Updike, John (Vol. 5)
Updike, John 1932–
Updike is an American novelist and poet. A traditional novelist, he writes with ironic and literate complexity on contemporary themes. The "Rabbit" novels and the sensational Couples are particularly well known. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Although the ordered structures of the physical universe are endlessly fascinating to him and receive his admiring attention, the ambiguities of flesh are what bring out the best in John Updike. His work constantly takes up the theme of man as the Adam who awakens to a knowledge of his fallen state and to a realization of the immensity of the issues of good and evil. (p. 14)
Updike expects his readers to be literate. He assumes that references to world literature—to the Bible, to Boethius, to Beatrix Potter—will be recognized without being laboriously spelled out. In the greater part of Updike's work, indeed, there is a dialogue between the story he tells and other stories on the same theme that have established themselves within our cultural heritage and have helped to shape the Western imagination. Sometimes this dialogue is explicit; more often it is not. In "You'll Never Know, Dear" the theme of the world as a fair inevitably harks back to the classic presentation of Vanity Fair in Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. Yet a more intimate link seems to exist between Updike's story and James Joyce's "Araby," from Dubliners, which itself contains clear reminiscences of Bunyan. (pp. 19-20)
The interplay of dualities and the experience of life as a series of paradoxes bulk large in Updike's fiction. This is the result of his viewing the world in the perspective of Christian faith. Taking such a stance, he does not simply use Christian motifs (as Joyce does) in order to point to the universality of the fall from the ideal to the actual, from the sacred to the profane. He sees existence as that which simultaneously hides and reveals the truth about itself, since truth ultimately lies beyond the bounds of space and time and yet must be grasped by creatures who are temporally and spatially limited. Thus he regards the passage from innocence to experience as neither a triumph nor a disaster, as neither a casting off of foolish illusion nor a fall from eternity into time. Insofar as innocence means an intuition of the eternal and the sacred, men should never travel so far away from it that they cannot return to the vision it gives; and, insofar as experience means encounter with the actual world in all its ambiguity and complexity, men should never turn away from it under the impression that they can somehow escape the risks inherent in the human condition. (pp. 22-3)
One Updike story links with others, because Updike presents at all times a consistent universe where men reap what they sow and are rewarded by the god at whose shrine they serve, according to the nature of that god. (p. 24)
Even if the surface of his stories gives only the lesser part of his intention, this does not mean that the surface is irrelevant, or that any melody at all would serve as the sufficient foil to the countermelody. The two levels of his fiction, the literal and the symbolic, are mutually dependent….
He has a high estimate of human intelligence, and a belief that every individual can use it to discover the kind of world he is living in. The givenness of an intelligible (though mystery-laden) universe, and the questioning mind of the individual who can respond to the given—these are the poles between which Updike slings his creative vision. In sharp contrast to despairing or defiant dogmatists who proclaim this terrestrial stage to be a cosmic Theater of the Absurd, he finds the world of nature and of man to be a place of intricate and marvelous patterns of meaning. (p. 28)
Updike's theme remains constant: earth seen in relation to heaven. Only the focus changes. And Updike's technique remains consistent also. Like Kierkegaard, he is adept at indirect communication. Kierkegaard explains that if a writer wishes to talk about religion to those who are immersed in the aesthetic sphere, then the necessary approach is to say: "Let us talk about aesthetics." Updike, in effect, says: "You think the Sexual Revolution to be highly topical and a particularly American theme? Well, let's talk about it." This—directly—he proceeds to do through the four hundred and fifty-eight pages of Couples, and the critics make comments about the author's self-indulgence and his lack of serious purpose or sense of responsibility. Meanwhile, the book sells, having been labeled "the thinking man's Peyton Place." Kierkegaard, in his day, complained that the public took in its right hand what he held out with his left. (pp. 215-16)
Couples is not in the least a sex-novel. Its purpose is neither to celebrate nor to denigrate sexuality, though it is true that many of the features of the analysis of Eros which have occupied such a prominent place in Updike's later short stories are to be seen here. The whole book finds its focus in precisely that aspect of life which the critics generally have accused Updike of failing to be concerned about: the social consequences of individual beliefs and choices. As in The Poorhouse Fair, so here Updike asks the question: "How fares America now?" And, even more pointedly than in his first novel, he gives the answer in terms of accounts left unsettled, talents buried in the ground of this world, and lines of division ignored until it is too late to escape judgment. (p. 216)
Technically regarded, Couples is the most ambitious of Updike's novels…. [Behind] the complex exterior action, Updike places an equally complex structure of biblical parallelism…. It is an ironical comment upon the quality of our educated consciousness that so many critics of Couples should think that Updike has written a superficial sex-novel and then dressed it up with a few "pretentious" allegorical motifs. The irony of the situation is the more complete in that Updike has built into his story indications that those who most pride themselves upon being the heirs and interpreters of Western culture are the very people least able to understand the living voice of that culture. These are prodigal sons who chew the dried husks of the wisdom inherited from the past and remain with empty bellies. (p. 217)
Updike's refusal to be heavily pretentious is the sign of his genuine seriousness. Because he sees the smallness of all earthly things set under heaven's jurisdiction, he also knows that nothing is too small to reflect the radiance of eternity. No event can be trivial in a universe ordered by truth and justice. (p. 243)
Updike's fiction is fully parabolic both in intention and in execution…. Updike's parables remind us that the quantitative and the qualitative are forever distinct. (p. 248)
Updike directs us to those aspects of earth which can speak to us of heaven and show us how to relate ourselves qualitatively to it. He gives us scenes from childhood, adolescence, young manhood, maturity, and old age—specific scenes set in one particular place at one particular time. He turns us from generalizations about a New Age to the concrete situations confronting us from day to day. And he lets us see that, behind the shifting surface of the experiences life brings us, there is one constant question which each of us must answer for himself: Does the universe, blindly ruled by chance, run downward into death; or does it follow the commands of a Living God whose Will for it is life?
Updike's answer to that question is unambiguous and given in Christian terms. Whether we agree with him or not is our own concern, for no man can answer for another or choose for him. But the elements of Updike's world are displayed before us so that we can enter imaginatively into his vision of the reality of things, a vision of earth set under heaven. (pp. 248-49)
Alice and Kenneth Hamilton, in their The Elements of John Updike (copyright © 1970 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.; used by permission), Eerdmans, 1970.
Updike [has] puzzled and disconcerted his audience, hanging them upon the horns of a critical dilemma. His work refuses to fit into the critics' neat formulations—which is all right since no novelist worth his salt will snuggle comfortably into anybody's prefabricated boxes; but it refuses not to fit into them as well—and that, too, is all right since it permits his work to be examined in context with and in juxtaposition to that of his contemporaries. But in insisting on having it both ways, Updike confuses his issues and opens himself to the charge of inconsistency. (p. 14)
I suggest that [Updike's intention] is to reveal the thing itself—scene, situation, character, even argument—as perceived, with no revelation beyond the perception. Because he honestly has no revelation to make…. Hence the ambivalence and inconclusiveness of the novels; hence the aimlessness of Rabbit's running and the promiscuity of Piet's coupling. They are logical results of Updike's intention. This does not mean that Updike is simply a mindless recorder or camera, unconcerned with ideas or themes, unaware of the truism and all its ramifications. Quite the contrary: ideas dominate his work, and the truism structures it….
Updike does send his protagonists, after Poorhouse Fair at least, off on quests, presumably for identity, for a means to square themselves with the enigmatic universe. He confronts them with all the temptations both of flesh and spirit which the questing hero must face, with all the problems and the myriad solutions to them. But he is only nominally concerned with bringing his protagonists through successfully—or even unsuccessfully. His real concern is a critical examination of the temptations, the problems, the questions, and the answers as they conflict both inside and outside the protagonist, alternately promising and denying solutions to the quest. It is a question of emphasis: perception and examination rather than revelation are in fact his theme; the quest functions primarily as a structural motif. (p. 16)
Without identifying them specifically, Updike delineates the two philosophical forces in conflict carefully and unmistakably in all the novels as the two idealisms, pragmatic and transcendental, which have dominated American thought since colonial days. And in the process, he consistently introduces a subordinate third force, the Christian church, which he portrays most often as a compromising, frequently stupid, always inadequate keeper of the values which precipitate the conflict.
