John Updike

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Joseph Epstein (essay date January 1983)

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SOURCE: “John Updike: Promises, Promises,” in Commentary, Vol. 75, No. 1, January, 1983, pp. 54–8.

[In the following essay, Epstein provides an overview of Updike's literary career, fiction, and critical assessment. According to Epstein, Updike's fiction is undermined by the author's preoccupation with prose style and the subject of sex.]

In her memoir, A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton speaks of the advantages of not being considered promising. It was better, she thought, at least in her own case, “to fight my way to expression through a thick fog of indifference.” Fighting his way through “a thick fog of indifference” has not quite been John Updike's problem in his career as a novelist. From his earliest novels Updike has had powerhouse critics behind him, among them Mary McCarthy, Arthur Mizener, Stanley Edgar Hyman, lauding him, cheering him on, acclaiming his promise.

Edith Wharton also speaks in her memoir of the disadvantages of being regarded as too promising, saying of those so considered that in middle age they often “sat in ineffectual ecstasy before the blank page or the empty canvas.” This, as we know, has scarcely been John Updike's problem either, for now, twenty-four years after the publication of his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, he has published fully twenty-five more books. Yet in a curious way, just as John Updike remains boyish in personal appearance and manner, his reputation has remained oddly boyish, too; now at fifty years old he still seems to be considered promising.

There are two jokes about John Updike. One is that he is an underachiever. The other is that he is an overachiever. The confusion between Updike and John Cheever stems of course from the fact that both have been writers long associated with the New Yorker and both have written extensively about suburban upper-middle-class life. But the confusion cannot be real to anyone who has read the two of them. Updike, for one thing, has taken up many subjects aside from the suburban one; for another, he has been by far the more productive writer; and for a third, he has been the more determinedly literary, in the sense of having read widely in the work of his contemporaries and taken a serious interest in the more sheerly aesthetic aspects of prose fiction. If ambition, productivity, and absorption in the ideas of one's day are to be counted, then John Updike is an overachiever.

But if we are to judge by greatness of theme, or seriousness of purpose, of largeness of spirit, is John Updike still an overachiever, or is he an underachiever or perhaps something else altogether? I fell away from John Updike's fiction with Rabbit Redux (1971), the second of what is now a trilogy of novels about the character Harry Angstrom. Until then Updike was a novelist I had read without particularly esteeming. He was—and remains—so obviously, so ardently, so determinedly a stylist. He was also so clearly the coming man, so full of a promise that never quite seemed to come to fulfillment. Rabbit, Run, for example, the first of the three Harry Angstrom books, was a novel with an interesting idea at its center, that of a young man whose greatest glory (as a high-school athlete) is behind him at eighteen, yet the book grew diffuse, chaotic, and finally failed in a wash of violence at its close. The Centaur, Updike's attempt to stretch a contemporary novel upon a classical myth, à la James Joyce, seemed to me misfired, a bad idea taken all the way out. Of the Farm, a novel about a young man torn...

(This entire section contains 4316 words.)

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between the rivalrous claims of his wife and mother, was interesting but small. Between these novels Updike turned but an impressive flow of short stories, literary criticism, light verse. He became a large-public writer, in Wyndham Lewis's phrase, with the publication ofCouples, a novel about sexual customs in the suburbs. As I recall, I did not quite finish reading Couples. It wasn't the sex that put me off—it was the conversation afterward.

Except for a hundred or so pages of Rabbit Redux, which I put down as improbable in its violence, I pretty much stopped reading the novels of John Updike. Promises, promises, of Updikean promises I had had, for the present, enough. Still, quite without my readership, John Updike's reputation continued to grow. When Rabbit Is Rich (1981) won the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle prize, and the Pulitzer Prize, the last named, in its citation, praised the novel as “a fulfillment of Updike's fabulous promise.” Time put Updike on the cover of its issue of October 18, 1982, and inside ran a story about him entitled “Perennial Promises Kept.” Had I decamped too soon?

“Updike,” Time noted, “is ubiquitous.” And so of late he has seemed. His books fill the mass paperback racks. A new book, Bech Is Back, is out, in which the hero, a Jewish writer named Henry Bech, has finally written his “long-awaited” novel. No one has ever had to wait very long for a John Updike novel. Yet it is a bit unclear if anyone, apart from his publishers, is waiting at all. Perhaps it is owing to his high, his almost excessive, productivity which eliminates the pleasure of awaiting a fresh Updike work, but I do not get the sense that people love John Updike's work or that they bring certain hopeful expectations to it, as readers still do to the novels of, say, Saul Bellow or V. S. Naipaul—some hope that they will come away with fresh knowledge of the world or insight into themselves. Even John Updike seems to be a bit bored by the phenomenon of John Updike. “In novel after novel,” he recently told a New York Times reporter, “the amorous get together, there's the romantic failure, the economic struggle—God, we've all done it so many times.”

Bored Updike may have grown, but fatigued never. Since I ceased to read him he had, it seems, written five novels—not to mention books of stories. I decided to pick him up with a novel of 1976 entitled Marry Me. This is a book in which Updike takes up his old suburban subject, which I understand to be yearning among the upper-middle class. In Marry Me, Jerry Conant, a commercial artist and a married man with three young children, has an affair with and struggles over the question of whether to marry a woman, also married with three young children, who is part of his and his wife's social circle. Such drama as the novel has is about his waverings, his tugs of conscience. Much domestic detail is presented: many bedsheets are rumpled, a good deal of bread is toasted and buttered.

So is a good deal of the prose toasted and buttered. The hero of Marry Me cannot even urinate without Updike describing “his diminishing arc of relief.” Updike simply cannot pass up any opportunity to tap dance in prose. Toward the novel's close, as it shambles to its denouement, one must still clamber over—as an adoring reviewer put it in the Boston Globe—“the famous style.” Thus, debarking from a plane in France, the novel's hero Updikistically notes: “The air was soft, clean, and somehow fractionated, Cubistically portioned and dislocated by the diagonal rays of a tepid sun.” In Updike there is always time to type out a bit of tapestry.

Style is worth dwelling on a moment longer, for John Updike is perhaps above all considered a stylist, the primo don of contemporary American prose. “I notice as I write,” he has said, “it comes out as sort of Updike prose. … It's always mine, and there's no way I can seem to get around it. Isn't it funny you only have one voice?” With that style Updike can make elaborate metaphors, strike resounding rhythms—“Skating, Ruth flew and, flying, she was free”—and chisel small but interesting observations, such as this upon a minor character in Marry Me: “His anxious face had forgotten the attempted suavity of its blurry little mustache.”

Can one write too well? I shouldn't have thought so, and yet style, understood as sheer prettiness of phrasing, can cover up the absence of having anything very pressing to say—or even anything to say at all. With Updike it appears to be the case that the less he has to say the more he turns on the style—charm being intended to substitute for substance. Unfortunately, it is usually not an adequate substitute.

Finally nothing more improves style than actually having something to say, but in Marry Me it is far from clear that Updike has anything at all to say. Jerry Conant, the hero, is a great ditherer, but then, in working out this novel's plot, so is its author. “Plot has always been a great worry to me,” Updike told an audience at Skidmore College, “because I don't think that life falls into plots, it does not end quite the way books do.” Maybe, and maybe not. But then neither does life fall into such old-style ladies'-magazine dialogue (“‘But love must become fruitful, or it loses itself,’”), such sententious observations (“Ruth disliked, religiously, the satisfaction he took in being divided, confirming thereby the split between body and soul that alone can save men from extinction”), such hilariously unintentional comic lines (“‘I'm a Judaeo-Christian, just like you are,’ Ruth said”) as this extraordinarily flat novel provides. Of moral conflict there is none, of interesting characters there are none, of acute observations there are none. There is only prose, working on nothing, exhibiting itself, as if to say: “Look Ma, no thoughts.”

Why would a novelist write such a book? Perhaps because he had had an experience—Updike some years ago did go through a divorce—and felt, as contemporary novelists tend to do, that no experience, God forfend, should be wasted. This same explanation might do for John Updike's next novel, The Coup (1978). Updike was a Fulbright Fellow in Africa, and it must have seemed a shame to him not to attempt to turn the experience into literature. The Coup is set in an imaginary African nation called Kush, ruled by a Marxistical Islamic leader named Colonel Hakim Félix Ellelloû, a man who has four wives, goes about the streets of his country in disguise, and was educated in the United States. Do I give away the tone and tenor of The Coup if I note that Colonel Ellelloû attended McCarthy College in Franchise, Wisconsin?

It is not quite so simple as that, though very nearly so. The Coup is intended, I suspect, as a satire, of the a-plague-on-both-your-condominiums sort, with plenty of contumely to go round for both East and West as they meddle in and destroy the cultures of the Third World. I say “I suspect” because it isn't always clear quite what Updike intends. Not only does he lash out more savagely at the West—which, naturally enough, he knows better than he does the East—but his prose once more gets in the way. Colonel Ellelloû, through whom much of the story is told, sounds curiously like a recent Time cover subject—and I don't mean Yasir Arafat. Be they African leaders or Toyota dealers, John Updike heroes all sound very Updikean (“Isn't it funny you only have one voice?”), and Updikean, ventriloquated through Colonel Ellelloû, sounds like this: “I even knew how she would make love: with abashed aggression, tense in her alleged equality of body, primed like a jammed bazooka on the pornographic plastic fetishes and sexual cookbooks of her white tribe and yet, when all cultural discounts are entered, with something of graciousness, of helpless feeling, of an authentic twist at the end. …”

It is no accident (as the old Marxist polemicists used to say) that this quotation happens to concern sex. Sex has come more and more to fill the pages of John Updike's novels. It is rather surprising, really, that the feminist thought-control police haven't paid these books a visit. When they do so they will find that the women in an Updike novel turn out to be most notable for their legs, breasts, lips, and—as our tender-hearted author himself might put it, in one of his soggier metaphors—damp shady places. In The Coup, for example, Colonel Ellelloû is given four wives chiefly because, as near as I can make out, this allows Updike to illustrate four styles of fornication.

What is all the sex doing in John Updike's novels? Is it screwing merely? I would say that it is screwing mostly but not merely. Without its descriptions of sex a novel like The Coup, thin enough as it is, would scarcely exist. Although Updike has read a bit of West African history and looked into the Koran and even been to Africa, none of this seems to go very far in moving his novel along. Satire doesn't take him much farther: “‘America is downright loveable,’” an American diplomat in the novel says, “‘America loves all peoples and wants them to be happy, because America loves happiness.’” Heavy thinking—“It may be, Ellelloû reflected … that in the attenuation, desiccation, and death of religions the world over, a new religion is being formed in the hearts of men … a religion whose antipodes are motion and stasis … whose ultimate purpose is entropy”—no, heavy thinking isn't much help either. That would appear to leave only overwriting and sex, and overwriting about sex.

Is it permitted to complain about sex in novels as late as 1983? One would have thought all this was settled decades ago. In “On the Treatment of Sexual Detail in Literature,” an essay of 1912, the English philosopher F. H. Bradley allowed that stunted natures, to whom it is not given “to take and enjoy art and literature for what they really are,” might be wrongly stimulated by sexual description in books and paintings. But, Bradley concluded with great passion, “What is not tolerable is that stunted natures set up their defects as a standard. It is an outrage, it is sheer blasphemy, when they bring the divine creations of literature and art to the touchstone of their own impotence, their own animalism, and their own immorality.” Bradley later had second thoughts and, in a note appended to his essay, he wrote: “And it must be admitted against the novel that, retaining to a greater or lesser extent the aspect of a tale of adventure, it, to speak in general, is prone to exalt the adventurous aspect of sexual love, which is not really the aspect which in life possesses most moral importance.” Still, Bradley's general point stands: literature must not be restricted in its freedom because of the effect this freedom might have on brutish readers.

F. H. Bradley acknowledged that sexual detail “may tend to exalt one-sidely one side of human nature, and possibly depress others.” But what he overlooked is what the freedom to write about sex in detail might do to novels and novelists. Aesthetically it has had, I think it fair to say, a generally poor effect on the novel. Among other things, it allows writers, whenever they feel their plots slowing down, to drop their characters into bed. For many contemporary novelists these bedtime moments are the great moments in their books. William Gass, in On Being Blue, remarks that as readers we want “the penetration of privacy. We want to see under the skirt. …” Is this so? Difficult to say, but what is not difficult to say, what Gass in fact says in his essay, is that “writers remain unduly responsive to it.”

Some writers more than others; but enough, I think, to formulate one of those grand dichotomies, like Philip Rahv's division of American writers into Palefaces and Redskins. Today, I believe, the real division is between novelists who are grownups and novelists who despite chronological age have managed to remain boys and girls. The way you can tell the boys and girls is in their interest in purveying sex in the greatest possible detail. Not that grownup novelists are uninterested in sexual relations—Isaac Bashevis Singer, a grownup, has said that he considers nothing quite so interesting to him as a novelist—but rather that they view the actual details as a private matter. Boy and girl novelists, by contrast, are always lifting skirts, dropping trousers, adjusting ropes and pulleys, hooking up dry-cell batteries, bringing in zebras, passing out towels, what have you.

By this standard Norman Mailer is an excellent boy novelist, and so is Philip Roth; Erica Jong and Francine du Plessix Gray are two good girl novelists; one could make a lengthy list of others. The chief way you can tell the boys and girls from the grownups is that in the novels of the former, sex—plain and fancy fornication—is not merely an ornament but absolutely crucial. Without the heavy dosage of sexual detail, their novels wouldn't quite exist.

