John Updike Updike, John (Vol. 3)

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Updike, John (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Updike, John 1932–

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

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

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

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

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

Updike portrays Rabbit as a contemporary saint who cannot resist the search for truth, even when the search ironically converts him into an ominous figure of death. The reader is constantly reminded that Rabbit has a gift to give to man—and not just a sexual one; at one point in the novel he himself jokingly...

(The entire section is 4,497 words.)