The primary thrust of Updike's conception of the conflict is anti-pragmatic. He decries the bastardization of the Jamesian ideal which results in the "vulgar" pragmatic Babbitry in the opening scenes of Rabbit, Run, in Mr. Springer's occupation, and in Reverend Pedrick's sermon at the outset of Couples. But, as his scorn for modern organized Christianity and his withering portrayals of do-gooders like Conner and Eccles illustrate, he also rejects the utilitarian reform aspects of applied pragmatic idealism. It should be noted, however, that Updike seldom sacrifices his objectivity to his contempt for pragmatic social reform. He is intent upon examining the phenomenon, perhaps critically, even negatively; but he retains his ironic detachment. He betrays little desire to effect a change, to reform the reformer as it were. As a matter of fact, if the pragmatist retains his individualism and his idealism, as does George Caldwell in The Centaur, he may earn Updike's grudging admiration.
But, though Updike implicitly favors the transcendental side in the conflict, he has little faith or confidence in it as an alternative to pragmatism. At the same time that it is the positive and desirable force, it lacks specificity and strength of the negative. It is nebulous, indefinable, and weak to the point of impotence. (p. 17)
Understandably, given his implied preferences, the irony in Updike's treatment of the transcendentalist position is hardly as cutting as that which he reserves for the pragmatic, though it serves the same purpose of establishing his detachment. Neither of the alternatives offers a satisfactory direction for the quest—the one because it is too shallow and earth-centered, the other because it is so unearthly as to be incapable of articulation or even of attainment. The conflict, in whatever terms it be cast, remains irresolvable.
As long as Updike maintains the objectivity which this method is meant to insure, his intention merely to portray the conflict without resolving it is clearly communicated. The intention is unmistakable in the intellectual and artistic, as well as physical, impotence of the Harry Angstrom of Rabbit Redux, in the open cynicism of the end of Couples, and even in Of the Farm, where Updike toys with existentialism as a possible alternative resolution. But when he allows himself to become intimately involved with his story and his people, as I believe he does in Rabbit, Run, he loses his detachment and the intention as a consequence becomes muddied and unclear.
Thus, those ironic fillips and twists which serve Updike to keep his people at arm's length don't work anymore, or else they double back upon themselves and become, ironically, unironic. And his abortive striving at the end of the novel to reaffirm his intention by portraying his Rabbit as mechanical and winding him up to run compulsively is, unlike Hook's unanswerable question and Peter's straining to say the unsayable and the "cured" Rabbit's broken lance, finally unsuccessful.
Curiously then, those things which contribute to the strengths of the other novels are the weaknesses of this one; and those things which would be the weaknesses of the others—involvement, commitment, the suggestion that Rabbit's quest might succeed—are the strengths of [Rabbit, Run]. For with the loss of detachment, Rabbit, Ruth, and Eccles become the most believable and sympathetic characters in Updike's canon, and the conflict which rests at the heart of all his work (indeed, the pragmatic-transcendental battlelines are more clearly drawn here than in any other) takes on an importance for the first and only time outside itself. It attaches to someone, to Rabbit, in a way that it doesn't in any of the other novels, and so it seems far more relevant, far less academic, though no less resolvable, here than elsewhere. For these reasons, Rabbit, Run is at once Updike's most imperfect and aggravating novel, and his most stimulating and important. Perhaps paradoxically, I believe that it is also his best…. (pp. 18-19)
Joseph Waldmeir, "It's the Going That's Important, Not the Getting There: Rabbit's Questing Non-Quest," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Spring, 1974, pp. 13-27.
Updike finds both his greatest challenge and his ultimate satisfaction as a fiction writer in the problems of narrative, in the recounting of patterned action in a voice enthralling to the listener. Because of this passion for telling stories, he is driven to seek the essence of the story, its original form, in which it satisfied some profound need of the human psyche for that pleasure which is found in the relief of anxiety through immersion in past event. But in following this movement backward into origins and essence, Updike encounters—as the examples of Beowulf, the Mabinogian, and Greek tales indicate—myth. In doing so, he finds, however, not a bloodless abstraction, an eternal thematic pattern of wisdom, but what the audience of Homer and Herodotus had found before him, namely, a traditional story about the past of the human, a story originally identified by the interchangeable terms "mythos" and "logos." In such stories the mythic and historical elements are not antagonistic forces vying for supremacy and ultimate authenticity but coordinate aspects of a narrative that unflinchingly encompasses the spectrum of conceivability. Thus, in The Centaur the quotidian details of a Trumanesque, cold-war America and the limpid vision of an immemorial Chiron and his pupils interact in a cooperative effort to render in a viable form the story of the nature of narrative in the twentieth century.
The novel's story in its most inclusive form is not so much a narrative about George Caldwell, his putative artist son Peter, Chiron, Prometheus, Zeus, or Ceres as it is a tale about the modern writer's drive, efforts, and need "to keep an organized mass of images moving forward." … The Centaur does not overtly introduce the writer as character or as voice into the narrative. The novel does, however, utilize several narrative styles and points of view whose effect is to increase our consciousness of the fictiveness of the narrative, of the presence behind the narrative masks of a shaping, manipulative voice speaking in several idioms. The end result of this technique is to create through the action and narrative of the novel the shadowy, spectral, but dominant figure of the story-teller himself (not … to be identified with John Updike the man) bringing something into the world that did not exist before without destroying something else…. The story of man's story-telling propensity is one in which, as The Centaur subtly and luminously demonstrates, myth and history, the archetypal and the quotidian are inextricably intertwined.
Perhaps the central quality of the story-teller is suggested by the novel's epigraph from Karl Barth: "Heaven is the creation inconceivable to man, earth the creation conceivable to him. He himself is the creature on the boundary between heaven and earth." Since Updike has avowed himself predisposed theologically to Barth, critics have related the epigraph to the prevailing religious dilemma of twentieth-century man as emblematically rendered by the twy-form of Chiron. Without in the least denying this dimension of the novel, I would like to suggest that the epigraph has additional, even more significant connections with myth and the story-teller. The crucially operative terms for The Centaur are not the religiously flavored one of "heaven" and "hell" but the imaginatively oriented ones of "conceivable" and "inconceivable." The inconceivability of heaven is an index of creative, imaginative limitation, whereas the conceivability of earth circumscribes the ordinary scope of the human imagination. But since a variety of religious narratives have rendered something of the nature of heaven, there is clearly a sense in which the inconceivable is expressible. Man's ultimate and basic position on the boundary between the conceivable and the inconceivable is identical with his power to narrate what Aristotle called probable impossibilities, to tell stories that breach the constrictions of what mankind conceives to be the case. And the individual who regularly encompasses the ordinary and the extraordinary, the conceivable and the inconceivable, is the maker of fictions, the teller of stories, whom today we call the writer.
While Barth and Updike as Christians stress the creatureliness and finiteness of man, The Centaur reveals a secular variant of the later Barth's stress upon the sacred narrative and God's entrance into man's world through the Word. As the central figure described in the novel, Chiron's centauric nature represents Barth's boundary creature struggling to reconcile the conceivable and the inconceivable but destined to find them forever antinomies, however variable and shifting their content. On the other hand, the narrative developed through nine chapters and an epilogue and cast in a variety of styles and points of view is a made thing that includes not only inconceivable mythic monsters, gods, goddesses, and events but also all too conceivable ordinary fathers, sons, mothers, sweethearts, and actions. Its maker is the teller of the story, and it is he who through the narrative word provides the means by which the more-than-human impinges directly on ordinary mankind, who in this case is identified with the reader of the novel.