John Updike is certainly a boy novelist in the sense that many of his novels are unthinkable without their elaborate sexual detail, but he is a boy novelist in other senses, too. In The Coup, Colonel Ellelloû, recalling his education in America, notes: “I perceived that a man, in America, is a failed boy.” If there is a preponderant emotion running through Updike's novels it is that of boyish yearning, or more precisely the yearning, once more to be a boy. In Rabbit Is Rich, Harry Angstrom, at his son's wedding, thinks: “Life, just as we first thought, is playing grownup.” But the playing, the pretense, is thin, and in John Updike novels men do tend to be boys. Other boys seem either not to notice or to mind; in fact, they greatly approve. The boys who do the book-reviewing in this country widely, even wildly, praised Rabbit Is Rich, the third of Updike's novels about Harry Angstrom, the book that won the Pulitzer and other prizes.

Rabbit Is Rich might as easily have been entitled Rabbit Is Babbitt (X-rated). In the novel Harry Angstrom, now in his late forties, runs his deceased father-in-law's Toyota agency in the town of Brewer, Pennsylvania. He has been married to Janice Springer now for twenty-three years; they live in his mother-in-law's house; their only son, Nelson, is a student at Kent State. Harry is a careful reader of Consumer Reports. He has a 42” waist and is a Rotarian. He is financially well-off; in a middle-aged sort of way, relatively content. The novel is set in 1979: the gas shortages have begun in earnest, American hostages are locked away in Iran. Through the 400-odd pages of the novel Rabbit ruminates on the decline of America, on the bittersweet goodness of the old days, but mainly on—in the old locker-room phrase—getting laid. “The trouble with you, champ,” says one of Rabbit's car salesmen, “is you have screwing on the brain.”

Even though the lengthiest of Updike's recent books, Rabbit Is Rich is easily the most readable. The reason, I suspect, is that in Harry Angstrom Updike is in real touch with his subject. He isn't in complete touch with it: Rabbit's days at the Toyota agency aren't very convincing in their detail, but then it is difficult to recall an American novelist who has been convincing on the work his characters do since Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. Still, the yearning that Rabbit feels as he drives through the town in which he grew up, noting changes and desecrations, calling up boyhood memories, can be very moving. So, too, are the sad exchanges between Rabbit and his hopeless son, and the desolation Rabbit feels at being unable to find any meaning in life. All sorts of interesting bits, lovely touches, aptly captured minor characters—a hip clergyman, a sleek home-improvements salesman, Rabbit's sour mother-in-law—are in Rabbit Is Rich. Somehow, one feels, this ought to be a better book than it is.

John Updike knows all about Harry Angstrom, even down to his teeth, which now, in middle age, are jacketed in gold inlays. But it is hard to believe that Updike finally cares for Rabbit, just as it is hard to believe that he cares very much about the decline of American power that he continually alludes to in this novel. They seem merely things to write about. Why, for example, does he deal so perversely with Rabbit, who he more than once hints might be homosexual? (“‘I think he's queer,’” his son Nelson says, and in Rabbit's sex fantasies, Updike writes, “The woman's sensations seem nearer to him than the man's”). Why does he make Rabbit so irreducibly sexual a being, whose every thought, every action, every motive begins and ends in sex? “The aim of my fiction,” John Updike has said, is to “let literature concern itself, as the Gospels do, with the inner life of hidden man.” But the inner life, in Updike's fiction, seems increasingly to be located in the scrotum.

In Updike's most recent novel, Bech Is Back, sex looms less large, and this for a not very complicated reason: it is about a writer, and the writing life is something that John Updike knows well, better even then he knows the life of Harry Angstrom. The writer as a public figure, as celebrity and grist for academic mills, is in fact the subject of two brief Updike novels, written more than a decade apart. Both are about Henry Bech, a blocked New York Jewish writer whose reputation has continued to rise even as his literary output has remained exactly the same.

Reading Bech: A Book (1970) and Bech Is Back (1982) one after the other, one senses something interesting at work. When Bech: A Book was published, American Jewish novelists were riding high; Jewish and novelist seemed almost linked words; and consequently there was more than a touch of acid in Updike's portrait of Henry Bech, who seemed a character created out of the idiosyncrasies of a number of Jewish novelists. Bech: A Book was an extended parody, but from time to time an edge of real nastiness cut through, as when an aristocratic English woman says to Bech, “‘You American Jews are so romantic. … I hate the “pity me” in all your books’”; or when, mocking Bech's sterility as a writer (as opposed to his own fecundity?), Updike refers to those honorable literary failures who “rather endear a writer to the race of critics, who would rather be reassured of art's noble difficulty than cope with a potent creative verve.” Much mockery of the New York intellectual milieu was tossed in—Bech wrote for Commentary, which “let him use a desk”—and another character refers to the New York intellectuals' “heady mixture of art for art's sake and Depression funk.”

In Bech Is Back, though, the abscess of nastiness has largely drained. As the novel begins, thirteen years have passed, and Bech has maintained his silence; indeed he has won the Melville Medal “awarded every five years to that American author who has maintained the most meaningful silence.” In the seven loosely joined stories that comprise Bech Is Back, Henry Bech marries, is goaded by his Gentile and suburban wife into writing Think Big, a sloppy blockbuster bestseller, and loses such privacy as he had remaining to him. Jabs are made from time to time at critics and reviewers (and, obligatorily, at Commentary). Some of the bits are finely done. Updike is very funny on the changing of the guard in American publishing, where old-style line editors have been replaced by new-style marketing impresarios. Many a nice throwaway line pops up: Bech “had the true New Yorker's secret belief that people being anywhere else had to be, in some sense, kidding.”

But something rather more interesting has happened between Bech: A Book and Bech Is Back, and this is that Updike has gone from mockery of Henry Bech to affection for him. In the process Bech, one of America's leading Jewish novelists, has come to seem decidedly less Jewish, and more a member of another minority group: writers on whom society makes endless demands. “The writer's duty to society, Bech had said, was simply to tell the truth, however strange, small, or private his truth appeared.” Yet society wants more than truth, to hear Bech Is Back tell it; it wants interviews, autographs, photographs, television talk-show appearances, all of which, in this novel, Henry Bech supplies. Not the least ironic touch in Bech Is Back is in the line: “Bech was photographed by Jill Krementz, caricatured by David Levine, and interviewed by Michiko Kakutani.” For the jacket photograph of John Updike in this book is by Jill Krementz, a fresh caricature of him by David Levine accompanies the favorable review of the book in the New York Review of Books, and around the time of the book's publication Updike was interviewed for the New York Times by Michiko Kakutani. Ah, me, there goes life imitating art imitating life imitating art imitating life again.

The chief point of both Bech books is the tragicomic one that, as novels have become less important in the United States, novelists have come into greater public demand. Updike may speak of the writer's only duty being to tell his own “strange, small, or private” truth, but this truth has itself become stranger, smaller, and more private all the time. Such, for all his own early promise, have John Updike's own truths become, dealing as they for the most part do with ornate sex and social clichés got up in velvet metaphors. In his heart Updike may even know that his own high reputation and success are part of the general swindle, and Bech Is Back may be his form of admitting it. If so, that would constitute a strange, small truth that it is nonetheless well to have made public.


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John Updike 1932–-

(Full name John Hoyer Updike) American novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, critic, and memoirist.

The following entry presents an overview of Updike's career through 1998. See also John Updike Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13.

One of the most critically respected and popular contemporary American authors, Updike is recognized as a brilliant prose stylist and keen social observer. Though best known for his award-winning quartet of Rabbit novels, Updike has amassed a large and ever-growing body of best-selling novels, acclaimed volumes of short stories, essays, and poetry since his arrival on the literary scene in the late 1950s. An incessant chronicler of post-war American mores and morals, Updike alternately finds humor, tragedy, and pathos in the small crises and quandaries of middle-class existence, particularly its sexual and religious hang-ups. His trademark fiction, largely informed by Christian theology, classical mythology, and popular culture, is distinguished for its broad erudition, wit, and descriptive opulence.

Biographical Information

Born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, Updike was the only child of Wesley R. Updike, a high school mathematics teacher, and Linda G. Hoyer. At age thirteen he moved with his parents to a farmhouse outside of town where the newfound isolation encouraged him to convey his creative fantasies to paper in the form of stories and cartoons. Updike received a scholarship to attend Harvard University in 1950. There he majored in English, studied art, and served as editor of the Harvard Lampoon, to which he contributed writings and illustrations. At Harvard, Updike also met Radcliffe undergraduate Mary Entwistle Pennington, whom he married in 1953; they divorced in 1977 and Updike married Martha Bernhard the same year. After graduating summa cum laude in 1954, Updike received a one-year Knox Fellowship to study art at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts in Oxford, England. The next year he resettled in Manhattan and took a staff position with the New Yorker, which published his first professional story, “Friends from Philadelphia,” in 1954. Updike maintained a lifelong association with the New Yorker, within which his fiction, verse, and reviews have regularly appeared throughout his career. In 1957 he left the magazine and moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts, to devote himself to full-time writing. He quickly established himself with his first three books—poetry in The Carpenter Hen and Other Tame Creatures (1958), short stories in The Same Door (1959), and his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair (1959), winner of the Rosenthal Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1959 and numerous major awards followed, including the National Book Award for The Centaur (1963), O. Henry awards for his short fiction, a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for both Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), and a National Book Critics Circle Award for Hugging the Shore (1983). Updike was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964 and the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977, and was honored with the National Medal of the Arts in 1989.

Major Works

Updike's distinct prose style, an essential feature of his fiction and discursive writings, is characterized by its vividly descriptive passages, carefully wrought in a striking, allusive, and often esoteric vocabulary that reveals the author's infatuation with language itself. Often placed within the realist tradition—a literary mode that favors precise, objective description of the real world over imaginative or idealized representations—much of Updike's fiction is presided over by a wry, intelligent authorial voice that conscientiously portrays the physical world and everyday life in lucid detail. Philosophically aligned with Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, and Paul Tillich, Updike's fiction revolves primarily around the problem of faith and morality in the modern, post-Christian world, pointing toward the necessity of transcendental belief. In addition, many of his novels, short stories, and personal essays are largely autobiographical, drawing heavily upon his formative experiences in small-town, rural Pennsylvania. The author's hometown of Shillington serves as the model for the fictional town of Olinger, a recurring setting in the short stories of The Same Door,Pigeon Feathers (1962), and Olinger Stories (1964), as well as The Poorhouse Fair, a novel describing the circumstances of the elderly in a future welfare state. Updike's adolescence and relationship with his father forms the basis of The Centaur, a semi-autobiographic novel that parallels the mythological father-son relationship of Chirion and Prometheus. Likewise, his corresponding relationship with his mother is characterized in the novel Of the Farm (1965) and in the nostalgic short stories of The Afterlife and Other Stories (1994).

Rabbit, Run (1960), the first of Updike's Rabbit novels, introduces protagonist Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a former high school basketball star and quintessential average American man who wallows in ignominy and marital doldrums after graduation. His quasi-spiritual quest for self-fulfillment and meaning is acted out in his flight from wife, Janice, and his adulterous exploits, a futile gesture of resistance that ends with his return and the accidental drowning of their infant daughter. In Rabbit Redux (1971), a sequel set against events of the turbulent 1960s, Rabbit reappears ten years older and resigned to his marriage to Janice, with whom he now shares a son, Nelson. Incorporating Homeric themes, the novel centers upon their respective infidelities and Rabbit's involvement with a teenaged hippie girl and black Vietnam vet. Rabbit Is Rich, the third volume of the series, is set amid the energy crisis and consumer excesses of the 1970s. Finding himself middle-aged and undeservedly prosperous as the head of a Toyota car dealership he inherited from his father-in-law, Rabbit reflects upon his suburban contentment with Janice, though struggles to understand his simpering, college-aged son. In Rabbit at Rest, the final installment of the series, Rabbit golfs, ruins his heart with junk food and inactivity, and contemplates his imminent death while in semi-retirement during the Reagan-era 1980s. Together the Rabbit tetralogy documents four decades of post-war American social history during which, as Rabbit's experiences suggest, the nation has lost its moral direction and languishes in cynicism, indifference, and futility.

The domestic reality of suburban, middle-class American life is the focus of Problems and Other Stories (1979), the short stories of Trust Me (1987), and many Updike novels, including Couples (1968), A Month of Sundays (1975), Marry Me (1976), Roger's Version (1986), and S. (1988), a reinterpretation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Each of these novels detail the marital tensions, sexual escapades, personal betrayals, professional disappointments, and spiritual crises that reflect changing attitudes about sexual behavior, relationships between men and women, and, most importantly, religious belief in contemporary society. The Witches of Eastwick (1984) addresses similar themes, but also incorporates elements of magic realism in its portrayal of three divorced New England witches who vie for the affections of a demonic dilettante. Updike has also taken up international settings and themes in several novels, such as The Coup (1978), which satirizes American and Third-World ideology through the perspective of an ousted leader of a fictitious African country, and Brazil (1994), a reinterpretation of the medieval Tristan and Isolde legend, in which an interracial pair of Brazilian lovers struggle against social prejudice in their native land. During the 1990s, Updike produced several additional novels: Memories of the Ford Administration (1992) involves a history professor whose ruminations on Ford-era politics revolve around recollection of his extramarital romps and research for a never-completed monograph about President James Buchanan; In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996) chronicles four generations of the Wilmot family, from their turn-of-the-century New Jersey origins through their successive bouts with religious doubt, mediocrity, fame, and fanaticism; Toward the End of Time (1997), set in the early twenty-first century after a devastating nuclear war with China, involves a retired investment consultant who reflects upon his perverse pleasures, mortality, and nature in rural Massachusetts.

