freedom. The world outside himself has no values, useful for him. It only threatens him….
"Goodness lies inside," says Rabbit. But … in Rabbit this insight is perverted into a protective shell, which he uses to justify self-indulgence and illusion…. He does not carry the insight further to the conclusion that if he knows only what he feels, then he must be responsible for those feelings and must see their consequences through to the end; and that if he is responsible for himself he is also responsible for—and to—others….
Nothingness is what we "are"; it is constituted of "lack." It means that we "are" not some final and complete thing that is fully itself, free of change. It means that by definition we stand out from the world, alone with the question of our own identity…. Harry's is one of the modern world's main problems. Remove the certainty of traditional values (Why, asks Harry, were youngsters taught such things as a belief in God if such beliefs were no longer held valid?), place the responsibility for one's being upon the individual, and we run the risk of producing a race of Harry Angstroms. Harry has too much human freedom—too much responsibility for giving his experience its unique spiritual quality—and too little god-like freedom—the power of making reality what he wants it to be. Harry's anguish is that in running from the one in his search for the other he finds no shelter….
For the man who affirms all of the conditions of the human situation, nothingness is the obligation to create his self with the resoluteness of one who does not confuse his illusions with reality. Rabbit continues to turn to his illusions as a means of escape. He sees his nothingness, once so fearsome, as a protection….
Rabbit, Run indicts neither society nor Harry Angstrom. It simply depicts the pathos of the modern situation, the inability of a man to deal with his experience when he finds himself bereft of the certainties of his past and confronted with that "lack" which is nothingness.
Jerry Bryant, in his The Open Decision (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. from The Open Decision by Jerry Bryant; © 1970 by The Free Press, a Division of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.), The Free Press, 1970, pp. 240-45.
Much criticism of John Updike's fiction derives from the same middle-class repressions he writes about. We hear, for example, the Puritan critique—that Updike is not a good steward of his admittedly abundant talents, because he will not write "big" novels about "big" subjects. He does, it is granted, compose tightly controlled stories about mundane matters that capitalize on his technical prowess as a maker of metaphor—but this, we hear, only reveals a craftsman's pride that must be deflated by textual analysis exposing the imperfection of this or that phrase and image. Or it is said that Updike is too intellectual and self-conscious as a novelist, that he lacks the uninhibited style of many another artist who has not had the misfortune of being graduated summa cum laude from Harvard or working for The New Yorker. Or yet again, we learn that he is too flashy for his own good and indulges in gimmickry that gives away his essential superficiality. Being a novelist who does almost everything right, Updike can't seem to do anything right for most reviewers.
I thought that Couples would change this. It is a big novel about love and death, free-flowing and clever (but not intellectual), and socially significant enough to inspire a Time cover story on American morals. Yet the reviews were largely negative….
[One] can read Couples from many different angles of plotting—not because its author presumes that the reader will bring any such versatility to the novel but because the novel itself forces any fair reader to grant the legitimacy of its pluralism, as in fact we are learning to accept the plurality of thought and custom in our many-angled modern world….
The novel is about "couples," and together they present not really multiple protagonists but a composite protagonist. One reviewer complained that the characters seem interchangeable, but this must have been a good part of Updike's intention. To show the evolution (or dissolution) of a social body demands a certain amount of homogeneity among the respective subjects. To forfeit the convention of an individual protagonist in favor of a composite, organic concept is an artistic risk that succeeds because it too reminds us of the shape of contemporary life. This is the age of solid state physics, of corporations, of Gestalt psychology, and Couples projects the fictional equivalent of that orientation.
Robert Detweiler, "Updike's Couples: Eros Demythologized," in Twentieth Century Literature, October, 1971, pp. 235-46.
[The] "OK?" [with which Rabbit Redux ends] suggests that Updike knows how great a risk he has taken in this book by telling a dreadful story and yet refusing to express rage or dread at its conclusion. He has documented the crisis of the present; [however, after] … all this has been acknowledged, [the reader can still fault Updike for remaining] too mute about questions of motivation to keep Rabbit Redux from having the dispiriting effect of a sordid story that is told to no clear purpose….
