John Updike Updike, John (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Updike, John 1932–

Updike is an American novelist, short story writer, poet, critic, essayist, and author of children's books. An acute observer of the human condition, Updike produces prose that is spare and rich in allegory. His characters, treated with sympathy and simplicity, are often depicted in hopeless marital and social situations. The way in which they grapple with love and, especially, lust represents Updike's central purpose: to explicate man's metaphysical strivings through an investigation of the strengths and limitations of his physical being. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Victor Strandberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Back in the second decade of this century, Herman Hesse remarked that "Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap."… In the figure of John Updike, Hesse's crisis of culture attains what we might call a culminating expression. Unwilling to exorcise the dilemma by making a game of it, in the mode of black humor widely prevalent among his contemporaries, Updike has confronted the problem of belief as directly as did Tolstoy and Tennyson a century earlier, but with the added authority of a mind keenly aware of twentieth-century science and theology…. Moving out from an intensely imagined vision of death as its starting point, this search for a belief that might provide a stay against death comprises the "figure in the carpet" that Henry James spoke of, the master theme that, threading from book to book, gives design to Updike's work as a whole and marks him as one of the leading religious writers of his age.

"Our fundamental anxiety is that we do not exist—or will cease to exist." That statement from Updike's essay on Denis de Rougemont's writings (Assorted Prose …) compresses within its narrow pith the most recurrent nightmare in Updike's work…. The dread of Death stalks softly through all of Updike's books…. (pp. 157-58)

[For example,] Couples (1968) notably places its erotic episodes against a background saturated with news of expiring flesh: the slow death of Pope John, the mysterious sinking of the submarine Thresher, the death of the Kennedy infant, the Diem assassinations, the murder of the President himself, the killing of Lee Oswald (which the Hanemas watch on television), two planes crashing in Turkey, a great Alaskan earthquake. The fictional world of Couples can hardly compete with such real life extinctions, but it does offer the slow dying of John Ong by cancer in counterpoint with the insomniac dread visited upon Piet Hanema ever since his parents died in a crash….

Beyond this prospect of personal extinction lies that ultimate formulation of doom from the science of Physics, the theory of Entropy, which foresees the whole universe eventually burning out into a final icy darkness. This idea horrifies a good many Updike people, a typical instance being the tortured insomniac at the end of Pigeon Feathers who wakes his wife at last to share his terror: "I told her of the centuries coming when our names would be forgotten, of the millennia when our nation would be a myth and our continent an ocean, of the aeons when our earth would be vanished and the stars themselves diffused into a uniform and irreversible tepidity."… Worst of all is the eternally "forgotten" state in the above passage, a final and total extinction of the self that has haunted George Caldwell in The Centaur ever since he witnessed his father's death, though Caldwell accepts both death and entropy cheerfully enough otherwise. (p. 159)

Updike might as well have been speaking of himself when he described Conrad Aiken's stories as projecting a world whose "horror is not Hitlerian but Einsteinian," concerned not with crime and war but with the "interstellar gulfs" and "central nihil" of "the cosmic vacuity."… All of Updike's major work to date may be seen as some kind of response to this trauma; his people variously resist death through Christian faith (John Hook in The Poorhouse Fair), through the way of Eros (the Rabbit books, Couples), through Agape (George Caldwell), through art (Bech, Peter Caldwell), and through the metaphysical intuition that Updike himself calls "duality" (A Month of Sundays and elsewhere)…. The Centaur, which gathers them all in its purview, remains Updike's most satisfactory treatment of his grand obsession.

To deal with the threat of non-existence, Updike has resorted largely to the oldest modes of immortality known to man—God and sex, more or less in that order, but sometimes meshed in a dubious combination. To judge from the bulk of Updike's writing, we might well surmise that Freddy Thorne, the high priest of Couples, speaks for his author when he says, "In the western world, there are only two comical things; the Christian church and naked women…. Everything else tells us we're dead." (pp. 159-60)

Back in his earliest novel, The Poorhouse Fair, where a head-on debate between a Christian and an atheist comprises the intellectual center of the work, it is ominously the atheist whose argument carries the weightiest evidence…. Perhaps Updike's most harrowing—and most brilliantly written—plunge into the abyss of religious skepticism occurs in "Lifeguard," whose divinity-student narrator skewers the whole line-up of Christian theologies like so much shish-ke-bob. (pp. 160-61)

When God goes, half-gods arrive; and in our post-Freudian age, what other god can stand before Eros, "the Genesis of All Things," as the Centaur teaches …, and the one surviving deity who delivers a kind of immortality people may yet live by. Perhaps it is natural that when faith fails, God and sex become blurred…. Some such subliminal transference seems to have worked itself out in Updike's fiction of the 1960's, whose tones have become steadily less Christian and more pagan, though without a clear victory on either side.

Updike's psychology of sex, as he himself has attested, owes a great deal to two books by Denis de Rougement, Love in the Western World and Love Declared. (p. 161)

Updike renders [the] connection between Eros, narcissism, and death metaphorically in his Erotic Epigram III …, which reads:

Hoping to fashion a mirror, the lover doth polish the face of his beloved until he produces a skull.

So Eros becomes another mask for death, after all, rather than...

(The entire section is 2438 words.)