Updike has also chronicled the literary life of alter-ego Henry Bech, a fictitious Jewish-American author, in the short story collections Bech (1970), Bech Is Back (1982), and Bech at Bay (1998). These largely satirical stories describe Bech's perpetual battle against writer's block, hostile reviewers, the demands of celebrity, and changing currents in literary theory. The central themes of Updike's fiction also permeate his numerous volumes of poetry, including The Carpenter Hen and Other Tame Creatures,Telephone Poles and Other Poems (1963), Midpoint and Other Poems (1969), Tossing and Turning (1977), Facing Nature (1985), and his Collected Poems (1993). In the tradition of light verse, much of his poetry sparkles with humor, clever linguistic turns, and sophisticated witticisms. Updike's critical reviews and essays on a variety of personal, literary, and artistic topics are contained in Assorted Prose (1965), Picked-Up Pieces (1975), Hugging the Shore,Just Looking (1989), Odd Jobs (1991), and his memoir Self-Consciousness (1989).

Critical Reception

Updike is widely regarded as one of the dominant American literary figures of the post-war era. The high quality and diversity of his formidable oeuvre is frequently cited as evidence of his superior literary gifts and intellect. As Margaret Atwood notes, “Surely no American writer has written so much, for so long, so consistently well.” Though recognized as a master of the short story, Updike's popular and critical reputation rests largely upon his accomplishment as a novelist. His Rabbit tetralogy is generally regarded as the centerpiece of his literary career, though the majority of his novels have won favorable reviews and a large readership. Critical evaluation of Updike's work often focuses on his inimitable prose style. While most commentators praise his rich description and language, drawing comparisons to the prose of Marcel Proust and Vladimir Nabokov, others negatively view this characteristic of his writing as a symptom of self-indulgence and superficiality. “The famous Updike style,” Jay Parini writes, is “fluent to a fault, rich in metaphor, rising to exquisite heights in places, toppling elsewhere into preciousness and affectation.” According to Joseph Epstein, “Updike simply cannot pass up any opportunity to tap dance in prose.” Though Updike's affinity for descriptive language has prompted some critics to question the depth and seriousness of his concerns, others, such as John F. Fleischauer, suggest that Updike's employment of a dense vocabulary and syntax functions as a distancing technique to mediate the intellectual and emotional involvement of the reader. Many critics have also expressed objection to Updike's portrayal of women, viewed by some as specious and misogynistic; his graphic depictions of sexual activity, which have been faulted as gratuitous; and the grand historical and social backdrops of his fiction, considered by some an exploitative façade for the author's solipsistic concerns. Despite such criticism, Updike remains highly esteemed as a foremost man of letters whose prodigious intelligence, verbal prowess, and shrewd insight into the sorrows, frustrations, and banality of American life separate him from the ranks of his contemporaries.

Gail Godwin (review date 4 June 1984)

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SOURCE: “Wicked Witches of the North,” in New Republic, June 4, 1984, pp. 28–9.

[In the following review, Godwin praises Updike's prose and wit in The Witches of Eastwick, but faults the novel for what she perceives as a lack of intellectual depth.]

Even in these “postmodern” times, the witch figure continues to excite us. Fully vested by centuries of residence in our psyches, she sallies forth with amazing vigor each time we re-imagine her. Though she assumes a variety of shapes, depending upon the needs and the bugaboos of the culture that summons her, she always brings with her the dread and fascinating certainty of change—and all the outcry and havoc attendant upon any transformation that threatens the status quo.

Witches also provide wonderfully suggestive vehicles for fictional purposes. “Let us respectfully construe the word ‘witch’ as ‘free woman,’” John Updike wrote in his review of a 1978 reissue of Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes, first published in 1926. He evolved this definition, he intimates in the review, after having recommended to a woman friend Warner's darkly subtle novel about a well-bred English spinster who becomes a witch. “Of course, that's what men like to tell us,” retorted the woman to Updike. “Either marry one of them or become a witch.”

It's my guess that Mr. Updike, being one of those sly hoarders of quotidian fallout, let the seed of that snappy female retort, along with the enticing portrait of Laura Willowes abandoning her tiresome identity of “Aunt Lolly” in order to join a witch coven in Great Mop, Buckinghamshire, germinate with him until, four or five years later, he sprouted his own triad of witches who make magic and then malice up in “Eastwick,” Rhode Island, in the post-Woodstock/Vietnam era.

“[Women] know they are dynamite,” Laura Willowes tells the Devil as they lounge on a grassy bank one afternoon,

and [they] long for the concussion that may justify them. Some may get religion, then they're all right, I expect. But for the others, for so many, what can there be but witchcraft? That strikes them real. Even if other people still find them quite safe and usual, and go on poking with them, they know in their hearts how dangerous, how incalculable, how extraordinary they are. Even if they never do anything with their witchcraft, they know it's there—ready!

Updike's three witches (like so many of their female contemporaries in the early 1970s) find their potencies exploding within them as soon as they divorce their husbands and become free women. In addition to definite magical powers, Alexandra discovers her gift for sculpture (she makes sexy little clay figurines called “bubbies,” which sell very well in the local shops). Jane, a piano teacher by day, begins playing her cello at odd moonlit hours, abashing her neighbors with her burning intensity. Sukie, driven by reduced financial circumstances, takes a job writing gossipy pieces for the town's weekly paper.

Every Thursday the three meet at one or another's house,

and into their third drinks they could erect a cone of power above them like a tent to the zenith, and know at the base of their bellies who was sick, who was sinking into debt, who was loved, who was frantic, who was burning, who was asleep in a remission of life's bad luck. …

All three know they have become local scandals for neglecting their children, sleeping with married men, and zestfully pursuing their own interests, as witches through the centuries have been known to do. But, when we meet them, they are flying high on their newfound powers, liking themselves, and feeling that “a conspiracy of women upholds the world.” Alexandra, the plump outdoorsy one, reflects that she is a “large, drifting style of witch, always spreading herself thin to invite impressions and merge with the landscape,” whereas Jane is “hot, short, concentrated like a pencil point,” and Sukie, busy gathering news all day, has “an oscillating essence.” The magic they exert themselves to produce at this stage is a collusion with the elements to help along their personal causes, mostly; they revel in mischief, too, but nothing spiteful or really malevolent. (Alexandra produces a storm at the beach—to clear it of people so her dog may run unleashed—that is a virtuoso exposition of how naturalism, if nudged, might produce miracles.)

Then enter a shaggy, hirsute man named Van Horne. He buys an old mansion near the beach, moves in several pianos and a Pop Art collection, installs lab equipment for his research into a new source of energy, lays an all-weather tennis court, and installs a luxurious sunken hot tub. He sets the town buzzing, and, in no time at all, has completely bewitched the witches. They eagerly abandon their “cone of power” in order to compete for his attentions. A fearless pianist, he plays duets with Jane; he promises Alexandra if she'll make her clay “bubbies” bigger, he'll sell them to a New York art dealer; he lunches with Sukie and, just like a girlfriend, discusses her plans to seduce her boss, the henpecked newspaper editor.

Playing doubles with Van Horne on his new court, the witches descend to kindergarten tricks, turning one another's tennis balls into egg yolks, toads, or birds that fly away. They consort with their host in his hot tub, caressing one another and passing tokes of cannabis between ministering to his demands. Afterwards they report to one another that his emissions as well as his nether regions are “ice cold.”

How can Van Horne, who is rather coarse and spits when he talks and has “incongruously small feet,” so effortlessly captivate these interesting modern witches just brimming with untried possibilities? Well, because he's the Devil, that's why. “The deuell caused all the company to com and kiss his ers, quhilk they said was cauld lyk yce,” Updike quotes from sixteenth-century witch lore in a chapter heading, just to make sure we catch the later connection with Van Horne's cold “ers.”

Then when the hot tub activities are bubbling like a cauldron, the malefica are unleashed. Things in town turn topsy-turvy. Four people die. What are we to make of these happenings? Are the witches to blame? (They repentantly believe they might have abetted the death of one young woman by making a doll of her—voodoo style—and sticking a needle through the doll's heart.) Or were those bad things already programmed by nature to have happened anyway? (Van Horne, invited to preach at the local Unitarian Church whose minister has been blown up while making bombs with his revolutionary girlfriend, gives a rather funny sermon extolling the horrors in nature, concluding with: “Now I ask you, isn't it terrible? Couldn't you have done better, given the resources? I sure as hell could have. So vote for me next time. O.K.? Amen.”)

So, is The Witches of Eastwick merely a wicked entertainment, with lots (and lots) of sex, and everybody's backside lovingly described, plus a soupçon or two of provocative theology? Or are there some deeper inferences the author wishes us to draw, about how creativity and human potential can be sapped, about the destructiveness that results when witchery descends to bitchery? Is he, perhaps, illustrating something timely about the enfeebled, regressive state of affairs that will result if women become terrified of their powers and flee from the incumbent responsibilities of those powers? The commonplace, almost tongue-in-cheek fates he finally metes out to his Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie might point this way. Or it might not, Mr. Updike, like his puckish, anonymous narrator who weaves in and out of the novel like smoke, remains elusive and noncommittal to the end.

Perhaps it is cloddish to ask that a writer as bewitching as Updike serve us philosophy, too. But why not? In book after book, Updike's fine, funny, impressionistic art strips the dull casings of everydayness from objects we have known all our lives, and makes them shine with fresh, new connections. Maybe that's enough. And maybe it isn't. Maybe he is letting his talent for magical prose and mere wickedness undermine his potential for greatness, just as he let Van Horne undermine those ebullient witches at the waxing of their powers. I wish, at any rate, that he would risk a bold plunge into profundity rather than continuing to flirt playfully around its edges, then diving inveterately back into the sad, familiar slosh of small-town sex and its communal ripples. Though, one has to admit, he does it charmingly.

When I finished The Witches of Eastwick, I felt like Laura Willowes at the end of that other witch-book, Lolly Willowes. After her conversation with the Devil, Laura sits, bemused by the tract of flattened grass at her side where he has left his imprint, and contemplates his charm. But then she recalls that when she started asking him the really serious questions he had gotten up and gone away.

Principal Works

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The Carpenter Hen and Other Tame Creatures (poetry) 1958

The Poorhouse Fair (novel) 1959

The Same Door (short stories) 1959

Rabbit, Run (novel) 1960

Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (short stories) 1962

The Centaur (novel) 1963

Telephone Poles and Other Poems (poetry) 1963

Olinger Stories (short stories) 1964

Assorted Prose (essays) 1965

Of the Farm (novel) 1965

The Music School (short stories) 1966

Couples (novel) 1968

Midpoint and Other Poems (poetry) 1969

Bech: A Book (short stories) 1970

Rabbit Redux (novel) 1971

Museums and Women (short stories) 1972

A Month of Sundays (novel) 1975

Picked-Up Pieces (essays) 1975

Marry Me: A Romance (novel) 1976

Tossing and Turning (poetry) 1977

The Coup (novel) 1978

Problems and Other Stories (short stories) 1979

Rabbit Is Rich (novel) 1981

Bech Is Back (short stories) 1982

Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism (essays) 1983

The Witches of Eastwick (novel) 1984

Facing Nature (poetry) 1985

Roger's Version (novel) 1986

Trust Me (short stories) 1987

S. (novel) 1988

Just Looking: Essays on Art (essays) 1989

Self-Consciousness: Memoirs (memoir) 1989

Rabbit at Rest (novel) 1990

Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism (essays) 1991

Memories of the Ford Administration (novel) 1992

Collected Poems: 1953–1993 (poetry) 1993

The Afterlife and Other Stories (short stories) 1994

Brazil (novel) 1994

In the Beauty of the Lilies (novel) 1996

Toward the End of Time (novel) 1997

Bech at Bay: A Quasi-Novel (short stories) 1998

Gertrude and Claudius (novel) 2000

Katha Pollitt (review date 23 June 1984)

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SOURCE: “Bitches and Witches,” in Nation, June 23, 1984, pp. 773–75.

[In the following review, Pollitt strongly criticizes Updike's portrayal of women and contemporary gender stereotypes in The Witches of Eastwick.]

After one of my male friends praised The Witches of Eastwick for its uncanny understanding of what it feels like to be a woman, I promised myself I wouldn't review it. Life is short, after all, and I was sure reviewers would be lining up to pan this silly and patronizing fable of New England divorcées who find liberation in sorcery. So far, though, critics have been deferential, with women, interestingly, making some of the deepest salaams. What are we coming to when Margaret Atwood, Canada's answer to Marilyn French, is less able to confront Updike's views of women than Newsweek's Peter Prescott, who supports barring females from the Century Club?

“The word ‘backlash’ will be spoken,” says Atwood in The New York Times Book Review, and perhaps backlash is not such a bad explanation for the book's reception. The Big Name phenomenon may be a better one. Like Saul Bellow, Renata Adler and a few others, Updike could publish his grocery lists and win accolades for terseness and domestic realism. Then, too, there's the oddly ambivalent tone of the novel itself: it tap dances so rapidly between sermonizing and archness that one risks looking hopelessly flat-footed for suggesting it might mean something. Come on, ladies, Updike seems to be saying in his jacket photo (eyes rolled heavenward, hand slapping cheek, puckish smile), it's just a joke. Tell that to Dr. Freud, say I.

To sum up briefly. The witches of Eastwick, a scruffily fashionable seaside town in Rhode Island, are Alexandra, Jane and Sukie, who have recently discarded their dull, dutiful husbands under the influence of pop feminism (“female yearning was in all the papers and magazines now”—we are in the late 1960s). Worldly, restless, a little bitter, they neglect their children, sleep with married men (including, before the novel begins, one another's husbands) and take up artsy part-time employment—overweight Lexa makes cute clay figurines of fat women, her “bubbies,” which she sells in the local gifte shoppes; intense Jane gives piano lessons and plays the cello; sexy Sukie writes a gossip column for the local paper. Their true art, though, is the black one: every Thursday evening they meet to nibble hors d'oeuvres and sorcerize their neighbors by raising “the infrangible triangle, the cone of power.”