Seen from this perspective, The Centaur appears less a piece of tricksy ingenuity, stylistic bravura, and leg-pulling pastiche than a daring, tautly economical exploration of the meaning and scope of narrative and the potentialities of the story-teller as a figure at the very heart of human achievement. At the core of the story-teller's art, as we have seen, is myth, "what is said." … Updike himself specifies five distinct ways the Chiron myth functions in The Centaur. Given this, it is not perhaps too much to suggest that he is not only utilizing many of the major modalities of myth but also striving to structure them into a single narrative form. (pp. 32-5)
John B. Vickery, "'The Centaur': Myth, History, and Narrative," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Spring, 1974, pp. 29-43.
The problem with Couples, of course, is all that sex. All that sex, however, can be understood as a complex metaphor for man's relation to and examination of death. Just as the characters seem to be continually alert for the sexual main chance or gauging someone else's sexual liaisons, so they carry an ever growing shadow of knowledge of their own mortality. Freddy Thorne says that the two comical things in this world are "the Christian church and naked women…. Everything else tells us we're dead." "Comical" here involves the classic Aristotelian understanding of the word "comedy" as opposed to tragedy. It suggests that Updike divides the world into two kinds of experiences, tragic and comic. Death and its relatives, "everything else," characterize the tragic (Lear, Orestes), and relief from that, hope and faith, comes in the Christian church and sex which turn a person away from himself. On the most obvious level, "naked women" draw male attention away from themselves, outward. In Freddy's comment, the sexual encounter is a way the participants face death and are released from its bonds. Just as people are "lost" when they give themselves up entirely to the sexual experience, so the Christian Church preaches that a man should "lose himself" in God. (pp. 45-6)
Except for Piet and Foxy, the couples have abandoned the Puritan virtues of duty and work, the mores setting institutional church, and the Horatio Alger dream. "Virtue, that which defines manhood, strength, and meaning was no longer sought in temple or marketplace but in the home—one's own home, and then the homes of one's friend"…. The center of the community's social life and standards has become their circle of friends. As the church has been adorned by craftsmen, a blending of the world's art and status objects (pew cushions, air conditioning), so have the homes been. As the behavior and values of the marketplace had been rationalized and justified, so the couples' have been. As the church and American dream stood between man and timor mortis, so the couples' social life. Rituals of helping one another, examination of soul, corporate worship, and communion exist. The New Yorker and The Nation replace hymnals, Freddy Thorne's perverted humanism the sermon. (p. 46)
Piet is a non-believer, a throw-back to the pre-Pill accountable world, a man unwilling to play games…. The novel's movement is Piet's search for the vote for happiness and his progression from one false God to another. His success is marked in part by his ability to regard Thorne benignly at the end. He can joke "my mentor and savior" … and acknowledge the truth in that as well as in Freddy's good intentions. But he is not Freddy's or anyone elses' disciple at last. (p. 47)
Updike is a realist, however. Undergirding Piet's revelation is the affirmation that nothing very much is changed. (p. 52)
Paula and Nick Backscheider, "Updike's Couples: Squeak in the Night," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Spring, 1974, pp. 45-52.
The results of [Updike's] painstaking care are apparent on every page of [Couples], but perhaps never as impressively as in the two extensive parlor games he makes his characters play. These are formal activities in the process whereby these "heirs of the Puritans" are observed "growing old and awful in each other's homes." The less formal activities in this process, drinking, quarrelling, lovemaking, and so forth, call forth Updike's many other skills, but these two games, "Impressions" in part II and "Wonderful" in part III, reveal how meticulously he had worked out the construction and relationship of character, theme, and detail in the book. One is reminded (in spite of the differences in reticence and irony) of the parlor games in Jane Austen's Emma, where formal exchange under intentionally ambiguous circumstances is also skillfully exploited to reinforce the implications of other passages in the novel. (p. 53)
If a study of these two games leads to a realization of the careful construction and precise detail throughout the novel, then the … analogy with Jane Austen will not seem so far-fetched. This may serve to place the emphasis on Couples where it belongs, and where its author put it, on the craftsmanship, and not on the sex. (p. 58)
Alan T. McKenzie, "'A Craftsman's Intimate Satisfactions': The Parlor Games in 'Couples'," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Spring, 1974, pp. 53-8.
Updike … carefully details minutia, not of "American reality," whatever that is, but of our ordinary experience. Updike has too much to say and, worse, he says it much too late. Rabbit Redux, for instance, chronicles the history of the sixties, and it tells us what we have already known about youth, drugs, the Vietnam war, black protest, the loss of the American dream…. Rabbit, Run … told us what we knew, not what we should know…. And even though Updike uses the present tense in the Rabbit books, the form in general is that of the traditional sociological novel, with an especially high degree of symbolic and metaphorical artistry.
The shortcoming of the Hamiltons [Alice and Kenneth, in their study, The Elements of John Updike, excerpted above] is that their interpretation of Updike places all the emphasis upon the individual's relationship with God, specifically a Christian encounter. Updike admittedly seems Christian in his interests and in one aspect of his cosmic vision, but in The Centaur, for instance, the richness of the book derives from strata of time—geologic, mythic, and Biblical, and not from a Christian interpretation. The obvious irony is that the Christian values Rabbit was inculcated with as a child are a handicap to his human wellbeing, which may be fine for Christians in an afterlife, but which seem inimical to secular life which surely might include harmony between the earthly and the heavenly—in human values of love, brotherhood, and kindness. Can either Updike or the Hamiltons seriously believe that Christianity is the solution to urban blight, pollution, drug addiction, adultery, unemployment, and war? Or do they naively believe after nearly 2,000 years of Christianity, it will suddenly solve men's secular problems, not only for Christians, but also for skeptics, Jews, Moslems, and atheists? Such an interpretation of Updike's works stems from his concern with the kind of corrupt humanism that the contemporary world has been battered with, but is there a significant difference between corrupt Christianity and corrupt humanism? Updike values human life, sacrifice, and kindness, and these values need no foundation in Christianity in order to be valid. (pp. 59-60)
Updike calls attention to white American Protestant bigotry as much as he condemns a Protestantism that increasingly dismisses concepts of sin and God in favor of a social do-goodism which requires no necessary religious justification. He mourns, in Rabbit Redux, the loss of values which are Christian but only incidentally so. The Hamiltons are correct in asserting that Updike is an allegorist, but his allegories deal with broadly American values and not with a puritanical conception of God and Satan at war for men's souls….