In Rabbit Redux Updike absorbs into his fiction some of the chief sources of our discontent and distills them into characters realistically impelled by conflicting motives. However, refusing to sort out the motives or to explain the discontent, he leaves us as baffled and dispirited as the age itself….
So one puts down a book like Rabbit Redux moved, respectful of the writer's bravery, but still waiting for the perhaps impossible novel that will not only show us how we live now but also why we live in this awful way.
Charles Thomas Samuels, "Updike on the Present," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1971 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), November 20, 1971, pp. 29-30.
From his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair …, through Rabbit Redux, Updike has been concerned primarily with what he regards as the inability of American religious and social thought and action to fill man's spiritual void. Neo-orthodox Protestantism, tinged with existentialism, corroborated and strengthened his sense of the desperate transiency of human existence, the pervasiveness of evil, the centrality and mystery of God. However, whereas initially Updike wrestled directly and suggestively with secular and spiritual ideas in his novels, increasingly he appears to have abandoned speculation and disputation for the expression of uncertainty, agony, nausea, shock. And, increasingly, as man's nothingness has loomed ever greater for Updike, his novels have moved from constriction of meaning to vagueness to nonexistence at their centers. Correspondingly, the characters are emotionless and mindless as well as godless.
Brom Weber, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, November 27, 1971; used with permission), November 27, 1971, pp. 54-5.
John Updike's primary concern as a writer has always been with the spiritual life of his characters. His fundamental interest is a religious one. Pascal's thinking reed is his image for man also. George Caldwell, in The Centaur, is as near to the angelic as Updike has depicted. There is considerable competition for the title of greatest brute. More intensely than any of Updike's other characters, Rabbit Angstrom suffers the Pascalean conflict. "Man is neither angel nor brute, and the unfortunate thing is that he who would act the angel acts the brute." (Pensees, #358). Perhaps that is why Updike chose to write about him again.
Clinton Trowbridge, in Mediterranean Review, Spring, 1972, pp. 57-9.
If Updike in Rabbit Run is … interested in portraying a world so pointless and vapid that even an irresponsible and insensitive character runs to escape its clutches, then in his sequel [Rabbit Redux] that world has become more moribund, lifeless, a desert, a world in which death-in-life is so pervasive that the only intelligent act men can commit is to learn to die, for death has, in fact, already overtaken them….
There can be little doubt that like its predecessors, especially Rabbit Run and Couples, John Updike has given us a convincing picture of an empty and vapid world in which there is much of death and very little of life. He has lost none of his ability to create with words the curve and feel of such a world. That is important. Updike's ability to make man aware of his terrible death-in-life may make him more receptive to the necessity and the possibilities of life. Unfortunately the modern reader has become weary and numb with the dipiction of a lifeless world. He has experienced it himself, and the picture of a world stinking of death has become a commonplace in fiction. He has met it constantly. It is unlikely that he will find life by reading one more depiction, no matter how skillfully done (and it is skillfully done here) of his deathless life, even if there is the hint that he should celebrate that death.
Elmer F. Suderman, in Carleton Miscellany, Spring-Summer, 1972, pp. 156-61.
Rabbit Redux (I think the redux is in part ironical) is vintage Updike. The prose is swift and sinuous, though the action is somewhat slow and wanting in momentum; the aphorisms are nicely honed …, the images vibrant…. The record of the material world is vivid and precise, though one comes to wonder if verbal photography is not vying with fiction. There is an assortment of sex, a conflagration, drugs, a lot of crying, some religion, a moon landing, a little philosophy …, and a little crypto-philosophy: the Verity Press can't keep up its business.
Yet all of this is incidental to the thrust of the novel toward reflection, understanding, a sort of existential truth. Prolongation and repetition of actions and scenes is of the essence of the work, as a sort of dwelling upon or insistence that both encapsulates the folly of Rabbit's flight and symbolizes the truth that we know the world by familiarity, by getting to be at home in it, weird as it can be.