At first it all seems harmless enough. True, Sukie has turned her husband into a plastic placemat, but he was an insufferable bore, always braying about “uppity women,” so for my money he had it coming. I cheered, too, when Lexa summoned up a sudden storm to clear the beach of the bronzed youths who call her a hag: “One's inner weather always bore a relation to the outer; it was simply a question of reversing the current, which occurred rather easily once power had been assigned to the primary pole, oneself as a woman. So many of Alexandra's remarkable powers had flowed from this mere reappropriation of her assigned self, achieved not until midlife.” Surely spells that chase away radio-playing louts are a force for good?

Apparently not. Although the witches may buck up their spirits with feminist clichés (“Men aren't the answer, isn't that what we've decided?”), for Updike, as for Sukie's ex, sisterhood is strictly for women who don't have dates. Darryl Van Horne, a mysterious, dark, hairy stranger, moves into the old Lenox mansion and before you can say Old Nick, all hell breaks loose. The witches redouble their child-neglect to soak in his hot tub, smoke pot and vie for his curiously cold semen. Egged on by Van Horne, they discard old lovers for new ones and take on projects miles above their modest abilities. Lexa slaves over wretched imitations of Nikki de Saint-Phalle (Van Horne collects pop art); Jane abases herself, in worship and rage, before the quintessential maleness of Bach (“So this was the immortality men had built their pyramids and rendered their blood sacrifice for”); Sukie, who can barely write a grammatical sentence, starts a novel.

Sexual rivalry adds a new viciousness to the witches' hexes: four people die, all horribly. God knows where it would all have ended for the good Christians of Eastwick—Brenda, their Unitarian minister, is no Cotton Mather—had Van Horne not decamped with his homosexual lover. (There's a joke in there somewhere at the expense of female sexual vanity.) What's a poor girl to do? Tired of their tight budgets and barely on speaking terms, the witches use the last of their powers to summon up … a new set of husbands! Very funny.

Updike's prose has never been more Updikean-radiant and supremely confident if you like him, unctuous and preening if you don't. Some of the set pieces are splendid: elegiac descriptions of seasons turning, the raucous guest sermon Van Horne gives at Brenda's church, focusing on such aspects of the divine plan as the intestinal roundworm (“Couldn't you have done better, given the resources? I sure as hell could have. So vote for me next time, O.K.? Amen”). Others are self-satisfied and smug: “How magnificent and abysmal pebbles are!” There's a dusting of shrewd epigrams (“Being a divorcée in a small town is a little like playing Monopoly: eventually you land on all the properties”) and, as always with Updike, a wealth of wonderfully exact details of exurban life (boutiques named The Yapping Fox and The Hungry Sheep, Jane's split-level house, carefully “antiqued” by its former owner down to the oak toilet seat).

Updike clearly had fun finding modern applications for ancient lore. Van Horne's things are monogrammed “M”; the witches, whose reading is limited to magazines and formula romances, are apt to fumble their Hebraio-Latin abracadabras. But what is going on here? It would be priggish to insist that the execution of vast numbers of women as witches should constrain a modern writer from using witchcraft as a springboard for whimsy, although I wonder if we'd be so quick to welcome a novel in which, say, Jews really did kill Christian babies, even if the author assured us they had been sorely provoked by their Christian neighbors and the infants were singularly unattractive. But history aside, woman as witch, joined through her reproductive powers to the mysterious forces of nature, is just the flattering way of saying women are their wombs—and that is a pretty sexist idea. There it is, the dreaded, flat-footed word.

I don't mean Updike dislikes his heroines. On the contrary, he lavishes affection on them—endlessly detailing their physical charms, sympathetically recounting their worries about aging and spreading hips and loneliness—but only insofar as they are helpless. “Do you think any of us will ever have any more babies?” wails Sukie; it's the only cry from her heart we hear. Toward their attempts at independence he's mean spirited: their new ideas come straight from the Sunday papers, and it turns out that the placemat pays alimony. Toward their only real power, the blind superfecundity of nature, he is ultimately, as befits a good Christian, hostile. Nature is beautiful, but it kills; the witches are beautiful, but their magic can only be frivolous or spiteful. How is it that Lexa can make an old lady take a serious fall for pressing a dull invitation but can't turn her kids' endless spaghetti dinners into steak, or get herself the fancy gallery Van Horne promises her? It's because women's power is sex, which, allowed to run wild, destroys, just as nature run wild becomes the cancer that is one of the novel's controlling metaphors.

Updike has said in an interview that he would like to try life as a woman (as long as he could return to being a man—no fool he!), and he has been praised by Diane Johnson for successfully imagining himself into female skin. His women's internal monologues, though, made me think of those transsexuals who talk about how they always felt “like a woman.” Women don't feel “like” women; they are women. Updike's heroines are as obsessed with their femaleness as, well, Updike. Sukie can't pee without comparing male and female urinating styles: “Everything about them was more direct, their insides weren't the maze women's were, for the pee to find its way through.” Spaghetti sauce strikes Lexa as “sadly menstrual,” the spaghetti itself as “her own white fat.” Their sexuality is Freud's old compound of vanity and masochism. They poach other women's husbands but, interestingly, in the two big adulterous sex scenes, neither woman has an orgasm. Surely a witch ought to be able to conjure those up! More exciting are their humiliations at the horn of Van Horne (“When he fucked you it hurt”), and why not? “Most of the good things that come to a woman come through pain,” thinks Jane, aching “at both ends of her perineum” from that afternoon's session at the manse. I'm sure there are women in the world who fit this profile; but as a universal, which is how it's intended, it's a male fantasy, as Bech's “Jewish” awe of the American countryside is a gentile fantasy.

If Updike's view of women is the ancient misogynistic one—women are promiscuous, amoral, treacherous and a powerful force for ill (the notion that they are passive and weak is much more modern)—his view of men is all the New Sensitivity. He throws in a few references to the Vietnam War, a decidedly male endeavor, but it would be wrong to make too much of that. The witches do as much damage in their limited sphere as is humanly, or superhumanly, possible, and they are no peaceniks either. The war aside, the faults of men are women's fault. If they're bitter and played out, like Sukie's alcoholic older lover, it's because of their nagging, hyperactive wives; if they're unfaithful, it's because unscrupulous women tempt them. And maybe the war is women's fault, too. The witches, at any rate, firmly believe that men are permanently furious at women's ability to bear children, just as Dustin Hoffman said in the interviews about Tootsie. But that idea may be just one of Updike's many jokes at the expense of female vanity.

It's true that the Eastwick witches are far more lively and vital than any of their men, but the reason Updike finally gives for that is no compliment to women. Why, after all, were those husbands they ditched so boring and tired and narrow-minded? Because they had to work to support their wives! Not by the dilettantish dabbling with which their exes supplement alimony payments but by the hard, bone-wearying work of the world: “How docilely they scrape their whiskers off their faces every day and go out in the world looking for money.” Never mind the facts—that most married women not only work but do all the housework, that most divorced women receive no child support. For Updike, work is, by definition, what men do. What they achieve, whether they're Bach or Lexa's husband, who “had known all about chrome,” is the result of a conscious will to mastery. What women achieve, when it isn't precious little, is performed by magic. The “inner boiling” of the Eastwick witches “had in other cloistral towns produced Emily Dickinson's verses and Emily Bronte's inspired novel.” (One recalls in this connection that words like “magic” and “witchery” bestrew Updike's reviews of women writers—see his essays on Muriel Spark—and that he likes to lump wildly different women writers together in reviews as though women were all alike, pairing, for example, the superbly accomplished Ruth Prawer Jhabvala with the talented novice Cathleen Schine.)

In her provocative 1978 essay “Why Do These Men Hate Women?” Vivian Gornick contrasts the complex, fully realized heroines of the great nineteenth-century European male novelists with the monstrous moms, sex toys and doormats produced by their contemporary American brothers. She might have commented, too, on how strange it was that the changes in sex roles vigorously under way throughout the 1960s and 1970s were hardly mentioned in the novels of Bellow, Roth, Mailer, Updike and other major male novelists. Since Gornick's essay was published, most of those men have made a nod in the direction of modernity, though perhaps a furious headshake would be a more accurate characterization: think of the female limousine driver in storm-trooper boots who witnesses Nathan Zuckerman's graveside hysterics in Roth's The Anatomy Lesson, or the licentious harridans who populate Isaac Bashevis Singer's most recent novel, The Penitent. Our celebrated writers just don't get the point, even when they try, or think they try, as I suppose Updike thinks he has.

And so it goes, from Portnoy's complaisant Monkey to Zuckerman's driver in Nazi regalia; from the bitches of Couples to the witches of Eastwick. Not much progress, when you think about it.

D. J. Enright (review date 2 February 1987)

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SOURCE: “Love Bytes,” in New Republic, February 2, 1987, pp. 41–2.

[In the following review, Enright offers a positive assessment of Roger's Version.]

How clever John Updike is! And how vulgar he can be. That the two qualities manage to coexist, each in so high (or low) a degree, in the same writer, in the same book, passes understanding.

His new novel [Roger's Version] has it wholeheartedly both ways, being about God and Sex. The initial God material is promising, and to some extent delivers what it promises, as did The Witches of Eastwick in that novel's dealings with demonology. Roger Lambert, a professor in the School of Divinity at an unnamed university, is visited by 28-year-old Dale Kohler, an earnest computer operator who believes that at last “God is showing through,” paradoxically via the discoveries of scientists. Total energy and the expansion rate of the Big Bang, he reasons, had to be in a precise ratio, a fraction off on one side or the other and either the universe would have collapsed long ago or else it would never have taken shape. The argument is developed, ingeniously and (to the lay mind) with fair persuasiveness. The odds are overwhelmingly against blind chance; ergo, there must have been a Maker.

“Whenever theology touches science, it gets burned.” Roger would rather be left in peace to unravel the quaint disputations of ancient heretics. He regards Dale's project—the pinpointing of God with the aid of computers—as repulsive both aesthetically, because it assumes that God can be intellectually trapped, and ethically, because it eliminates faith and the freedom to believe or disbelieve. We have some sympathy with his attitude. How would critics feel if computers came up with a definitive and fool-proof method of establishing the value of a novel or a painting? Roger is a Barthian: God must remain totaliter aliter, wholly “on the other side of the humanly understandable.” Or, as we have long grown used to hearing, he moves in a mysterious way. All the same, there is something fishy about those clerics and divines, now in the clear majority, who edge nervously away from any reference to such aesthetically displeasing and socially embarrassing topics as God, the Devil, Heaven, Hell. As for freedom of choice—given the state of the world, isn't it time God manifested himself a little more plainly, even at the expense of freedom?

Unhappily Dale grows tedious with his incessant lecturing, and Roger soon has the edge on him by virtue of the wit and perspicacity inherited from his own maker. Roger deems the Bible “a very badly edited anthology,” and defines his role in “the religion business” as having to do with quality control, not distribution. And he notes that his young opponent shows himself to be distinctly un-Christian by exulting over what he sees as the squirmings of atheist scientists. As narrator, Roger has access to such Updikean delights and sights as the shop, called ADULT PASTRIES, that stocks “Erotic Cakes and Droll Candies”; and it seems a case of unearned acumen and elegance of expression when the author licenses him to muse on the city's immigrant, mainly Vietnamese district:

We had dabbled overseas and in extracting ourselves had pulled up these immigrants like paint on a stirring stick. There was something about them distasteful and erotic, these remnants of an old adventure, yet something grand also in the global mixingness, the living anthropology of so many tints of skin jostling here, on this tough thoroughfare, the world's people partaking of and amplifying the energy of our American shopfronts and tenements, our cinder yards and body shops.

But then Sex rears its hoary head, moving in ways far too explicit (as they say) to allow for much mystery. (Nor do the tacked-on poetical bits help in this respect.) Roger has told us how he finds in pornography a comfort and inspiration akin to that supplied by the reading of theology. Seemingly inspired by Tertullian's views respecting the soul's dependence on the agency of the flesh (“Dear Flesh: Do come to the party. Signed, your pal, the Soul”), he imagines in sharp, sweaty detail the red-hot love-making between his discontented wife, Esther, and pimpled, potent Dale—this being a device that enables the narrator to report “actual” events to which he clearly couldn't be a witness—while himself conducting a lecherous, half-hearted affair with his teenage dropout niece, a “common-minded delinquent girl” (as he calls her in a sober moment) lumbered with a fatherless black baby. Baby Paula, incidentally, is the book's most appealing presence; also the least loquacious.

No doubt the flesh is—as Thomas Mann's Devil said of music—“a highly theological business,” but this carrying-on about tits and pricks and cunts (“if I may risk offending modesty in my desire to speak the truth,” as Roger says, rather late in the day) is a sad comedown after the intellectual excitements of the earlier stages. Dale's computer program, DEUS, is at least not banal; however unproductive, it signifies something.

As we would expect, there are fine passages here, the kind of writing that only Updike can produce: evocations of streets wide and narrow, houses and trees and skies, the atmosphere of an underground garage, the views from a revolving restaurant. The walk-on characters are often brilliant: Ed Nea, a specialist in Bultmannism and holocaustics and a nominal Presbyterian, is “the Marrying Sam of Godless weddings.”

When the Czech-émigré astrophysicist's daughter marries a Japanese Buddhist graduate student in semantics, it is Ed who tailors the rite to their exact shade of polite disbelief, silently rolling his eyes upward when a single spoken word of Heavenly appeal would be too much.

An impressive knowledgeableness pervades the book, though there is rather too much about computers, as if the author had swallowed a handbook on the subject. And, naturally, witty asides and telling insights abound. Thinking of how a mention of the bathroom he shares with Esther must have wounded Dale, the narrator reflects that “when you venture into adultery you must expect to trip over the husband's dental floss.” This says more about such liaisons than do all the blow-by-blow couplings and the contingent feelings and velleities.