He has allowed self-knowledge on the part of Rabbit in Redux, a quality few of his characters have previously had. It is as if the author himself has been holding in abeyance the inevitable truth that knowledge brings sadness, and, consequently, Redux can rightfully be called Updike's most mature work, because finally the vision presented in his fiction is tough enough to withstand the truth. In his previous works, the "truth" exists, but it is just beyond reach. (p. 61)
Rabbit Redux is a curiously old-fashioned novel, dealing with America's heightened consciousness of wrong-doing, at home in its oppressive treatment of black Americans, and abroad in its waging so futilely so brutal a war. Just over the horizon is America's bicentennial, and it is as if Updike is writing a spiritual and sociological history of the nation as it approaches its third century. Updike perhaps appropriately deals with the loss of the American dream though for students of American culture it seems bizarrely late to risk so threadbare a theme. (p. 62)
Alice and Kenneth Hamilton have argued aggressively and convincingly that Updike has constantly dealt with the abundance of God's saving grace for those who will freely accept it. Their explication of Updike rather diminishes the complexity of his characters, makes Christianity sound like the only plausible theoretical understanding of human existence, and loses sight of the large capacity for compassion in Updike. It has to be acknowledged that the meaning of God has always been a concern of Updike and that Biblical allusion is common, but the Hamiltons' interpretation of these seems, at times, arbitrary and almost too pat, too simple, as if religious belief is as easy as buying a new household appliance. Religious belief in Updike's works is far more difficult to achieve than that, and rather than seeing Updike as somewhat indignantly and impatiently developing his main characters as examples of obtuse disbelievers, it is surely more accurate to see sympathy for those who suffer while wanting to believe…. Christianity as it is presented in Rabbit, Run hardly seems to be an answer to the problems of contemporary Christian Americans. The final symbol for it is the darkened church window which Rabbit glances at in order to find that physical presence in which to glimpse, through its colored fragments of glass, some bright spiritual reality. But the church (Christianity) has turned off its light, and the Hamiltons don't seem to perceive that. (pp. 64-5)
For the Hamiltons to argue that Updike finds the turning from God responsible for America's problems reduces Updike to a simple-minded WASP. That Updike denounced Conner's scientific humanism in The Poorhouse Fair does not mean that Updike hates humanism. Rather, Updike's fiction is calling for a humanism that has little justification in theology. Its elements are rather simple: joy, love, warm family ties, beauty in our lives, social justice. To achieve these in modern America is difficult in part because our technology, not our loss of faith in God, is inimical to these values…. This does not indicate that Updike is skeptical about humanism, but rather that he is skeptical that technology is going to produce a humanism that is not totally corrupt. It is evident that the value of Updike's analysis lies in his sensitivity to the complexity of the problem. Neither technology nor religion offers hope, so where then should we turn? (pp. 65-6)
The contradictions in Updike are symptomatic of the society he fictionalizes. Where he differs from his contemporaries is in his lack of despair, perhaps the most fashionable mode of the present time. Pop Angstrom and Rabbit are both pleased with the essential goodness and fairness of their fellow beings, and this kind of American faith underlies Updike's fiction. His is a sober concern for human life, one too few critics have been willing to perceive because of a presumed aridity of thought and sterility of style. It is surprising perhaps to find so talented a writer apparently dealing with the tiredest of clichés, yet American fiction, for all its brashness of subject matter and lavishness of experimental forms, has hardly yet gone beyond anything other than the dominant theme of the fall from innocence, the failure of the American dream (which may never have had conscious existence), and the most dominant theme of all, of attempting to find the connections which should link the individual to a society and to a cosmic scheme in oneness and harmony. Whitman tried hardest, and even he breaks down in the consideration of death by proclaiming its beauty and rightness or advising his reader-disciples not to bother their brains about it or about God. John Updike has been on this large quest throughout his novels, and with the reconciliation of Rabbit to time as the element human life lives in, there is some promise in genuine détente with dissolution. In many ways Rabbit Redux reaffirms that American fiction cannot portray maturely either love or death, but that, unlike some other national literatures, the insolvability of love and death is our national literary riddle. (pp. 70-1)
One of the striking oddities of Updike's fiction is the predominance of nearly pornographic depiction of sexual acts, presented with puritanical disgust, but relish, to symbolize the denial of life urges, an assertion of loneliness, or as exploitation. One might imagine that if love is an achievable value, we might be shown it. Instead, Updike generates even less emotional feeling about sexually expressed love than Hemingway. Few characters in Updike's fiction are capable of love on any level. Although they engage compulsively in free sexuality, they find no pleasure, no relief or release. (p. 71)
In his urgency to exploit the open interest in sexuality while simultaneously being critical of it, Updike loses sight of the significance of both love and sex. As symbols for degradation of a human being or a nation, the sexuality of Rabbit Redux functions well: but there is always in Updike's work a contradiction between the ideal of sexual love and genuine depiction of it. (p. 72)
As a vade mecum to survival in the seventies, Rabbit Redux will not attract a large following. There is little "style" to be emulated; the doctrine is not fashionable, nor does it promise entertainment…. If we live in a secular world, partitioned from God, at least temporarily, how are we to conduct ourselves? Nelson would answer with pop culture existentialism that we must assume responsibility for our lives and actions; Rabbit would answer skeptically that, given theoretically unlimited possibilities for happiness, beauty, and good, but an actuality in which nothing is any more what it once seemed to be or is, in fact, not what it pretends to be, we have recourse only to unattractive compromise, to time among other things, to enduring sorrow, to trying to cope with the mess we have made, without cynicism and without much hope except in a faith that human beings are essentially kind, though frequently ignorant, selfish, and shortsighted. (p. 75)
Wayne Falke, "'Rabbit Redux': Time/Order/God," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Spring, 1974, pp. 59-75.
For those who condemn Updike (and to a lesser extent, Durrell) for the deliberately self-conscious and mannered virtuosity of his language and who deride him for failing to explain the mystery and wonder that pervade his stories and for those who condemn him for neatly closing his stories in the gnomic, didactic, and perfectly circular manner of an Aesopian Fable, all I can say in earnest rebuttal is this: being committed to the eye, and to things near and known within its periphery and being fully—if not tragically—aware of the Kantian artifice and gratuity of the mind's fictional constructions, and being reverentially devoted to mandala imagery as the psychic manifestation of God's graceful intervention, Updike is, therefore, not so much in pursuit of perfection, as he is of "completion"; or, rather, say that perfection IS completion and that Updike's completed circular stories are themselves a kind of superimposed "pattern of order" which, like the repetitive appearance of Jung's compensatory mandalas, make oblations of order and harmony to a human psyche distraught with chaos and confusion. (pp. 95-6)
Robert Alton Regan, "Updike's Symbol of the Center," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Spring, 1974, pp. 77-96.
Updike feels that his meticulous stylistic ornamentation deserves more careful evaluation than it generally receives [according to his comment in "Henry Bech Redux"]: "All the little congruencies and arabesques prepared with such delicate anticipatory pleasure are gobbled up [by insensate critics] as if by pigs at a pastry cart." But if Updike's critics befoul his stylistic lacework, often-times they feel that they have to dig too deeply for his contentual truffles, the "larger issues." The question of whether Updike's characterizations elicit our compassion and sympathy is pertinent here. Much of his fiction does, in fact, seem to be emotionally vapid; one senses successful pathos or poignancy in characterization only infrequently…. The fact is … that Updike does have a great deal to say. His fiction is indeed surcharged with hidden meaning and so "highbrow" as to be intimidating. To a greater degree than most of his contemporaries, Updike treats the larger issues in the subsurface architechtonics of his fiction. (pp. 98-100)
Updike is concerned with human needs vs. society's demands. There is an inherent tension in man, much of which derives from the pressures of civilized society, the codes of conduct that would legislate the human condition. Updike feels that "to be a person is to be in a situation of tension, is to be in a dialectical situation. A truly adjusted person is not a person at all—just an animal with clothes on or a statistic"…. For Updike, "unfallen Adam is an ape." Man is a naked ape who attempts "to lead on this terrestrial ball,/With grasping hand and saucy wife,/The upright life," but who inevitably vacillates between individual wants and social dictates. Unlike all other animals, he is a "thinking animal" with a "grasping hand," which is both responsible for a highly technological society and symbolic of his acquisitive nature. His "saucy wife" signals the less attractive aspects of monogamy; the "upright life" of a faithful marriage and righteousness per se are threatened by instinctual desires. (p. 101)
Other than his concern with religious elements and the treatment of nostalgia, Updike's treatment of "sex and death as riddles for the thinking animal" remains the most important focal point for examining his fiction. Indeed, especially in his later fiction, a good case can be made for the sex-and-death themes being his chief concerns. With such a focus in mind one cannot fail to discern the meaningfulness and richness of texture in Updike's fiction. What is often mistaken as a pretentious style is merely Updike's … objective amplification of surface detail and his particular and express refusal to preach to the reader. Updike … is very much concerned with "the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself." But he deals not so much with individual psychologies as with an aggregate portrayal of the human condition. If his characters are often on the psychological level emotionally jejune, as focal points for the human paradox they are ample. Not only the "little congruencies and arabesques" of his prose but his social commentary, too, places him squarely within the first rank of contemporary writers. A hasty perusal of his fiction will invariably result in disparagement and esthetic "indigestion." (p. 105)
Robert S. Gingher, "Has John Updike Anything to Say?," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Spring, 1974, pp. 97-105.