Michael Cooke, in The Yale Review (© 1972 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1972, p. 606.
It is in the images of Rabbit Redux that Updike renders his judgment upon "the chaos of the present" and his prescription for surviving it….
Nightmare riots shatter the national morale, and sexuality gets out of hand.
Thus Updike suggests that ours is the confusion of a world deliberately traveling, like a spacecraft, toward nothingness. In such a world imagined impossibilities become actualities…. Those who travel to the moon, however, must be prepared to meet its dark, farther side as well as its silver face….
Why is Rabbit so blind to what is going on, so passive when he discovers the tragic outcome of his refusal to see what is before his eyes?
There is no simple answer, because Updike does not traffic in simplistic moral judgments. He has put it on record that he does not wish his fiction to be less ambiguous than life itself is. But one part of the answer is that Updike evidently believes passivity on the part of the male to be a phenomenon of our day….
[It] can also be argued that, given the situation he finds himself in, Rabbit's inaction is probably less destructive than almost any action open to him….
Redux means "led back"; it also means "restored to health"—for space travel inspired by moon-worship is a sickness….
In the chaos of our age, however, few hope to find their safe haven. Redux offers Updike's prescription for survival, given through the mouth of a blues singer called Babe. Sitting in Jimbo's Friendly Lounge, Rabbit hears her sing "in a voice that is no woman's voice at all and no man's, is merely human, the words of Ecclesiastes. A time to be born, a time to die. A time to gather up stones, a time to cast stones away. Yes. The Lord's last word. There is no other word, not really."
The third chapter of Ecclesiastes begins, "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the sun." The Preacher goes on to comment on the wickedness of men, how they fall under God's judgment, and how God lets them see that they are beasts. The characters in Rabbit Redux, in fact, are shown to be beasts. Skeeter is a goat, Jill a spring chicken, Buchanan a buck, and so on. Jill's mother (herself a flamingo) tells Rabbit when they meet after Jill's death, "You are a beast." He replies, "O.K., sure." But the important theme of the book is that life has its seasons.
Time, rather than space, is the dimension with human meaning; and time is not a void, for it is marked by seasons connecting in definite sequence. Rabbit is aware that for him, as for most people today, there is no clear consciousness of the seasons. One day follows another with pallid sameness. Yet the seasons are there. The problem is that men neither observe the individual season nor take the action appropriate to it.
Updike carefully fashions each of his novels to a season. Run was a spring-to-summer book. Redux begins in high summer and ends in October, the season when nature is preparing for the sleep of winter. The prospect for America seems bleak, since nothing except death appears to lie ahead…. America is sick; it is not yet dead.
Redux ends, after a season of moon-madness and flaming terror, with a measure of cautious hopefulness. In the motel bedroom Rabbit and Janice strike a truce for the time being and meet in bed—not to copulate but to sleep. For as Ecclesiastes said, there is "a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing." This is God's last word, and America may not have ears to hear it. Yet if America observes the signs of the times, it will know that this is the season for sleep and the restoration of wasted powers. Updike's last word in Redux is brief and direct: "He. She. Sleeps. O.K.?"
Alice and Kenneth Hamilton, "John Updike's Prescription for Survival," in The Christian Century (copyright © 1972 by Christian Century Foundation; reprinted by permission from the July 5, 1972 issue of The Christian Century), July 5, 1972, pp. 740-44.
The debate over John Updike's work has long since divided itself into two pretty firmly entrenched camps: Those who admire the work consider him one of the keepers of the language; those who don't say he writes beautifully about nothing very much. The idea of the latter seems to be that polished, smooth prose is a cover-up for insincerity and that the concerns of the suburbs are somehow secondary to the raw, more exciting happenings elsewhere.