Roger has plausible reasons for preferring a Deus absconditus, and shabby ones too. He makes a living out of absence. A present God, whether “hauled kicking and screaming out from some laboratory closet,” as he puts it, or “breaking through,” as Dale has it, wouldn't be good either for business or for pleasure. Roger rather enjoys seeing himself as a sort of heretic, but for him heresies are no more than complicated crossword puzzles. He is not a heretic so much as a fairly ordinary if more than ordinarily erudite hypocrite. I doubt either Karl Barth or Tertullian would have liked this book. Yet it ends on a disarmingly apt note. It is Sunday and Esther is about to go out, to church she says. “Why would you do a ridiculous thing like that?” asks Roger. “Oh,” she replies. “To annoy you.” Good for her!

Further Reading

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Allen, Brooke. “Updike Redux.” New Leader (1–15 December 1997): 13–4.

Positive review of Toward the End of Time.

Boswell, Marshall. “The Black Jesus: Racism and Redemption in John Updike's Rabbit Redux.Contemporary Literature XXXIX, No. 1 (Spring 1998): 99–132.

Examines Updike's complex presentation of racism, original sin, and white guilt in Rabbit Redux.

Bottum, J. “Social Gospel.” Commentary 101, No. 4 (April 1996): 64–6.

Unfavorable review of In the Beauty of the Lilies.

Cooper, Rand Richards. “Bungle in the Jungle.” Commonweal (8 April 1994): 18–20.

Unfavorable review of Brazil.

Corwin, Phillip. “Oh, What the Hex.” Commonweal (1 June 1984): 340–01.

Tempered review of The Witches of Eastwick.

Danto, Arthur C. “What MOMA Done Tole Him.” New York Times Book Review (15 October 1989): 12.

Review of Just Looking: Essays on Art.

Davis, Hope Hale. “Distaff Doormat.” New Leader (18 April 1988): 20–1.

Unfavorable review of S.

Denby, David. “A Life of Sundays.” New Republic (22 May 1989): 29–33.

Provides an overview of Updike's work and tempered review of Self-Consciousness.

Dyer, Geoff. “No Problem.” New Statesman & Society (17 January 1992): 45–6.

Tempered review of Odd Jobs.

Gray, Paul. “A Burden of Answered Prayers.” Time (13 March 1989): 77.

Positive review of Self-Consciousness.

———. “Doglegs of Decrepitude.” Time (14 November 1994): 98.

Favorable review of The Afterlife and Other Stories.

———. “Gerald Ford Redux.” Time (9 November 1992): 80–1.

Tempered review of Memories of the Ford Administration.

———. “Karma in the Sunbelt.” Time (29 February 1988): 98.

Positive review of S.

———. “We Lost It at the Movies.” Time (29 January 1996): 78.

Tempered review of In the Beauty of the Lilies.

Inglis, Fred. “On Being a Dud.” Nation (10 July 1989): 59–61.

Negative review of Self-Consciousness.

Johnson, Charles. “The Virgin President.” New York Times Book Review (1 November 1992): 11.

Review of Memories of the Ford Administration.

Keenan, John. “Rio Romance.” New Statesman & Society (8 April 1994): 41.

Positive review of Brazil.

Pritchard, William. “In Clover.” New Republic (30 September 1981): 30–2.

Tempered review of Rabbit is Rich.

Ra'ad, Basem L. “Updike's New Versions of Myth in America.” Modern Fiction Studies 37, No. 1 (Spring 1991): 25–33.

Examines Updike's attitudes concerning myth, American culture, and the loss of connection with the past in his fiction.

Robinson, Sally. “‘Unyoung, Unpoor, Unblack’: John Updike and the Construction of Middle American Masculinity.” Modern Fiction Studies 44, No. 2 (Summer 1998): 331–63.

Examines the evolution of post-war American white, middle-class, masculine identity as portrayed in Updike's Rabbit novels.

Schiff, James A. “Updike Ignored: The Contemporary Independent Critic.” American Literature 67, No. 3 (September 1995): 531–52.

Examines the significance and critical reception of Updike's critical writings, book reviews, and essays.

Sheppard, R. Z. “Punch Lines.” Time (4 May 1987): 103.

Positive review of Trust Me.

———. “Warning: The Rabbit Is Loose.” Time (14 February 1994): 73.

Tempered review of Brazil.

Wills, Garry. “Long-Distance Runner.” New York Review of Books (25 October 1990): 11–14.

Summary of Updike's Rabbit tetralogy and unfavorable assessment of Rabbit Is Rich.

Wood, James. “Under the Aspect of Serenity.” New Republic (27 May 1996): 29–33.

Unfavorable review of In the Beauty of the Lilies.

Wright, Derek. “Mapless Motion: Form and Space in Updike's Rabbit, Run.Modern Fiction Studies 37, No. 1 (Spring 1991): 35–44.

Examines elements of entropy and Harry Angstrom's metaphorical flight into open space in Rabbit, Run.

Additional coverage of Updike's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1968–1988; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1–4R; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 4, 33, 51; Contemporary Novelists; Contemporary Poets; Contemporary Popular Writers, Vol. 1; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 5, 143, 227; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 3; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vols. 80, 82, 97; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied, Novelists, Poets, Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 3; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 13, 27; and World Literature Criticism.

Edward Abbey (review date 28 March 1987)

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SOURCE: “Reading Updike,” in Nation, March 28, 1987, pp. 409–10.

[In the following review, Abbey gives a laudatory appraisal of Roger's Version.]

A professor of theology named Roger Lambert, subsiding comfortably into middle age, is aroused from his dogmatic slumbers by Dale Kohler, a young student of computer science. The year is 1984, the place Boston, and the subjects, always popular, are space, time, the Deity and failure. Why not? Boston has been a hotbed of Christianity since 1620; it is also the home of the Red Sox. In a world that consists essentially of nothing but patterns of organic energy (according to the new physics, now about 85 years old), the two cannot be unrelated.

Young Dale comes to Professor Lambert with a proposition: he wishes to prove the existence of God on a computer printout. Explaining his program, he gives us pages and pages of technical mumbo jumbo from the modern lore of particle physics, astrophysics and mathe-meta-physics. (“Whatever is remote from common appearances,” said Samuel Johnson, “is always welcome to vulgar as to childish credulity.”) Like so many of his generation, Dale is awestruck by science, at least in its more abstruse and abstract forms. He has nothing to say about such practical applications as the nuclear bomb—the chief gift of physics to humanity in our century.

In order to realize his project, this computer hacker needs a grant from the divinity school. Although skeptical, Professor Lambert helps the young man win the grant. This leads to further intimacies: Dale meets the professor's wife, the professor meets Dale's girlfriend, and the author is turned loose once again upon his specialty, suburban hanky-panky. Neither of the females, as described, seems sexually attractive, any more than the two men, but the reader is nudged all the same into the voyeuristic role. Updikean erotica is a harrowing ordeal, more hard work than play—the job of sex—but all participants survive, the reader gets through it and finally we reach the climactic scene of this novel, an exhausted young hacker tapping on the keys of his VAX 8600 high in the sanctum of the University Computer Research Center. Seeking God in graphic form on the display screen, tired and hungry from his adulterous diversions, Dale discovers—what? A hot dog inserted in a bun? A roast squab on a platter, wings outspread, white paper booties on its little stumps? No, he sees only a glimpse of a sad face, then a tired hand, then nothing worthy of report. Defeat. Two outs, nobody on, last of the tenth, one strike away from final victory—and he blows the game. He failed to keep the faith.

At least that appears to be Roger Lambert's version of events. What the author is really up to in this novel is not that obvious. Updike is a droll, subtle and clever writer, the Engelbert Humperdinck of contemporary American Lit, and cannot be dismissed as merely the Protestant version of Herman Wouk. All bases are covered at all times. Nevertheless the general import is clear, in this book as in earlier Updike novels and essays. The cynical, skeptical, mocking Professor Lambert—charming fellow—is supposed to be the villain of Roger's Version; the sincere but seduced young computerizer Dale, though hardly a hero, achieves at least the status of a Parsifal, groping for the Holy Grail through a whirling fury of electrons. Like Bishop Berkeley in the 18th century, like the majority of philosophers in the 19th century, like Einstein, Jeans, Eddington and many other scientists in the 20th, John Updike believes that the universe, as a whole, is no more and no less than a great thought in the mind of that elusive entity, that gaseous vertebrate, that self-created creator that the English call “God.”

How we students loved to debate this matter, over and over, all through the nights and years of our schooldays, drinking jug after gallon jug—blood of the lamb!—of Gallo's Hearty Burgundy. We too, like Updike's Parsifal, were familiar with the various forms of the argument from design. A world so complex, so intricately mitered and joined, so delicately balanced between nothing and niente, so hopelessly screwed up, could not possibly have resulted from chance alone; there must be a God!

And then, in the cool gray light of dawn, hangovers beginning to form, came the sobering afterthought: So what? What then? Suppose there really is a divine, supreme, omniscient Being out there beyond the space-time continuum, or inside it, or congruent with it—what difference does it make? We still had to crawl to out basement pads in the student ghetto; we still had to read those tedious textbooks, write our little themes, formulate apologies for our lady friends. The world goes on, God or no God. Nor was it any different in the Age of Faith.

And even if God is interpreted as the necessary foundation for the promise of eternal life, the daily chores remained: slopping the hogs when I was a boy in Appalachia, splitting firewood now that I'm a grown-up in Arizona. Personal immortality, everlasting bliss, shaking hands with God (or Ronald Reagan) and contemplating—from the Heavenly Bleachers of the orthodox Christian section—the writhing agonies of the damned down there in Hell and New Jersey may be very satisfying for a time. But not for all time.

In other words, the ultimate questions stand as before. The God hypothesis, the immortality solution, merely create more questions, solve nothing of any importance either in the world of thought or in the here and now, this humble everyday existence of men and women, wheelbarrows, sorrow, dogs, bunch grass and windmills.

Typing these plain words, I look out my window and see one redtail hawk patrolling the desert. Such dignity. One mesquite tree presiding over a stretch of sand. Such poise. One blue and silver cloud trailing a veil of rain between here and the mountains. Such calm perfection. One dog—my own—prone in the dirt, watching a roadrunner steal Purina Hi-Pro from his, the dog's, dish. Such tolerance.

Such trust.

And now we return to Updike's latest novel. What happens to Dale and Roger, to Dale's girlfriend, Verna, and Roger's wife, Esther? After the tragic scene in the Computer Research Center, what further climax, what final resolution can follow? The answer is eschatological and cannot be revealed here. But as in every work by Updike, the conclusion is crushing, satisfactory and comes not a page too soon. All's well that ends.

Richard Gilman (review date 20 June 1988)

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SOURCE: “The Witches of Updike,” in New Republic, June 20, 1988, pp. 39–41.

[In the following review, Gilman provides a negative evaluation of S.]

John Updike's fiction has always suffered under the whips and scorns of outraged feminists. They charge him with an inability to portray, or even to imagine, women in other than clichéd, male-oriented ways, however high-flown their expression. He doesn't like women, they say, and is incapable of “getting inside” a female mind. I think the accusation is pretty much on the mark and from my file pluck a couple of many possible pieces of evidence. From a story called “The Lifeguard”: “Women are an alien race of pagans set down among us. Every seduction is a conversion.” From the novel A Month of Sundays: “Babies and guilt, women are made for lugging.”

Updike has said that he wrote his new novel in part as a refutation of the feminist take on him. If this is so, the sad irony is that S. is only likely to confirm it Indeed, it seems to me that Updike's fiction is, or has become, more problematic, more afflicted, than the most thoroughgoing consideration of gender bias can even touch on, let alone explain. Any broad estimation of Updike's position in the public and, to some extent, the critical mind would include these elements: he is a superb “natural” stylist; he is among the most erudite of our writers of fiction; and he is one of the very few who concern themselves seriously with religion. I want to take up each of these assertions, or dogmas, about Updike's fiction, in order to place S. in an intelligible context.

To begin with, there isn't any question that Updike is one of the most purely gifted of our major novelists. Yet his particular talent doesn't necessarily make him a fully satisfying, or an estimable, one. This is because sheer verbal power, that apparent force of nature, the cormorant-like ingestion of experience and its seemingly effortless conversion into “brilliant” language, isn't in itself sufficient for great fiction. It may even in some ways be inimical to it.

Years ago, in a review of The Centaur, I cited, as a cautionary note on Updike, Pascal's remark that “continual eloquence is wearying.” My point was that in his pursuit of, or delight in, vivid writing, his penchant for putting his coruscating literary genius on display, Updike keeps his prose in a constant fever, making no provisions for the periodic cessations of intensity, the quiet, sometimes matter-of-fact integument and ground that can alone sustain eloquence and keep it from satiety. In a related vein, Gilbert Sorrentino once described Updike's style as “twitching and quivering incessantly.” Sorrentino went on to say that Updike's writing, so often praised for its “poetry,” is in fact falsely poetic, a matter of verbal glitter with almost nothing beneath it and no invigorating coherence with actuality: “Its fancy images are not in touch with the world but emblazon it.”

I think this is too harsh or too sweeping an indictment, but some part of it is true. Updike isn't always cutting arabesques on the surface of the world. His perceptions of manners and morals within the suburban, white, affluent milieus he's chiefly probed are frequently shrewd and original, and his eye for the small, telling absurdities of our culture is usually keen. What's more, a denunciation like Sorrentino's ignores Updike's humor, a generally bitchy or even cruel humor, to be sure, but not easily resisted. Yet too often we do find him straining for effect, sacrificing sense for éclat, studding his prose with little jewels of expressiveness that feel, and alas mostly are, arbitrary, merely fanciful. (From The Centaur: “On a stiff tablecloth a loaf of sugary bread lay sequined in pointillist dabs of light.”)

As for his erudition, yes, I think Updike is among the most learned of our writers of fiction, but how deep does this learning go, and for what is it used? His mind is stuffed with materials, from classical languages and mythology to the latest scientific theories. He is a master, or at least an energetic practitioner, of allusion, reference, the esoteric (and therefore often snobbish) citation. Indeed he sometimes gives the impression of being a higher level, more “serious” James Michener, assiduously doing research on some subject or other before weaving a fiction around it. The Centaur and The Coup are in part novels of this kind.