Because of their brevity, Updike's short stories often provide more accessible examples of structural subtlety than his novels where the architectonics are more cumbersome and, consequently, more difficult to comprehend as a whole. "Should Wizard Hit Mommy?", one of the finest stories from the 1962 collection Pigeon Feathers, provides an excellent illustration of the way structure can, with the greatest economy, invest a superficially simple story with deep layers of meaning.
"Should Wizard Hit Mommy?" employs a structural technique much used in other genres, but not much used in short stories (with the notable exception of those in the local color tradition)—namely, the "form within a form" technique, here the story within a story. In the frame story, a young father, Jack, is telling his four-year-old daughter, Jo, a ritualistic nap-time tale. In this instance, however, Jack varies the formula of the familiar narrative in such a way as to create discomfort and dismay in the child who is his supple audience. Finishing his story-telling, Jack goes dutifully downstairs to assist his pregnant wife, who is beginning the task of painting the living-room woodwork. Updike's frame story then ends with a haunting word-picture of Jack's weary feeling of being in a cage with his wife and of not wishing "to speak with her, work with her, touch her, anything."
Although the frame story is rendered with those superb touches of everyday realism for which Updike is so famous, there are few details with which the reader can avail himself for the construing of Jack's character or for the intellectual understanding of the resentment which seethes in Jack at the story's close. The reader may be hard-pressed to say what major truths are revealed in the story, but he is, nevertheless, unlikely to feel totally disappointed in the work: he will sense that the denouement is somehow right and that Jack's depression at the end is justified somehow by the story itself. What the reader instinctively but unconsciously responds to is the delicately contrived interrelationship of the frame story and the story within the story. (pp. 111-12)
"Should Wizard Hit Mommy?" the title of the story asks. Because of the interplay of the structural parallels Updike has created, it also asks, "Should Jack strike out at Clare?" And what is this but the concrete expression of the artist's universal dilemma: should the artist defend himself against the prosaic responsibilities that circumscribe his creative imagination? (p. 115)
Albert J. Griffith, "Updike's Artistic Dilemma: 'Should Wizard Hit Mommy?'," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Spring, 1974, pp. 111-15.
Two-thirds closet drama and one-third lumpy essay, the whole once intended to coalesce into a novel—no wonder John Updike presents [Buchanan Dying] to us much as a father would introduce an ill-formed child: affectionately, and with a parent's commitment, but a little nervous, too, about how it looks to us. And the sorry truth is, it doesn't look very good. I'll summon a few kind words in a moment, but from any realistic perspective, Updike's first attempt at a play must be considered the runt of his otherwise impressive litter.
First, the form. It is a play meant to be read, which is another way of saying it is not a good play. (pp. 82, 85)
Updike attempts to re-create the diction of Buchanan's times. Virtually every writer of historical fictions from Shakespeare to Anthony Burgess has made contemporaries of his characters; for the sake of vitality it is only sensible to have Caesar speak as an Elizabethan or a sardonic American statesman. But Updike has gone to speeches and letters for his phrases and the result lies thick in the ear: "Then cast off this prothonotarial tether," cries one of Buchanan's drinking buddies. Buchanan's own speech frequently presses against the rhythms of blank verse. (pp. 85-6)
Updike's portrait of the man is sympathetic, intelligent, concerned. There are scenes in the play, and sections in the long concluding essay, that are felicitous and interesting—but not enough to redeem this wordy, ungainly and ultimately ill-advised attempt at theater. (p. 86)
Peter S. Prescott, "Immobile President," in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), June 24, 1974, pp. 82-6.
Updike has chosen to build his play [Buchanan Dying] around … the education of Buchanan's heart. The focus of Act I is young Buchanan's engagement to marry Anne Coleman. Unwilling to face the abyss of unreason that passionate love would open, he subtly rejects the girl, who then kills herself. The focus of Act II is the constitutional impasse of Buchanan's last months as president. Here the unreasoned passions of the South meet the same cautious, legalistic response as did Miss Coleman's libido. The last act shows Buchanan finally confronting the horror of human life in a world purged of divine reason. He recoils, turns back to conventional faith, and dies.
If Updike's play held one's attention, its unhistorical features would matter less. But the story must bewilder any reader unacquainted with the details of Buchanan's life. The scene is the dying man's bedroom. As his now disorderly mind produces events or illusions, they are acted out. Real people come to see him, interrupt the reveries, and are absorbed into them. The sequence of episodes is not chronological but dreamlike.
For this poetic blending of internal idea and external reality there are precedents in Updike's novels, where he often dwells on the ghostliness of his people. The structure of the novels is rarely a line of probable actions, each producing the next. The arrangement of the incidents is more often arbitrary, associative, poetic. The motives and affections of the characters change unpredictably. Even scenes of high drama, like the burning of the church in Couples, are undercut by Updike's taste for parody and ventriloquism. The expanding use of recent public events in Couples, Bech, and Rabbit Redux might have prepared us for the poetic use of history in Buchanan Dying. The displays of mimicry in the novels also foreshadow Updike's pleasure in catching the voices of the forty-odd speakers in his play.
The dreamlike pattern of the play rests on the repetition of themes and gestures, images and situations. The bells that punctuate various sections take us back to the bell Mrs. Buchanan is said to have hung about her son's neck when he was tiny, so he would not be lost while exploring the woods. So their sound suggests the lure and danger of the irrational, the mystery of human wickedness, the fragility of institutions meant to keep us in the ways of righteousness. The women keep dissolving into Anne Coleman. Buchanan's failure to respond to her is the crucial event that echoes through other memories and hallucinations; and her loss deepens the guilt he suffered (according to the playwright) over his elder sister Mary, who died the year he was born. Letters, messages, decisions tend to revive scenes from the early love affair. One infers that all the crises of a man's life are re-enactments of those that first shaped his character—an insight (if it is one) neither fresh nor exciting enough to compensate readers who persist to the end of the play.
For all the scholarly apparatus of the book, Updike's account remains dubious history. Information about Buchanan's connection with Miss Coleman is exceedingly thin, and his later treatment of women does not suggest that her death scared him away from them. The tale of the girl's suicide is a remote piece of unreliable gossip. Updike represents her as an anti-establishment intellectual, rich and neurotic, pulsing with eros—a spiritual ancestor of Jill in Rabbit Redux. But history gives us no reason to believe that Miss Coleman was a devotee of new thought or of sexual experiment.
Neither does it trouble Buchanan with the eccentric theology that Updike ascribes to him. Here we possess reliable information, and it contradicts Updike's representation of a man unable to digest the element of evil in humanity. Even a softened Calvinism would acquaint any systematic thinker with the depravity of mankind. As Dr. Johnson said, only the desert or the cell can exclude it from notice; and Buchanan was neither a hermit nor a nun. The fear of the irrational that drives the character in the play does link Buchanan's frigidity to his legalistic politics. But Updike does not try to make the rest of the person cohere. Instead, he has Buchanan confess that his own deepest problem is the split between self and action.
The feature of the play that should transcend its confusion is the vividness of the separate dialogues and their revelation of personality. In Rabbit Redux the first meeting of Harry, Babe, and Skeeter, at Jimbo's, shows with how much brilliance and conviction Updike can reproduce voices not his own. In the play this talent is whittled away. If one knows the background well, the language will often sound anachronistic or false. A woman capable of writing Mrs. Buchanan's letters would hardly talk to her son in the primitive idiom the play allots to her. But even if one has no history, the speeches too often sound flat and mechanical, perhaps because many of them are quick paraphrases of historians' accounts. (pp. 6, 8)
One does not get the impression that Updike has worked overtime to elaborate the design and smooth the seams of the play. The line of action will puzzle most readers, with its arbitrary leaps in time, its mixture of living, dead, and illusory figures, its quick succession of half-identified persons and little speeches. The treatment of the characters changes inexplicably from sympathetic to ironical, and Updike stands on surprisingly neutral ground in the judgment of Buchanan's virtues and faults.