The latest collection of stories [Museums and Women, and Other Stories], Updike's sixteenth book and first collection in six years, if one excepts Bech, will hardly resolve the issue (what could?), but, because his style seems to wear better over the short haul, it may win him a few converts. With the exception of "Other Modes," a group of ten take-it-or-leave-it skits of varying degrees of whimsey, the stories in this collection are the work of perhaps the finest literary craftsman working in America today. The prose is as beautiful—and surprisingly fresh—as ever, and the tone is, again, that of reason, with a wry sense of humor and a head-shaking sense of wonder.
Updike's sensibility is largely a pictorial one, with a bourgeois's fascination with things—like Vermeer, he can light a small moment and fill it with importance.
Joseph Kanon, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, September 30, 1972; used with permission), September 30, 1972, p. 74.
Rabbit Redux is that rare thing, a convincing sequel, largely because the Harry Angstrom of the Eisenhower years portrayed in Rabbit, Run (1960) reappears here thoroughly a creature of his changed time, caught in its social crises, shaped by his class and surroundings as they have evolved into the late 1960's. For this reason, the frequent allusions to current news events are genuinely functional, unlike the lamentable Couples, where an unintegrated use of the same device seems a mere affectation of historical realism. Bringing to bear an old-fashioned novelist's instinct for the defining details of ambience, Updike places the thirty-six-year-old Rabbit in a precise social context linked to the recent years of relative affluence, deepening national malaise, and mass-produced inauthenticity….
Updike, it seems to me, is at his best when he is being a rather traditional kind of novelist—which means broadly when, as in both Rabbit novels, the clarity of his social perceptions is not unduly vexed or obfuscated by stylistic mannerisms….
Updike exhibits, I think, a certain boldness in placing at the center of a novel about our time an average, unintellectual, politically conservative, working-class figure. By successfully representing the confusions, anxieties, and blind longings of such a character, he manages, in a time-honored tradition of the novel, to bring us the "news" about something going on in our society, enabling us to see a familiar phenomenon more sharply, from within. Indeed, if a German-American laborer (laid off in the end by automation) can be granted title to ethnicity, one might contend that this is the first notable novel about the much-discussed anguish of the neglected ethnic amid the upheavals of the Vietnam years, the revolutions of the young and the black. I find the rendering here of one ordinary American's feelings toward blacks generally persuasive because those feelings are represented without authorial attitudinizing, as a visceral perception of the black's otherness. Harry Angstrom is physically uncomfortable in the presence of blacks yet fascinated by their seemingly impenetrable alienness; hidebound by prejudices of class and race against blacks yet paradoxically open to their suffering because, after all, he cannot entirely muffle his awareness that they are men like himself….
What emerges most prominently from Rabbit's confusions is a sense of complicity. He can no longer see the nation altogether as a division between "we" who are all right and "they" who make the trouble, for he has reached some inner knowledge that we all have a hand in the trouble. The result, for better or for worse, is not a resolution but a new kind of confusion, a free-floating guilt that as yet has no proper outlet….
His attraction to the fire this time is of a piece with the relief so many frustrated, socially and emotionally trapped Americans must feel in the outlet of violence, in glimpses of an apocalyptic end.
Robert Alter, "Updike, Malamud, and the Fire This Time" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; © 1972 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, October, 1972, pp. 68-74.
John Updike is our most noted Gentile writer—and our best metaphorist of any color, creed or ethnic persuasion. Museums and Women is a collection of stories and essays, plus an exercise or two in the less familar modes. It is every inch an Updike.
That is: men and women are worked down to, through a rubble of things—things perceived with a thunderous, lush metaphorical talent. It is as though we were extinct, to be approached archeologically, by the telltale layers of soil and shard over us, by our artifacts. Updike knows things better than he knows men—who doesn't, after all?—but his knowledge of things is special: encyclopedic, arresting. Perhaps just a bit vain, too. Things mean. They stand for men, for our mental and emotional traffickings. They are more accurate. We are known more conveniently through them….