This quasi-documentary or heavily researched aspect of his writing, which sometimes gives the effect of a smart brat parading his knowledge, has become increasingly pronounced in his last three novels: The Witches of Eastwick, with its arcane lore about sorcery; Roger's Version, heavily drawing on computer science and so-called “crisis” theology; and S … well, I'll come to its scholarly paraphernalia in a moment. All three books give off a feeling of unease, if not of desperation, a sense of straining for subject as well as style. It's as if Updike had begun to suspect the exhaustion of his predominantly realistic and familiar vein, the permutations of adultery and avarice in WASP precincts, and was trying to rebut the general charge—of which misogyny is a specific instance—that he has narrow preoccupations and constricted sympathy. Yet the preoccupations remain, the sympathy is still straitened; and nowhere does this lack of sympathy, and an accompanying lack of true engagement, show itself more depressingly than in his treatment of religion.

Perhaps I should speak of the place of religion in these and other Updike works. To put it plainly, I don't think Updike is in any sense a religious writer, or even that he has any serious interest in religious experience. The sociology of religion, yes, or more accurately, of certain areas of Protestantism: numerous churchgoers, and a battalion of ministers with their wives and paramours, inhabit his fiction, but they are engaged less in seeking or even inquiring after salvation than in occupying a place in society, a métier with minimal spiritual duties or demands. The title character of Roger's Version would seem to be speaking for his creator when he muses on the “barbaric religion of blood atonement” symbolized by the Cross.

A sticky business that, an unpleasant one. Better to concentrate on something less consequential, more “human”—say, the relations between nominal faith and the pressures, inconveniences really, of moral and especially sexual prohibitions. Insofar as it deals with religion at all, one can extract from Updike's fiction a continuing intricate rationale for illicit erotic pursuits within the confines of what Sarah Worth, the protagonist of S., calls an “atrophied, Puritan theocracy.” To be sure, not many of us are held by that particular dead hand. But we're all caught up in some moral code or other, and one source of Updike's thematic appeal, to male readers at any rate, is the suspension of such codes to allow the worm in the flesh to wriggle more freely.

The anti-sermon goes something like this: “We're God's creatures (if He exists), we're human, we're bored, we have sensual natures. How can He (if He exists) punish us for yielding now and then to their pulsations?” Any sense of sin, but more important any sense of the possible tension between agape and eros, faith and carnality, has been leached out. Guilt is an emotion foreign to Updike's characters—except for many of his women, who, he told us, are “built” for hauling it around.

It's in the light of Updike's recent strategy of trying to correct his image in feminist eyes that we have to look at S. Even more than The Witches of Eastwick,S. seems to celebrate the freedom of women to pursue their carnal and emotional ends, and to be relieved of guilt for doing so. And even though the ostensible “religion” in the book is tantric yoga, the enemy remains that old, weary, “atrophied,” discredited Protestantism. This it seems is what accounts for Updike's decision to rewrite, or to “up-date,” perhaps the greatest of all American fictions in which sex and religion confront one another, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, with its archetypal female victim.

The direct exploitation of the earlier book is thin and halfhearted. “S” (for Sarah, maybe also for sex) replaces the old “A”; two quotes from The Scarlet Letter serve as epigraphs; Sarah's daughter is named Pearl and her mother's maiden name is Prynne; a Chillingsworth (and, from another Hawthorne novel, a Blithedale) figures superficially in the narrative. Yet the intention is clear throughout: to “revise” Hawthorne, to re-create him in a comic mode, to take the sting out of his tale by placing its protagonist in a modern setting where adultery is no longer anything to cause anguish, and so to exorcise the remaining ghosts of Puritanism.

At 44, Sarah Worth has skipped out on her cold, successful New England doctor husband after years of “respectable bondage and socially sanctioned frivolity,” as she tells him in one of the letters that make up this epistolary novel. She's gone to an ashram in Arizona ruled over by a guru, called “arhat” here, who preaches the primacy of sex over ego, and over everything else. The place is avowedly modeled after the Rajneeshpuram of late, lamented Oregon memory, and Updike has a good deal of sport mocking its more blatant silliness and fraudulence. What Sarah calls at first “our beautiful experiment in non-competitive living” turns out to be a ferocious battle among several women for the chief place in the arhat's bed, and he himself turns out to be one Art Steinmetz, a fake fakir from Watertown, Massachusetts.

When the satiric energy is there, S. can be very funny. The arhat answers a dunning letter about “6 unpaid Lincoln limos” by saying that he's referred it to “our chief accountant … who is unfortunately enjoying two weeks of uninterrupted meditation.” Sarah tells a friend that “I'm beyond … anger … or any emotion except love and acceptance,” and immediately follows this with “Charles [her husband] now just seems impossibly small, like one of those bugs you see crawling across a bathroom tile.” The arhat, in the process of seducing the willing Sarah, tells her that “Maithuna is not what is called in this coarse country ‘fucking.’ It is cosmic play.”

The entire Maithuna sequence between Sarah and the “guru obscuru” is a little masterpiece of parody and wicked humor. Updike's eye for the right trade names (Clairol, Fritos, No More Tears) and the pompous object (“fluted double-serpentine candleholders”) is as accurate as ever. And on the more sober side, there's a somewhat touching letter from Sarah to her college sweetheart, whom her proper WASP family forcibly dissuaded her from marrying because of his Jewishness and intellectuality, a surrender she says she now deeply regrets.

Yet the satire is inconsistent, and the moments of true feeling are rare. Updike doesn't seem able to decide if, despite the quackery, those mystics of carnality aren't on to a good thing. In any case, having immersed himself in Eastern erotic theology, he isn't about to let his investment lie idle. The book has a 13-page glossary of Sanskrit terms, many of them of a sexual nature, and the mind flags at having to juggle them and to retain their various meanings in the text: “Aropa attribution of qualities to the object, that is, subduing the beloved's physical, biological, and psychological aspects to an ontological perspective”; “Purnabhisheka ritual copulation practiced in ‘left-handed’ tantric yoga; the shri chakra or chakra puja.

There's something half-serious and half-ludicrous about all this. Sarah only fitfully sees the absurd side, however, for she's too intent, as Updike's representative “new” woman, on pursuing her dream of rebirth. In the end Updike has his protagonist, whom the arhat has renamed “Kundalini,” the serpent of female energy dormant at the base of the spinal column,“ flee the ashram's collapse and relocate on a Caribbean island. There she contemplates the lessons she's learned and thinks, in “a serene and benign” mood (but with twinges of regret), about the break she's made from her stick of a husband and her wider past.

But one freedom she hasn't gained is from her bitchiness—to Charles, for example, on hearing of his impending remarriage, “You and your roly-poly little suburban pudding.” And more important, one freedom Updike hasn't won in writing S. is from his fixed sense of women, his inevitable creation of them as projections of male sensibility.

There are several wonderful unwitting specific examples of this. In a letter to her daughter, Sarah speaks of the girl's “wide-eyed long-haired easy-striding American beauty.” No mother would write like this, no woman would. But a man, and one, moreover, frozen in adolescent romantic desire, surely might. Again to her daughter: “How can we help but love those fathers, the way the sides of their necks smell of sweat and aftershave when they pick us up off the floor and give us that squeeze that knocks us breathless.” Well, it would be nice for us if it were so, but I suspect that my own daughters love me for rather different reasons.

What Hawthorne was able to do with Hester Prynne, as Updike isn't able to do with Sarah, was to extend his imagination to encompass her difference from him, and then to inculpate himself in her sorrowful fate. In wishing to make his modern Hester's destiny a lighthearted one, Updike takes no responsibility at all. Sarah isn't different from him, she's simply a man in novelistic drag. And S. isn't a liberation from the troubles of Updike's fiction, but their continuation. So many gifts, so much intelligence. To what end?

Denis Donoghue (review date 5 March 1989)

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SOURCE: “‘I Have Preened, I Have Lived,’” in New York Times Book Review, March 5, 1989, p. 7.

[In the following review, Donoghue offers a positive assessment of Self-Consciousness.]

When a memoir by a writer as well known as John Updike appears, it inevitably arouses curiosity. But this is not a tell-all autobiography. It consists of six discontinuous chapters: total recall is evidently not proposed. Mr. Updike's method is Lytton Strachey's in “Eminent Victorians” to intuit a life by taking samples of it, making forays into its hinterland and asking the reader to assume that gaps between the specified items could readily be filled by more of much the same substance.

John Updike was born in 1932 in Shillington, Pa., of parents neither rich nor poor but Depression-shadowed enough to construe life mostly as difficulty. His father taught unhappily in the local high school and enhanced his income by taking mechanical jobs during vacations. His mother aspired to be a writer, and wrote an often-revised but never-published novel about Ponce de León. He did not feel deprived. “It seemed to me I possessed whatever a reasonable boy needed,” he reports, “a Schwinn bike, a Flexible Flyer sled, a Jimmy Foxx fielder's glove.” “Oh, no, Johnny—we were poor!” his father protested many years later when his son, from the security of fame and money, named those early possessions.

“A Soft Spring Night in Shillington,” the first essay in the sequence, has Mr. Updike brooding on his happy-on-the-whole childhood. “At War With My Skin” tells of his psoriasis. “Getting the Words Out” is a fluent account of his intermittent speech problem, variously called stammering and stuttering. Gradually we hear of further ailments: bronchial asthma, emphysema, claustrophobia, dental trouble. “On Not Being a Dove” explains why, in the Vietnam years, he didn't join the peace movement. “A Letter to My Grandsons” as an edifyingly complete family tree. “On Being a Self Forever” is a meditation on an anticipated afterlife, culminating in the remarkably daring claim that “one believes, not merely to dismiss from one's life a degrading and immobilizing fear of death, but to possess that Archimedean point outside the world from which to move the world.”

At the end of the Shillington chapter, Mr. Updike surveys the scenes: “A fortunate life, of course—college, children, women, enough money, minor fame. But it had all, from the age of thirteen on, felt like not quite my idea. Shillington, its idle alleys and darkened foursquare houses, had been my idea.”

I assume he means, “had felt like my idea.” If so, we have the motive for autobiography in his case, to make everything that has happened to him seem like his idea or at least assimilable to his governing idea of himself.

The provocation for such an aim is given in Unamuno's assertion, which Mr. Updike has often quoted, that “consciousness is a disease.” If it is, then self-consciousness is the act of the mind that takes its sores as privileged objects of attention. A good deal of 18th-century satire, notably in Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, was provoked by the dismayed reflection that everything spiritual may be reduced to its physical correlative: as with a churlish fellow who would insist that spirit itself is nothing but wind. Mr. Updike's fixation on his ailments has the opposite intent: to convert his symptoms into corresponding inwardness, and to make his blotches seem in the end like his idea.

According to this procedure, every disease corresponds to a certain form of spirituality. If you suffer from psoriasis, it is because you have, morally, a sensitive skin. A stammer is the outward sign of a scruple, appropriate to a man who refuses to say the first thing that comes into his head or his mouth. Mr. Updike developed bronchial asthma relatively late in life. In his interpretation, “I tried to break out of my marriage on behalf of another, and failed, and began to have trouble breathing.”

If you add to physical ailments the sundry devices for warding them off, you make a fairly complete regimen which can be turned to spiritual account: “Now I have long since, in deference to my emphysema, given up smoking, even the smoking of little cigars that, after I broke the cigarette habit, used to get me through the stress of composition. Also, I have given up salt and coffee in deference to high blood pressure and alcohol in deference to methotrexate. The big-bellied Lutheran God within me looks on scoffingly. ‘Hunde, wollt threwig leben?’ Frederick the Great thundered at his battle-shy soldiers—‘Dogs, would you live forever?’”

Such deference, rigorously maintained toward one's symptoms, deserves nothing less than immortality, the grace by which one's words and therefore one's name live forever.

None of the chapters in Self-Consciousness deal directly with Mr. Updike's art, but occasional reflections on that subject turn up, usually in the vicinity of his ailments. It is clear that he thinks of his art as that of realism: “The fabricated truth of poetry and fiction makes a shelter in which I feel safe, sheltered within interlaced plausibilities in the image of a real world for which I am not to blame.” Proust and Henry Green are Mr. Updike's models in the art of getting the words out, and he refers to their “styles of exploration that tried to wrap themselves around the things, the tints and voices and perfumes, of the apprehended real.” According to realism, the writer signs a contract with his readers. A novel will be deemed successful if the reader is persuaded that the picture is not the writer's composition but life itself, making an appearance on its own authority. Often in Self-Consciousness Mr. Updike describes the historical persons who figure in the interlaced plausibilities of his fictions (and then helpfully points out their fictional counterparts in footnotes): his father, for instance, who appears as George Caldwell in The Centaur, and many minor citizens of Shillington and of Ipswich, Mass., who turn up in Couples, “The Dogwood Tree,” Trust Me, “The Taste of Metal” and other story collections. It is Mr. Updike's implied and indeed acceptable claim that in his work, lives transcribed and lives imagined make a seamlessly plausible web.

On the evidence of Self-Consciousness, Mr. Updike has for many years thought of fiction as offering him shelter. As a child, he took shelter under the porch of his home in Shillington. It was a family motto, inherited from Mr. Updike's paternal grandfather, to “keep out of harm's way.” The phrase, and the sentiment that sustains it, recur throughout the book: when he refers to his membership in the Congregational Church and its services in Ipswich; when he thinks of literary Manhattan as harm and of Ipswich as providing shelter from it; even when he fears that his style is yet another form of obedience to his paternal grandfather. “Had I perhaps too successfully found a place for myself out of harm's way?” he wonders, faced with reviewers who thought of his work as untroubled, his whole career a stratagem to avoid growing up and risking harm.