Some illumination is provided by the long afterword, in which Updike validates his scholarship while chatting about the sources of his information and the way he came to write the play. Here he spreads out some of the materials he could not fit into the text, and here he offers what is the most careful and valuable literary accomplishment in the book, an excellent ballad imitation dealing with an episode in Buchanan's early career. (p. 8)
Irvin Ehrenpreis, "Buchanan Redux," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1974 NYREV, Inc.), August 8, 1974, pp. 6, 8.
John Updike is a slummer. In his fiction. Extradited from the real world to imaginary Brewer or Tarbox, I doubt if he could sustain ten minutes' conversation with Rabbit Angstrom, with any of the many singles in Couples. Updike's characters don't deserve a form letter obituary, let alone a novel. They are pathetic folk; even the pathos is undistinguished. Great issues aren't at issue in Updike's fiction. When ignorant armies clash by night, his people are somewhere else on the beach, skinny dipping perhaps.
Updike is our genteel Gentile: the sweet, lonesome singer of Protestant mediocrity. For his first historical venture [Buchanan Dying] Updike has chosen America's rabbit, run President: James the Worst. In another novelist it would seem affectation. In Updike it's merely shyness, modesty, and—despite all the bestsellers—under-confidence….
Eccentric, sure: Updike belongs in a Cheever novel. And, like most eccentrics, he is not a funny man. You may laugh at the aptness of his characterizations or, for joy, at the nifty metaphors, but there is no slapstick in his heart. Updike people don't astonish you; they don't do preposterous things. That, after all, would be another gross abuse. Updike, the gentleman, never asks you to suspend disbelief. He takes Rabbit and Pennsylvania and, yes, James Buchanan dead seriously. This is a nice trick. The title itself appears crammed with bathos, Buchanan Dying. Might as well be The Dialogues of Calvin Coolidge or Archie Bunker Agonistes. But Updike has been fair to Buchanan. This fairness is certainly a strength: his first ground rule. It's also a severe limitation. Updike takes none of those liberties which are the novelist's only pleasure. He's a middle class realist. By all standards Updike should be unread. He is read a lot. It's the best tribute yet to frankness and deft style….
Yet, one or two stage directions aside, that style is absent with leave in Buchanan Dying, A Play. Updike, of course, has perfect pitch: his mimic ear fixes the several accents of nineteenth century America. But these are mostly public accents…. The play is trite in form: a pastiche of letters, speeches, reported confrontations. Blackouts over the death bed provide bridges. Updike handles it well enough; still this dramatic mechanism is hackneyed as the flashback montage in film.
Buchanan is Updike's kind of people. The well-intentioned, middling man, hung up in a rundown between North and South, abolitionist and slave-holder. Despite presidential prerogatives, he's hardly more decisive than Rabbit Angstrom, vegetating between moonwalkers and militant blacks. Buchanan is also Updike's kind of Christian: that's to say, he'd made agnosticism look zealous. (pp. 987-88)
Updike is fair to just about everyone; he must be a superb father and husband. There are neither villains nor saints in his fiction. He plumps for no ideology: that would be an abuse of the artist's position. In fact, John Updike, out of kindness or acedia, has very little to say. And no one writing in America says it better. (p. 988)
D. Keith Mano, "Doughy Middleness," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1974; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), August 30, 1974, pp. 987-88.
About Buchanan Dying, John Updike's long play dealing with the last days of America's fifteenth president, the reader will probably also ask the one truly fatal question: who cares? I'll admit to caring deeply about Updike, but the book is almost heroically boring, a tribute to the author's beloved Pennsylvania which should have been put away in a drawer and forgotten. What's happened to Updike over the past decade would be interesting to discuss. But all I can say here is that his gifts for lyric social observation don't function in historical drama, and when things aren't fully meshed for him, Updike leans too hard on his pen. (p. 50)
Peter Straub, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), January 10, 1975.
John Updike may be America's finest novelist; he is, with Saul Bellow, the most intelligent, and surely he is one of the most interesting—a self-mocking, sex-obsessed Christian of the strict construction, and chronicler, in the waning days of our century, of the small-town Babylons, the post-Pill paradises, as he once described them, that dot the map of our Northeast. His seventh and newest novel, A Month of Sundays, is quintessential Updike, a veritable Rosetta Stone to his hieroglyphs and likely to be scrutinized a generation or two or three from now as runic clues to the times we live in.
"Forgive me my denomination and my town; I am a Christian minister, and an American," he begins, writing in the person of his protagonist Tom Marshfield, who is spending a month in a desert sanitarium, a sort of half-way house for slipped clerics. Some will find it necessary to forgive Updike more than his narrator's vocation and milieu. There are, for instance, the florid metaphors and alliterative excesses to contend with, the self-consciously convoluted, Nabokovian prose, the parodies of himself (no one mocks Updike as well as he mocks himself, and with more exquisite irony). Then there are his women—strong, placid, enduring receptacles; occasions of sin, little more. But no matter. One forgives him—or ought to—as one forgives one's friends their minor quirks and even major faults, for friend and flaw are indistinguishable. The secret is to relax and enjoy them….
Few of our writers have been vouchsafed—to use a word dear to the hearts of Sunday sermonizers—a vision at once so robustly voluptous and so stringent; so keenly, deliciously aware of the mingling of pleasure (sex, "this human contact, this blank-browed thing we do for one another") and pain (the sense of sin, the anticipation of death) in the possibility of salvation. Nathaniel Hawthorne is the American writer who comes most readily to mind—and is quite consciously in Updike's…. Indeed, Updike is an earthier, wittier, 20th-century version of the 19th-century master. They share the same eschatological concerns, and a vision as remorselessly terrifying: of a stern and utterly mysterious God ("There's something out there that wants me to find it," Updike writes in Rabbit, Run), of man as a very fallen angel, and of the social forces that work as gravity in the universe to keep men revolving in their proper orbits.
William McPherson, "Sacramental Relations," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), February 16, 1975, p. 1.
As [A Month of Sundays] reveals, Marshfield is a stock character from Updike's central casting. He snorts at liberal Protestantism and pumps for devotion inspired by awe and terror ("Mop up spilt religion! Let us have it in its original stony jars or not at all!"). At the same time he pushes graphic, adulterous sex as suburbia's best anodyne; coupling is sweetest with the ashen taste of sin. He sees women chiefly as attractive hurdles in the heavenly sweep-stakes, where all the runners are male.
To perk up this familiar rehash, Updike gives his clergyman a bag of Nabokovian wordplays and tries to pass him off as Humbert Humbert (in Lolita, Humbert observed, "You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style"). Marshfield rattles off alliterations as if he were on death row. He describes a local nursery "which piously kept its Puerto Rican peony-pluckers in a state of purposeful peonage." With nary a blush he writes of returning home to the "fusty forgiveness of my fanlighted foyer." His frequent dissections of sex and theology revolve around a central question: How many matrons can dance on the head of a pun? "More power to the peephole!" the Rev. Marshfield exults after describing a session of spying on his curate and his mistress of the moment.
Before long, Marshfield's worst problem seems to be a case of terminal cuteness. Unlike Humbert, he is not facing a murder trial. He is passing through a clerical dude ranch, free to resume his pallid philandering as soon as he leaves.
Updike is too talented to write undistinguished fiction, and A Month of Sundays contains more than its share of finely wrought aperçus: "In the end, fashion overcomes personality: all the mistresses of Louis XV look alike." Marshfield's sermons (he writes one each Sunday of his stay) are sly pastiches of biblical scholarship and sophistry. Few writers can be as entertainingly cerebral as Updike. Yet after nearly two decades of distinguished service as the thinking man's John O'Hara, Updike seems to have reported everything he knows about the sexually tormented middle class. The ground covered in A Month of Sundays is fast becoming scorched earth.
Paul Gray, "Ring around the Collar," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), February 17, 1975, p. 82.
John Updike emerges in his new novel [A Month of Sundays] as a writer of sermons. And a splendidly witty sermonizer he is. Perhaps one can see his work tending that way: the minister in Rabbit, Run, the father in The Centaur, Rabbit himself Redux as a social commentator.