Daphne Merkin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[While] Updike is gifted at everything he puts his hand to, he is not equally gifted. Thus, although he is a first-rate miniaturist (his short stories are usually flawless, and his criticism can be truly remarkable …), he has failed to attain major status as a novelist. Perhaps his is a case of talent spread too thin to sustain the rigors of full-length fiction. Or perhaps something less tangible and more complicated is involved—a subtle clash between artistic ability and artistic inclination, between what John Updike is best equipped to write about and what he wants to write about. More specifically, he seeks to abandon his natural subjects—disgruntled marriages (Couples, Marry Me) and crumbling Wasp traditions (A Month of Sundays)—for darker, archetypal matters—alien accounts of wandering Jews (Bech: A Book) and militant blacks (Rabbit Redux). And these books of larger vision, despite not always being persuasive, are in fact the author's most interesting works. (p. 21)

The Coup is a very witty book about the merchandising of ideology. It is inventive in a Nabokovian way: nothing is too big—or small—to be poked fun at. The American scenes … have about them the pungency that last wafted through Lolita. It is almost as though Updike had to figuratively leave home—by impersonating the foreigner—in order to see most clearly into the frailties of home…. Flecked with sobriety and whimsy, The Coup counters a concern for temps perdu with a muscular sense of presentness. More important, here John Updike comes closer than he has ever come before to matching the intention to the act. (p. 22)

Daphne Merkin, "Updike in Africa," in The New Leader (© 1978 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), December 4, 1978, pp. 21-2.

Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"The Coup" is a comedy of racial and cultural incongruities; but whereas Waugh and Theroux use a white protagonist … to clear a path for us into the Dark Continent, Updike has the fictional audacity to project a black among blacks, a militant and culturally, though not sexually, puritanical Marxist-Muslim, the redoubtable Col. Hakim Félix Ellelloû, as the commanding figure and voice of his novel. (p. 1)

[Ellelloû] is an extraordinary tour-de-force of a character, an ideologue who reminds me of one of Nabokov's mad narrators, a Humbert Humbert or a Charles Kinbote; like them he is obsessed, self-destructive, nimble and often endearing…. The African wives, too, are distinctively fleshed-out and...

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John Thompson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Updike was in Africa in 1973, one of the years of the great drought that reduced the always barren country around the Sahara to an absolute waste land. Out of what he saw, out of many books, and out of his own head he has made the nation of Kush [as the setting for his book, The Coup]. It is an audacious creation and there must have been some magic in it too because the entire nation is there in all its splendor, farce, and misery.

With much nerve and surely with some luck, Updike invented his Africa not the way other white novelists have done. He did not dispatch a Henderson or Lord Greystoke, some Francis Macomber or one of Paul Theroux's emissaries, or even a Basil Seal or a Marlowe to...

(The entire section is 800 words.)

Alastair Reid

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kush, an imagined sub-Saharan country in Africa, a poor peanut-producing territory once ruled by the French under the name of Noire, is the improbable setting for John Updike's uncharacteristic new novel, "The Coup" …, and he has taken immense pains to make the territory tangible in some dazzling passages of physical description and recreation. "The Coup" is really more fable than novel. At first reading, it seems to be a number of books in one, and veers abruptly from the lyrical to the intensely declarative to the hilarious, from character to caricature; but it has a high moral point of view, and some exotic set pieces, which contrive to move it toward the fabulous. Updike has become the most Nabokovian of...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Joyce Carol Oates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What [Updike] has to say [in The Coup] is mordant, outrageous, and bitterly self-mocking, a lengthy monologue that really is a coup of sorts, constituting Updike's most experimental novel to date. Kush is Ellelloû's fiction just as The Coup is Updike's fastidiously circumscribed fiction, a country set in an "Africa" of words. And what a virtuoso display Updike gives us! Not even [Nabokov's] Pale Fire, another inspired work by another displaced "ruler," is more darkly comic, more abrasively surreal, than Updike's Ellelloû's testimony….

Where Márquez's Faulknerian The Autumn of the Patriarch presented a bizarre dictator seen from without, filtered through the...

(The entire section is 1205 words.)

Gene Lyons

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Coup attracted my interest because of its subject matter. Writing about the Sahel, I thought, might help transform the muffled glories of Updike's ornate prose into something leaner, or lend a gravity to his religious impulses that neither Skeeter nor the author's suburban adulterers had ever done. At times in The Coup that almost seems what Updike himself has in mind….

Nobody would deny Updike's expository gifts, despite the occasional sentence that defies understanding. When it comes to such novelistic matters as plot, character and dialogue, however, his verbosity seems to overwhelm his judgment. Sentences and whole paragraphs detach themselves from the dramatic logic of the...

(The entire section is 662 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The stories [in Too Far to Go] are consecutive,… and the same characters, Richard and Joan Maple, and the same themes—love, domesticity and infidelity, permanence and evanescence, blood and death—appear throughout. Together the stories form a single unit, rather like an Updike novel, rather like the Maples' marriage, a luxurious slow slide from grace, a 20-year trajectory from innocence to decadence.

The Maples begin, certainly, in innocence…. But they end, like the students in the butchers' school next to the church—two emblems that figure in the first story, "Snowing in Greenwich Village"—"all bloody and laughing." (p. E1)

Richard Maple is stubbornly determined...

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Paul Theroux

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

So many of John Updike's characters seem to inhabit the suburbs of Splitsville and to toy with infidelity as soon as the shower presents are unwrapped that one things of them as naturally polygamous…. [It seems odd] that the gracenote of Updike's fiction should be optimism—a radiant box of corn flakes in the kitchen mess, a cascade of Calgonite offering an epiphany in the dishwasher, and so forth—because his people are not so much learning marriage as pondering a way out of it….

Leaving aside the banality of this collection's title ["Too Far to Go"] (is it the "so long, so far" line of Donne's "The Extasie" hammered into Americanese?), there are several implausibilities in the stories. I am...

(The entire section is 524 words.)