Writers who have not had Mr. Updike's success, money and fame may feel that in Self-Consciousness an upper-middle-class imagination is operating upon luxury and counting the pleasure of it as scruple. But Mr. Updike's theme has always been upper-middle-class felicity, bourgeois bliss and the price it sometimes but not always exacts. “The psoriatic struggles for philosophy,” he says, “for thoughts that are more than skin-deep.” But if the thoughts he achieves turn out to be glowingly sun-tanned, can he really regret them? “I have preened, I have lived,” Mr. Updike says, as if he were confessing a misdemeanor while noting the charm of it.

Mr. Updike's recent novels show his middle-aged determination to give his art a metaphysical darkening, for example by coming to terms with Nathaniel Hawthorne and trying to rewrite “The Scarlet Letter.” He thinks the last stories in Pigeon Feathers his best work, “perhaps because the words were attained through such an oppressive blanket of funk.” But cheerfulness and well-being keep breaking in.

It would be absurd to expect Mr. Updike to give up these well-earned satisfactions or be too sheepish about them. His best writing, like Nabokov's, is the prose of rapture. The most charming pages of Self-Consciousness are those in which Mr. Updike can't quite believe in his good luck but relishes its appurtenances anyway.

So with his language: he likes an opulent style, his nouns comfortably ensconced within several adjectives apiece. It is good to see a writer enjoying, his talent and his luck, living high with adjectives and verbs and nouns.

I get irritated with Mr. Updike only when he wants to take his pleasure and be rueful about it at the same time. “It was and is still my fate to like the settings and the personalities that enlightenment creates without wanting, myself, to be enlightened.” It was not and is not anything as grand as his fate: he could change the sentiment if he wanted to Mr. Updike is far more convincing when he takes pleasure as it comes and lets it run high through his sentences; as here, describing one of the few occasions, I am pleased to learn, on which he drove a car while hopped up on pot: “The other cars on the narrow road from Gay Head to Chilmark, the sweet expensive salt-grayed shingled houses, the wild roses in bloom all whizzed by in a dream, tinted clouds of maya, while my windswept passengers shrieked in what, from a great distance, through mystical ringing in my ears, sounded like pleasure.”

“Suffering and I,” Mr. Updike concludes, “have had a basically glancing, flirtatious acquaintanceship.” I see no harm in that, no reason why those flirtations should not continue. I trust they will. Mr. Updike writes, in Self-Consciousness, as if he had nothing to look forward to but sunset and the western porch: “Between now and the grave lies a long slide of forestallment, a slew of dutiful, dutifully paid-for maintenance routines in which dermatological makeshift joins periodontal work and prostate examinations on the crowded appointment calendar of dwindling days.”

Meanwhile I note that he is four years younger than I am.

Elizabeth Hardwick (review date 18 May 1989)

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SOURCE: “Citizen Updike,” in New York Review of Books, May 18, 1989, pp. 3–4, 6, 8.

[In the following review, Hardwick provides an overview of Updike's fiction and thematic preoccupations, and praises Self-Consciousness.]

John Updike, the dazzling author, appeared, and still appears, to be one of Augustine's “fair and fit”—and never more so than when viewed among his male literary colleagues who often tend to show the lump and bump of gene, bad habits, the spread and paste of a lifetime spent taking one's own dictation. For this tall, and one wants to say still young, man, despite certain dwindling-days, September-song modulations in the composition of his memoirs, Self-Consciousness, everything seemed to fall into place. An only child, treasured by nice intelligent parents who, if not particularly well-to-do, were prosperous in respect and plausibility; born in a pleasant Pennsylvania village, Shillington, with its “idle alleys and darkened four-square houses,” its high school, movie house, stores, avenues and streets whose names will have on his pages the curved beauty of Havana and Caracas, even if they are Pennwyn and Lynoak.

Updike went on to Harvard and, as a young writer, came under the benevolent paternalism of The New Yorker, married early, had children, moved to Massachusetts, and, with an uncommon creative energy, wrote stories, novels, poems, essays, and still writes on and on with great success about suburban landscapes or small-town ones efflorescent in observed detail, prodigal in image, brashly knowing and accomplished in the rhythms of current dialogue and steaming with the orifices and bodily fluids of many fluent copulations.

And then, with an admirable and defiant gallantry, he designed in The Coup his African country, Kush, whose

peanut oil travels westward the same distance as eastward our ancestors plodded, their neck-shackles chafing down to the jugular, in the care of Arab traders, to find in the flesh-markets of Zanzibar eventual lodgings in the harems and palace guards of Persia and Chinese Turkestan.

And then again, he, as productive of print as a Victorian, transmogrifies himself into a sluggish, anxious Jewish novelist, Bech, mooning on Riverside Drive with an exact ironical accent before taking off for a government-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union and various satellite capitals in Eastern Europe where he treads the ancient, war-worn stones and confers with the resident writers, one of whom says he plans to “defect as soon as he gets his laundry back.”

A promiscuous, astonishing span; a labyrinthine talent through which the author makes a smooth, experienced, dashing, even dandified passage. A bit of a parson, too; something icy inside the melting flesh of concupiscence.

Updike's memoirs bear the title, Self-Consciousness, to indicate the natural authorial awareness and, more unexpected, to reveal a distress arising from the envelope of the self, the flesh and bones and organs which have been the source of pain and of the “self-consciousness” of hidden damage. He has lived with torments devastating, if not life-threatening, and it is a hard heart that could turn from these ills with a shrug of into each life some rain must fall. The greatest suffering has been a long battle with a virulent psoriasis. His account of the scabs, blisters, eruptions, and treatments is of such fullness and wounded feeling one would not want, in description, to substitute a version other than his own. In his going about, the disease was not only hurtful and exhausting but also humiliating, as when he was required to learn to swim at Harvard. On a somewhat descending scale, he has endured bouts of stuttering, asthma, tooth and gum problems. So there it is, a host of imperfections and acute discomforts, woes rendered with an eloquent and almost sunny confidence.

My sufferings are purely physical, the aged, dying Santayana is supposed to have said in order to fend off the redemptive efforts of nuns and priests who might wish, at the end, to seduce him from the teasing ambiguity of “There is no God and Mary is His mother.” Updike, far from the end and friendly to redemption, if it should come, has a way of translating the threat of moral ravage into symptoms. “I tried to break out of my marriage, on behalf of another, and failed, and began to have trouble breathing.” Succeeding in the break-up, as determined people will, he writes: “My face broke out, my shoulders and neck became so encrusted I couldn't turn my head without pain.”

He will go further, twirling, you might say, on a steel toe like a skater in the crisp New England air: “So wrapped in my skin, so watchful of its day-to-day permutations, I have little concern to spare for the homeless, the disenfranchised, the unfortunate who figure so largely in the inner passion of smooth-pelted liberals like my first wife.” “A man's foes will be those in his own household,” the Redeemer Himself opined. Smooth-pelted liberal, sardonic locution, is attached to the sufferer's first wife, mother of four Updikes, daughter of a Unitarian clergyman. No doubt Updike regrets the homeless and the unfortunate as much as another. His distaste here is atmospheric, a distaste for the fair, blue-eyed Unitarians in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the attachment to “causes” shown by the trust-fund, rosy-cheeked descendants of the balmy vapors coming from Concord and thereabouts. For Updike, the Over-soul Unitarians, brushing away the Trinity like some dust long in a dark corner, will not do, although he had a try with the placid church before settling down more or less as a Congregationalist and their “sweet bare rites descended from the Puritans.”

The Congregationalists—a mild enough church of choice for the census-taker, not exacting or likely to be interfering or reforming in matters of conduct. It would not have been fitting to take a leap into the Roman Catholic Church where confession, forgiveness is to be followed by the intention to go and sin no more, a source of plot dilemma for Graham Greene and for the almost forgotten Christian novelist, François Mauriac. (Sartre: “God is not a novelist and neither is M. Mauriac.”) The awesome basilicas, rituals, and elaboration of Christian duties in the Roman Church, appealing to the faith hunger of many converts, would be too richly aesthetical for Updike, too denying of Middle America, the other creed embraced in these confessions.

So it was to be the Congregational Church and its pleasant meetings—or was it? Updike was born a Lutheran and there lives in him still a degree of the social conservatism of the great reformer, who opposed the Peasants War of the sixteenth century because it destabilized the state, the power of the Protestant nobles. So he shifts in the manner of the creative, leaves the Church and the site of his youth for self-definition and also as his memoirs seem to say, to discover and to reclaim for his contribution to literature the meaning of who he was and where and placed in the American scene.

Settling for the beauties of Massachusetts was not only a flight from Shillington but also from New York. He was happy, he tells us, in Ipswich, an old village on the North Shore of Boston with a number of quite dominating old families, a place notable for the charms of its wooden saltbox houses, the wide shores and cold water of Crane's Beach, and, a formidable barrier to assimilation, the Myopia Hunt Club. And perhaps Ipswich is now notable for its transformation into Tarbox, the name of the town in Updike's novel, Couples. Tar, an odorous viscous liquid, and box—well, guess. Of course, Couples is a work of fiction and Tarbox need only be a convenient address of some status, the sort of town young professional couples with children might feel a certain pride in attaching themselves to. In any case, Tarbox acts in a peculiar manner upon the pulsing libidos gathered there as if for some pagan festival of nymphs and satyrs and maenads, or perhaps, closer to the bone, a remembrance of Merry Mount, carnal and gun traffic with the Indians, frontier revels around the maypole before the English puritans shipped Mr. Morton back to where he came from. Anyway, Updike was happy in the actual Ipswich—happy, except for the period, the middle 1960s, coming like some loud neighbor's quarrel over the fence.

“On Not Being a Dove,” the most striking section of the memoirs, is a sort of regimental assault, bayonets preceding, on the peace movement occasioned by America's fierce assault on Vietnam. It is meant to roil and rile the deracinated louts at their homefront barricades, the treasonable clerks in the literary establishment, the fashionable metropolis and its feathered dissent, the barefoot, bra-less flag-burners, the pious army deserters fleeing the hallowed shores for Sweden and Canada. Certainly, the inanities of the expressive side of the peace movement, the flower children, make-love-not-war, the pouring the blood on this and that, off-the-pigs—on these antics anyone free from permanent brain shock might look back in embarrassment.

The protest movement, which had begun in the solemn Fiftyish pronouncements of the Port Huron Statement and the orderly civil-rights strategies, by the time of the '67 Washington march and the '68 convention had become a Yippieish carnival of mischievous voodoo and street theatre and, finally, a nightmare of anarchy, of window-smashing and cop-bopping and drug-tripping and shouting down.

That's one thing and not the whole of the peace movement, as the Dance of the Seven Veils is not the whole of the Herodiade. Updike's positions are not merely a shudder for the misdemeanors of bad taste and the heretical processions of candlelight blowing in the wind; he proposes a tangled support of the actual war in Vietnam, an implied, or rather insisted upon, duty that once in combat, there is something cheap and hollow about agitating against the elected government, taking upon oneself matters of state that because of the horrible circumstances of war require patriotism, standing together, a national, if troubled acquiescence. That's the way he sees it, altogether too much carrying on by the motley and mottled mob and worse by the scriveners, their wrists swollen from signing a thousand petitions. What do they know, who are they, poets and screen stars, to demand out-of-Vietnam, or for that matter, to change the scene to earlier foreign manifestations that the toppled and diverted governments, to demand out-of-Suez, out-of-Algeria?

There are a number of points in his indictment, some about the nature of citizenship and others concerning the particularities of the Vietnam War.

One source of my sense of grievance against the peace movement when it came was that I hadn't voted for any of its figures—not for Abbie Hoffman or Father Daniel Berrigan or Reverend William Sloane Coffin or Jonathan Schell or Lillian Hellman or Joan Baez or Jane Fonda or Jerry Rubin or Doctor Spock or Eugene McCarthy. I had voted for Lyndon Johnson, and thus had earned my American right not to make a political decision for another four years.

A peculiar idea of the franchise, considering the porousness of the mandate on this and that, the frenzied concentration in Washington at the end of the day on how “It played” on the evening news and in the polls, representing after all the raw opinion of the unqualified, on what came to the telephone operators, computing the yeses and nos, what arrived in the legislative mail bag then, as always, casting a shadow over the morning DC sunlight.

Updike believes that Johnson was repudiated because he was not chic, altogether too down-home and as unmanicured as a coyote. “Cambridge professors and Manhattan lawyers and their guitar-strumming children thought they could run the country and the world better than this lugubrious bohunk from Texas.” Henceforth California began to run the country and true, not one of the successors could bring a tear to the eye like the memory of the unbuckled Johnson paddling nude in the White House pool or conferring on the toilet.

The war—Updike seems to come to rest on the dubious doctrine of “credibility,” meaning the credibility of our power to sustain noncommunist allies wherever and whenever they were attacked. “Credibility must be maintained; power is a dirty business, but whoever said it wasn't?” Whether it was prudent, given the loss of lives, the waste and vast expense, still to be paid for, to send airplane after airplane each day with bombs, napalm, agent orange, soldiers, condoms, whiskey, corn flakes and chewing gum—that's something else, the basis for dissent even among some skeptical cautious men around Washington, along with the perception of the “unwinnable.” And for the conscientious patriot Updike, should this war be morally allowable, considering the gross inequity of destructive means between ourselves and the enemy?

Such, such were the days and a little power struggle took place at The New Yorker, a filtering down or a pushing up of conflict on West 43rd Street and Updike, an occasional political commentator, was made to give way in Notes and Comments to Jonathan Schell and “more leftish hands.”