The sermons in A Month of Sundays are written by a bona fide preacher, the Rev. Thomas Marshfield, shipped off by his wife and his assistant to a desert retreat. Tom has been easing the distress of his female parishioners by applying himself. (p. 29)
For all its cleverness—maybe because of its cleverness—the novel as a whole is shallow in a way that its sermons are not. The male characters are sketchy and the female characters are by and large only the locations for sexual congress (pubic hair, breasts, mouths). Is this view of women part of Tom's early sexual hysteria and not part of the author's vision? (Couples, Updike's novel about a man who liked sex, pretended to be a novel about a man who liked women; the present novel at least does not confuse the issue.)…
The prose is clever, of course—A Month of Sundays must have been fun to write—but only as a writer of sermons is Tom worthy. The distinction between man and priest may hold for him, but it cannot hold for us; in both roles he's still a character, and like other characters he's a bore. Clever language and witty design are not cure-alls, nor is confession; both can be tedious. One may be saved by faith and works but not by speech, by the Word, but not by words. (p. 30)
Joan Joffe Hall, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), February 22, 1975.
[A] way with words, a cross between the styles of Bellow's Herzog and Nabokov's Humbert (Tom [the protagonist] also likes word golf and makes telling slips in the style of Nabokov's Kinbote), is one of the things worthy of praise in [A Month of Sundays]. Another is its elegance of form. Others are a number of setpieces, such as an interview between Tom and his senile father, and a cracked but ingenious sermon on adultery ("We are an adulterous generation; let us rejoice"). Still others are the quick, deft sketches of minor characters, such as Tom's children and his equally, although differently, distracted clergymen golfing partners. But what from my incurably secular point of view above all deserves praise is the novel's decency, humanity, charity; its sense of "the spaghetti of motives and emotions heaped in our hearts"; its vivid insistence that "there is something gritty, practical, mortised, functional in our lives, something olefactory and mute, which eludes our minds' binomial formulation." The quality of "lived life's muddle" is the novel's primary concern—rather than, say, religious belief or the Object of it, which in any case are interesting only to the extent that they reveal the believer.
Much as there is to praise about this novel, good as it is, it is not good enough, not as good as its own possibilities demand. Like Tom, it does not always rise to its own occasions. At a few crucial points it is only adroit. Consider … this sentence: "That I continued to wish, and continue to wish, to please my wife, I append as a sorry frill upon, as an ulcerated blemish beneath the belt of, these confessions." The sentence is shapely, witty and apt, but if it had been written by Nabokov, the images of frill, blemish and belt would be more than ad hoc embellishment, mere decor; they would be strands of interwoven patterns of imagery working through the whole novel to form the ground of its substance and meaning; they would make up the novel's argument by design. (p. 4)
George Stade, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 23, 1975.
No stock character in all of Christian storytelling is more venerable than the lecherous clergyman, which is perhaps why John Updike has propped him up again to serve as narrator of [A Month of Sundays], his most overtly Christian novel….
Updike has long been an accomplished amateur in theology, knows more about it, surely, than any other contemporary American novelist…. There is much by play between love of spirit and love of flesh, between faith and potency, between waiting for Christ and waiting for a woman, and some of this works well, while some seems only ambitious. The parallels between sex and religion have not gone unnoticed in our century's literature, and Updike offers no new insights, only new wit instead.
For this is also Updike's most playful, most cerebral, most self-regarding novel. He is usually most reliable when writing in a light vein and this is always a clever, witty story…. There is also much of Updike's best writing here—a high incidence of the right image or metaphor for any given scene—and, in a sermon justifying adultery and divorce, a set piece that is perhaps the best that Updike has ever done. A special novel, then, for the happy few: "so those of us who live by the irrational may moderate our shame."
Peter S. Prescott, "The Passionate Cleric," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), March 3, 1975, p. 72.
Novels by John Updike are luxury products, as a thousand reviewers have noted: The exterior trim is burnished, the inside hides are matched, the doors thunk gorgeously behind one, and few travelers feel the road. Unremittingly observant, the creator catches even tiny differences between toilets—flushing action at home and away. His eye for the "speaking" incongruity—chewing-gum wrappers crumpled on the floor of the choir—is acute. As for his way with a metaphor: It resembles that of a compactor with kitchen rubbish. In a trice the miscellaneous welter and muck of social existence is packaged in impeccably symmetrical phrases. (p. 20)
But there is a problem [with "A Month of Sundays"], namely, that this author, who knows everything about the age and its tenants, lacks a principle on which to build resistance. He nowhere glorifies corruption or weakness, but nowhere, either, does he discover resources of pride or clarities of discrimination of the kind that unhorse urbanity and shrugging compliance. Church and theology are open doors to his gift, but religion is closed: his "word" charms but does not instruct. It is true, of course, that "resistance" in a novelist, if unaccompanied by an instinct for true values, can be simply a show-biz number (morally, Mailer and Updike weigh roughly the same). But time and again in Updike's stories, you feel an aptitude for something better than stylized No! in thunder, a capacity for a more active and earnest address to experience, an interest in playing in other than the sad-song keys, even a trace of moral authority. (pp. 20-1)
A writer publishing his seventeenth highly readable book deserves to be spared absurd talk about Possibility, Growth, Hope, and the rest…. When you recall, in addition, that the author in question is barely out of his 30s, it's extremely hard not to look ahead: not to wonder whether, sooner than later, he won't be bound to look the thing straight in the eye without winking. I, for one, can't wait. (p. 21)
Benjamin DeMott, "Mod Masses, Empty Pews," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 8, 1975, pp. 20-1.
John Updike has been an enviable problem. Gifted at once with a supremely alert ear and eye for the pulse and sinew of contemporary American speech and with a passion for the rare word, for the jewelled and baroque precisions still vital beneath and around the current of common idiom, he has been able to write about literally anything. Whether it be the stubble in a Pennsylvania field, the swerve of a basketball under gymnasium lights, the rasp of a tire on gravel, the tightening at a man's temples under pressure of sexual fantasy, Mr. Updike has made these planes of experience brilliantly his own yet true to the evidence, penetrative into the fabric of American discourse and gesture to a degree that future historians and sociologists will exult in. He has written of rich and poor, of urban and rural, of science and political intrigue, of gregariousness and cold solitude with an unforgiving yet strangely solicitous, almost tender intelligence. The critic and the poet in him (a minor but sparkling poet of occasion and humor of a kind infrequent now) are at no odds with the novelist; the same sharpness of apprehension bears on the object in each of Updike's modes. But it is precisely this ubiquity, the sheer range of whatever elicits his luminous dispassions, that has made it difficult for him to find a mastering theme.
Not only in "The Centaur" but, indeed, in all of his novels Updike has tested elements of fable and allegory, ancient formal devices with which to knit into comely and probing shape the dazzling singularity, the vital ordinariness of his perceptions. "The Poorhouse Fair," still one of his finest achievements, aims at control, at a sharp and exemplary meaning, through compression. "Couples" is a panoramic mapping rescued from indiscrimination by recourse to deliberately symbolic, terminal devices (the raging fire at the close). "Bech" is a book held in place, mirrored within a book—again a fine solution to the problem of focus, of finding a structure both firm and supple enough to contain such wealth and scruple of style. Sexuality has over and over provided the key…. Eroticism is, in a serious artist, an ascetic pursuit.