Yet too often he sees things with a dwarfing magic. Terms of the metaphor are switched, minor-major. The people, at times, trail in, afterthoughts, embarrassed by the life in their material possessions. They are frankly less interesting.
There is no furniture in the emotions. Updike must be irritated by this. His images of human sensibility are vague, big, open. Disappointing, because we have been spoiled….
I am excited by Updike in the sentence, the paragraph. His talent there is so splendid and sure that larger forms—story, novel, the forest made of these trees—seem perhaps secondary, an anti-climax.
D. Keith Mano, "Every Inch an Updike," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 22, 1972, p. 3.
[Most] of the stories [in Museums and Women] are extremely readable, not one of them without some moments of dazzling minute observation, some sudden glide of psychological percipience, some abrupt accuracy about the harassments and consolations of day-to-day living. The narrator of one story refers to the "fragmentary illuminations" he experiences and recalls. The thought occurred to me that in some ways Updike may well be a better short-story writer than he is a novelist, for in his way he is quite phenomenally alert to "fragmentary illuminations" and can find them anywhere—thus one story is simply about a street corner, another focuses on an abandoned swimming pool, and so on.
On the other hand, I have to admit that his last novel [Rabbit Redux] struck me as a deplorable performance by a writer of Updike's abilities, revealing an embarrassing straining from contemporaneity, and a sad capitulation to the stereotypical thinking of Middle America. It was a pleasure to read this collection of stories after that, and perhaps the shorter mode reveals Updike at his best….
If Updike is not convincing, to me, about love, he is convincing about the continual presence of fear—that fear engendered by the realization that everything decays, erodes, deteriorates and dies, which has been in his work from the start.
Tony Tanner, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 22, 1972, pp. 5, 24.
There is not much evidence in this collection [Updike's Museums and Women, and Other Stories], made up in the main of New Yorker stories, that any serious changes have occurred in Mr. Updike's world. It has ever been peopled by scared, earnest, hopelessly loving men, fixed forever at a state of adolescent vulnerability and forever unfulfilled. The locus of feeling in these stories is all agreed upon, as it were, from the first lines, and the agreement seldom varies: The feeling is to be poignant. Within the polished confines of these stories, poignancy has its ups and downs: Some of it, indeed, is very good poignancy, as it is in "The Day of the Rabbit." Mr. Updike's is an ornate and clever sensibility, which constructs stories piece by piece out of an arsenal of literary allusiveness, and of Art. But there is, for all their frequent entertainments, a vacuity at the heart of these stories, the unifying themes of which have to do with nothing more advanced or complicated than wistfulness.
Dorothy Rabinowitz, in World, October 24, 1972, p. 52.
Updike is one of those authors whose motto must be Nil Carborundum. Too many words dissipate his book [Rabbit Redux] and when he's not using those as camouflage there's an attempt to conceal a lack of insight and a jittery style by getting busy with Great Issues of Our Time or hamming along with chunks of Drama.
Michael Feld, "Anti-Yankee Doodle Dandy," in London Magazine, October-November, 1972, pp. 152-55.
[It] is Updike's gift, when he is writing well, to make banal moments glitter, come to life, confer meaning on all the moments around them. In half a dozen stories in this collection [Museums and Women] he redeems a set of such moments: the day a father realizes that his thirteen-year-old daughter is a graceful, attractive person entirely in her own right; a night when an ex-mistress, unable to give a man anything other than hard words and rancor, although he is leaving the town for good, kisses his wife on the lips while he is in the bathroom; the time when a man decides over a game of solitaire not to get a divorce, not to gamble; an embarrassing evening when a friend brings an unpresentable woman for drinks so that someone will see how happy he is with her, how happy they are together, before that happiness dies. It is in situations like these that Updike's writing becomes scrupulously delicate and intelligent, while remaining extremely fluent….
But there is something Updike does even better than this, and that is write about America, about shifts and slips in the American mind invisible to most other eyes.
Michael Wood, "Great American Fragments," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), December 14, 1972, p. 12ff.