To invoke the pathos, the enigmatic humanity of lust is, of course, to borrow the language of St. Augustine and of Kierkegaard. Where eros and sadness meet, theology begins. This realization has long been a part of Mr. Updike's work. Looking back, one comes to realize how deeply his sense of American experience is religious, and religious in a vein related particularly to the history of New England Calvinism on the one hand and to the thought of Barth and Tillich on the other. It is a commonplace that recent American fiction and criticism have to a drastic extent been the product of a Jewish tone and explosion of talent. Updike is the counterpoise: his sensibility is, among practicing American novelists, the most distinctly Christian and Protestant. The eroticism of his fiction has been a long prelude to a radically theological view of American existence. In "A Month of Sundays"…, the sexual and the clerical, the scatological and the eschatological are intimately, almost violently meshed. (p. 116)
"A Month of Sundays" is a meditation on, a contradictory echo of that first classic of the American Protestant erotic imagination, Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter." Adultery was to Hawthorne the crucial, emblematic motif of the American condition, posing the full paradox of the inherited weakness of the flesh and of social institutions in a new Eden, in a world predestined to innocence and the renovation of man. Updike turns the tables on Hawthorne and on the legacy of Calvinist prohibition: "But who that has eyes to see cannot so lust? Was not the First Divine Commandment received by human ears, 'Be fruitful, and multiply'? Adultery is not a choice to be avoided; it is a circumstance to be embraced. Thus I construe these texts." (p. 117)
Working so near the innermost of his concerns, that congruence—at once farcical and tragic—of sexuality and religious feeling in post-Puritan America, Updike trusts himself almost blindly to his verbal skills. His use of puns, Freudian malapropisms, and portmanteau words … runs riot. Too often the level is that of a Hasty Pudding script in an off year….
Whether "A Month of Sundays" is substantial, controlled enough to make [Updike's] vision emotionally plausible is less [than] certain. It is an impatient text enforced by rather than enforcing its pyrotechnics. One would guess that it is a transitional novel in Updike's work, a rapid staking-out of territory that the next fictions will map at leisure. (p. 118)
George Steiner, "Scarlet Letters," in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), March 10, 1975, pp. 116-18.
[It] wasn't until the publication of Rabbit Redux in 1971 that Updike achieved in his own work the self-restraint and craftsmanship he had admired in others. Before then, he had flailed about somewhat unsteadily, tending toward verbal cuteness and gimmickry. Novels like The Centaur and Bech: A Book were deft but diversionary, more finger exercises than compositions.
Happily, these are now well behind him. A Month of Sundays is Updike's newest novel: its competence is prodigious. It is a composed and careful book whose success lies largely in its scarcity of faults. It is less coy, less evasive, less precious than is Updike's wont—a more substantial claim than might at first be apparent. (p. 11)
In the past, Updike's linguistic virtuosity often intruded into the narrative, and there was an inevitable disparity between the intellectual fastidiousness of the author and the mediocrity of his heroes. But the verbal gymnastics here seem very much to the point. More than Rabbit Angstrom or Peter Caldwell or Henry Bech, Marshfield is the Updike protagonist par excellence: guilt-ridden, word-conscious, querulous, and wry.
Though the novel has nothing of the scope or complication of Rabbit Redux, it may yet be the best formulation of a problem that has preoccupied Updike for years: the modern spirit-sapping retreat from dogma into passionless compromise. The figure of Marshfield, anxious but orthodox, corresponds nicely to Updike's sense of his own role as purveyor of unfashionable conservative truths to a liberal age ("androgynous, homogenizing liberals," Marshfield complains at one point).
There are large themes lurking in the background—the silence of God, the weakness of humankind—but Updike is able to approach them discreetly and without fanfare. The particular accomplishment of A Month of Sundays is to intimate the larger questions without sinking into ponderousness. Updike is no philosopher, and he keeps the range of inquiry manageable. He is writing within the reach of his talents, not trying to push beyond them. That may make for limitation, but it makes equally for control. The issues Updike is concerned to argue are at bottom simple ones, and he argues them without fuss. (pp. 11-12)
Michael Levenson, "Cataloging a Life," in Bookletter (copyright 1975 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the March 31, 1975 issue by special permission), March 31, 1975, pp. 11-12.
I suppose that Updike was drawn to the idea of a clerical hero for a number of reasons. Ministers aren't bad surrogates for novelists—they too, at least by repute, are literate, thoughtful, sensitive to human pain, good with words, devoted to more than immediate and transient values, accustomed to the presence of attentive audiences. And Updike's Thomas Marshfield [In A Month of Sundays], though stronger in some of these qualities than in others, can indeed sum up his experience as a passable outline for a novel…. [But there] are problems … in Marshfield's way of turning the outline into images of life.
For one thing, this account, with its insinuation of a "romance" quest-motif toward the end, seems rather self-protective, right down to the little typo which immediately generates a footnote making nervous comedy out of the "impotent-omnipotent" confusion and its implications for a reader of Meister Eckhart and Aquinas. And the character's defensiveness, his offer of charm and whimsicality to ward off the simple disapproval his behavior might otherwise seem to call for, reflects a difficulty for which the novelist must be held responsible.
The writing in the book often is almost aggressively overwrought, even for Updike, never one to pretend that his prose hasn't been written. (p. 18)
What exactly is the matter with Tom Marshfield? Married to the daughter of an old-fashioned theology professor named Chillingworth and entrusted to the rehabilitative care of the large and most un-nubile Ms. Prynne, whom he worshipfully beds before leaving the desert, he evidently is meant to be a weird updating of Hawthorne's Arthur Dimmesdale; but plain, dull, Puritan guilt isn't part of his penitential repertory…. (pp. 18-19)
[The question is] whether Marshfield makes sense as a human self-portrait. For me he doesn't. Just as I'm not sure that he's supposed to be quite the monster he usually seems, I'm not sure how far to trust the conclusion, in which he appears to regain (with the help of Confucius, Pascal, and Bergson) a perilous faith that may be the only one possible for intelligent modern people….
A Month of Sundays doesn't hang together well enough to prove that Updike's interest in sex and his interest in religion have come together to say something that is impressive or interesting about love. Perhaps to my shame, I can't see the novel as being a great deal more than disappointing self-indulgence by a very gifted writer. (p. 19)
Thomas R. Edwards, "Busy Minister," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), April 3, 1975, pp. 18-19.
[A Month of Sundays] is, at least in formal terms, a change of pace for the author. It is his freest, most loosely structured work to date. In fact, this is perhaps its most conspicuous and interesting feature. The narrative of Reverend Tom Marshfield is digressive, disjointed, and repetitious, an extended monologue, an ornate, overwrought confession. The author seems to be making a very conscious effort to loosen up, break free from the restraints of traditional narration. Though a number of Updike's other novels, notably The Poorhouse Fair and The Centaur, sometimes seemed more like prose poems than novels, they did possess a concreteness of character and detail. Here character is often eclipsed by Marshfield's voice, his over-ripe language, his frequent sermons. There is a wealth of physical detail, but it tends to give us bits and pieces of a world rather than a full, distinct environment. While it is encouraging to see an established author trying something a little different, taking chances with his work, one wishes that the results were more successful….
In this novel Updike's prodigious verbal energy is as much a curse as it is a blessing. There are, to be sure, a number of fine set pieces…. But for all the elegant, striking prose there seems to be an equal, if not even greater amount of irritatingly classy, bloated language. (p. 679)
[The protagonist's] frequent flights of language and his lengthy sermons prevent us from getting any clear picture of the human beings who share his story. We do get, among other things, lovely details of rooms, streets, bodies, references to the philosophy of Barth and Tillich, and great chunks of rhetoric. These elements, however, distance us from the matter at hand instead of illuminating it and bringing it closer to us. Since the people hold little reality for us, the passion and urgency of Tom's voice seem rather contrived and uncalled for. We don't quite believe it. It is too overwhelming. The author doesn't help matters by filling his narrative with puns, parenthetical asides, and footnotes. We strongly detect here the influence of Nabokov, whom Updike has so often praised…. It is unfortunate that he has chosen to employ the old master's most annoying devices.
Still, we are often taken by Updike's style and intelligence, and we are almost willing to forgive him his excesses. Parts of A Month of Sundays work very well, but the book as a whole does not, jumping as it does from bits of personal history to generalities to minor details. It is a thoroughly professional though diffuse performance by one of our most gifted writers, who has given us and, no doubt, will give us more satisfying and memorable books than this. (pp. 679-80)
Ronald De Feo, "Sex, Sermons, and Style," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N. Y. 10016), June 20, 1975, pp. 679-80.