“The world is fallen, and in a fallen world animals, men, and nations make space for themselves through a willingness to fight. Christ beat up the money-changers in the temple, and came not to bring peace. He distinctly said, but a sword.” When Christ, who famously blessed the peacemaker, spoke of not peace but a sword He had no thought of wars between nations, but induced instead the household declarations of war that would supply the troops for his crusade. (Matthew 10:34-35: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I come not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.”) Certainly most of us would rather join the army, take our chances, rather than to embrace the poverty, repudiation to family and all earthly concern these troublesome early Christians were to accept as their lot.

Neither Jahweh nor Christ can be, after the biblical period, slipped into war alliances even if it is natural, in the midst of wholesale death, that the suffering should seek divine sanction for their cause. Bavarian Christian leaders in the last war seemed to have no trouble piling up sanctions with or without the aid of divinity. Updike goes far afield to find advice, even from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Therefore you must fight. … Freedom from activity is never attained by abstaining from action.” And in another obscure reference, obscure in intention at least, he thinks of men at war and of our national honor and writes: “In Sunday School, I had been much impressed by the passage where Peter denies Christ three times before the cock crows.” The disciple Peter, with his noticeable Galilean accent, divesting himself of the beleaguered Christ, saying “I know not the man” thrice—this betrayal by propinquity or rhetorical extension seems to be attached to the milling throngs of the peace movement denying Johnson and Kissinger and Nixon. Perhaps the Yippies should, like Judas in some accounts, hang themselves, as in an awful pop sense many of them did. … A slippery journey all this is. In a brilliant recent book about, among other matters, God and national policy in Victorian England up to the first World War, a young man recruited in 1914 is quoted as saying. “I've been a Christian all my life, but this war is a bit too serious.”

Updike's moral complexion is revealed with passion in his memoirs and with a high degree of almost lapidary affection for the values of his youth, the war stamps and nickels in the church collection plate, the mainstream in its decency, allegiance, and sacrifice. Along the way he scolds the “anti-establishment militants” gathered for a summer on Martha's Vineyard, scolds Mailer and Philip Roth and even the long dead hold-outs, New England with its “haughty disavowal of the Mexican-American War”—that skirmish, or those skirmishes, in which Mexico ceded two fifths of its territory—and, being long accustomed to Texas and California, we are pleased to have it.

Updike votes for the Democrats and is one of those Americans who retain from their parents a memory of the Depression and of the inspiration of Franklin Roosevelt. That was the score back home, how it used to be. The upper-middle classes, he observes, voted Democratic out of “humanitarian largesse,” because they saw it as the party of the left-out and needy. For himself, “I was simply poor and voted Democratic out of crude self-interest.” He notes that his childhood contained the bicycles and so on beyond necessity and “when, many years later, I was recalling some of these happy circumstances in the company of my father, he interrupted me with an exclamation almost anguished, ‘Oh, no, Johnny—we were poor!’”

The young man from Shillington is interesting indeed and his autobiographical composition, the work of a master writer, is a document of some uniqueness in our contemporary literature, something like a desk full of stunningly local photographs preserved by accident; or it would be so if photographs had opinions. And yet, and yet, there is something droll about the picture of himself as déclassé while he wandered about Harvard, carrying with him his “humble beginnings” and his relative deprivation. With his Christianity and out-of-line distrust of the antiwar movement he places himself as an object of aesthetic distaste like Johnson in politics, and in religion a lonely swimmer “sworn to seek / If any golden harbour be for me / In seas of death and sunless gulf of Doubt.” Of course, he is the true and sweetly acceptable celebrity of art, that world of the always self-made where attitude and pose have a license as plain as that of a mosquito.

A sort of citizen self-consciousness seems to accompany him as he goes into the Sunday morning church service, there perhaps to sing the popular hymn, pleasantly negotiable for tenor and soprano, “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,” words actually taken from a Civil War poem by J. R. Lowell. Or to return home to the town meeting, home from the cynical of New York.

I walked with my suitcase, on a winter night, up to the high school, where the town meeting was in progress. I gave my name, was checked off and admitted, and stood there in the gymnasium-auditorium in my city suit, looking into the brightly illuminated faces of my fellow citizens.

“Among the repulsions of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position.” Dear spotted atheism, the homely, wrinkled queen of heaven for the Big Bang, mother of the depressing claims of the prehistoric upright ape and the joke of the Piltdown Man—uninteresting? For this multiplex American talent, so various, as studious as a monk and as sly as a defense attorney with certain flashing difficulties in his case, here is the equation: “Down-dirty sex and the bloody mess of war and the strenuous act of faith all belonged to a dark necessary underside of reality that I felt should not be merely ignored, or risen above, or disdained” [italics added].

Down-dirty sex—here the novelist can be seen to slip out the door of the prayer meeting and the vote on the zoning law, saying as he leaves to attend to business, “In Adam's fall, we sinned all.” He began with The Poorhouse Fair, a charming fable about some old men in a country home. “It'll make a black mark in Connor's book …,” the dialogue goes, chaste typography of the year 1959, before the libertinism of the detestable Sixties brought in the new-fangledness of typewriter fucking. Updike embraced the wide exemptions with a curious fervor and his genius began to show a concubine's patience in the diversification of descriptions of the sexual art, not to mention the largest circus of performers. “Whoso list to hunt I know where is an hind.”

To risk the opprobrium of being against sex and conscientious candor in fiction, of withholding appreciation for the wearisome struggle with adjective, verb, and, noun the difficult rhythms of the alexandrines of copulation, brings on as much social uneasiness as not being a dove. Perhaps Couples and the cocky antics of The Witches of Eastwick are best thought of as comedies in the Restoration mode, fantasies of cuckolds, loose-girdled, ladies, toffs, lecherous squires, theatrics free at last from the Roundheads. But then the triad—down-dirty sex, God, and country?

Updike himself worries the scab of the union of these three, one original with him perhaps. God knows all, and so cannot be shocked, he says. No, God is not easily shocked, but He is not one to forego wrath about the evil and adulterous generations—a problem, yes of Updike's own making, there's that to be said for it. We note in the crowd of characters those most sympathetically imagined, Piet Hanema in Couples, and Rabbit Angstrom in the trilogy devoted to him, are given a sort of club handshake—they go to church.

Roger's Version, a late novel, prodigiously learned in theology ancient and modern, in physics, computers, whatever is necessary. There are four main characters: Roger Lambert, a professor of theology, rather, cynical, tweedy, as he goes about giving lectures on Tertullian in a place like the divinity school at Harvard; his second wife, Esther, mother of their one child; Dale, a student, a nerdish master of the computer who wishes to use its arcane possibilities to prove the existence of God; and Verna, Roger's niece, a foul-mouthed flower child, with a child of her own, half black, whom she bangs about and injures sufficiently to be rightly accused of child-abuse at the hospital.

In the novel, Dale with his waxy pallor and acne, will have an affair with the professor's wife, Esther; the professor will sleep with his dreadful niece, Verna. Some justification, religious, is needed for this willful “cage of unclean beasts,” as the Puritans were thought of in Holland. Remember, the text Updike quotes tells us, that Tertullian allowed: “There's nothing to blush for in nature. Nature should be revered.”

Nature—Esther with Dale:

He is coming. She stares at the little dark eye, the meatus uranarius, and with a stern helpfulness gives a downward tug at his engorged phallus … and when the first gob comes, as if in slow motion on a pornographic film, she has to have it herself … all that startling pure whiteness, ravenously nimble … and holding him firm with that hand at his kicking root, centers her cunt above his prick quickly and impales herself.

And, etc.

Roger meanwhile at his desk, weary of translating Tertullian's difficult Latin, nods off to imagine, in quite pretty Kodachrome, his wife and Dale together:

I pictured a white shaft: tense, pure, with dim blue broad veins and darker thinner ones and a pink-mauve head like the head of a mushroom set by the Creator upon a swollen stem nearly as thick as itself, just the merest little lip or rounded caves … overhanging the bluish stretched semi-epiderm where pagan foreskin once was, and a drop of transparent nectar in the little wide-awake slit of an eye at its velvety suffused tip.

Verna, in confrontation, with Uncle Roger: “Because you want to fuck me. You want to lick my cunt.” At every point in this curious, yellow novel there are asides to make way for religious imagery and longer disquisitions about the Fall and meaning of flesh, all bringing to mind those philosophical longueurs in the Marquis de Sade that interrupt the tableaux and stagy criminality. Of course, Sade despises God and Updike's is a domestic, harmless imagination. What seems to make a remote connection between the two is the felt need for justification. When Verna and Roger are in conversation at the kitchen table and Roger instructs her in the Christian belief that “even little babies are bad,” he elaborates from the unlikely pulpit: “Augustine did. Calvin did. All the best. Christian thinkers did. You have to [believe in the badness of babies], otherwise the world isn't truly fallen, and there's no need for Redemption, there's no Christian story.” (Pelagius thought Adam's sin was his alone and we must commit our own sins. But no matter.) There is much that is dismaying and unpleasant and tiresomely perfunctory in this violent congress between the pornographic impulse and Christian doctrine. (The plastic cross, which Dale, the callow Spinoza at his computer, wears, and to which Esther, the divinity wife, gives whatever attention she has to spare at The Moment.)

If the novels, the hotter ones, need a vindication the need is not theological but aesthetic, a matter of fiction, and also a grounding in social credibility, the treadmill of fictional truth. The actors in the drama will be a biochemist, a Radcliffe graduate, a Congregationalist minister, an amateur violinist, all turned into colliding bodies, objects, to whom inhibition, anxiety, debts, the eye of the neighbors, the practical world, the over-hanging aura of the divinity school, time itself, the bother, the bother, the boredom (“Fulfillment's desolate attic”—Philip Larkin) are as absent as they might be with a poor catatonic, also locked in the flesh. The matings of these married, switching couples do not take place in some 1920s demimonde, or in Haight-Ashbury, but are consummated in a wondrously laid out realistic world, heightened by Updike's intense visual imagination. Witches:

The night was moonless. The crickets stridulated their everlasting monotonous meaningful note. Car headlights swept by on Cocumscussoc Way, and the bushes by the church door, nearly stripped of leaves, sprang up sharp in the illumination like complicated mandibles and jointed feelers and legs of insects magnified. The air smelt faintly of apples making cider by themselves. …

And Couples: “The blue fire, layer on layer, of swallowed starlight, was halved by a dissolving jet tail.”

In the early pages of The Great Gatsby, the lower-class mistress makes a telephone call to the Buchanan estate at the dinner hour. This small event foretells the tristesse of the entire novel, sets the compositional tone for the eye and the special sensibility of the narrator. “Among the broken fragments of the last five minutes at table I remember the candles being lit again, pointlessly, and I was conscious of wanting to look squarely at everyone, and yet to avoid all eyes.” Saddest of all is the distant picture of the mistress at the telephone, she who literally doesn't know where she is with Tom Buchanan and his golden Daisy she who can have no idea.

Updike's shimmering knowledge of the way things look, how they deface or illuminate the towns, the roads; his almost effortless command of the tradesman's shops, the houses, cars, sports, and the speech of America, his dialogue's wit, swiftness and deftness in placement—in all this he is unsurpassed. But the greatly pleasurable gifts hang like white, puffy clouds around the humbly repetitive Pandemonium of the relentless f.ings which do not advance the plot, being in effect beads on a string. On and on they go, fore and aft, signifying description itself, interspersed with the voyeur's homely and infidel conversation. “Neff allowed to Alexandra that Greta [his wife] was ardent but strenuous, very slow to come but determined to do so.” In Witches one of the women has a leaking pipe in the kitchen; the plumber is called … and so. At a point in their lovemaking, she suggests an unappetizing way of getting off and the man of the people, the licensed journeyman with perhaps another leak on the intercom, says, “How about I give you a rain check on that?” Yes. Okay.

In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea—this odd and uplifting line from many of the odd lines in ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ seemed to me, as I set out, to summarize what I had to say about America, to offer itself as the title of a continental magnum opus of which all my books, no matter how many, would be mere installments, mere starts at singing of this great roughly rectangular country severed from Christ by the breadth of the sea.” An extraordinary statement, beautiful in the quotation and in the lilt of the flow of aspiration. If Updike has done as he wished, he has done so in the Rabbit trilogy—Rabbit, Run,Rabbit Redux, and Rabbit Is Rich.

“I, who seemed to be full of things to say, who had all of Shillington to say, Shillington and Pennsylvania and the whole immense mass of middling, hidden, troubled America to say.” True—the novelist's glory here is saturation, the jungle density of memory, experience, and imagination. The volumes span twenty years or so and they take place in a thick vegetation, crabgrass, and rotten dandelions pushing up over the lost basketball tournaments, the car lots, the aging elders, the songs and creaking beds, bad jobs, growing and failing business of a lower-class and petit-bourgeois landscape. In these novels, it is the lived years of Harry, Rabbit as he is called, Angstrom and Janet, née Springer, that grow and grow, with their mess, their cars, their flights, their domestic vagrancy, their inchoate sense of things, the spendthrift poverty and the TV dinners and hot dogs scrounged up on an evening.

Rabbit Angstrom is created out of recalcitrant materials, the high-school basketball court and finally the Toyota distributorship in Brewer, the facts, you remember, much like those of the truckstop minimalism in favour just now. But in Updike there are no staccato notations; it unwinds and unwinds, scene after scene, a long flow of attention and feeling. It is difficult to describe just who this young man from Brewer might be because of the subtlety of his claims on our sympathy, the peculiarities of his raw sensitivity, the naturalness of his unease, his “running,” that is, running away in the first volume.

In earlier American fiction the custom was to give a character like Rabbit, middle-western, feeling cramped in spirit, to give him a touch of the poet, some little closet of Jude-like hesitant bookishness. But Rabbit is not leaving town nor would he wish to, exactly. He runs, to get away, runs by car and sometimes walks out of his too-early marriage to Janice because, well, as he phrases it, “she's such a mutt.” He has an inchoate sense of things “invisible” and goes to church where “the pressed suits of portly men give substance and respectability to his furtive sense of the invisible.” He feels the need to ask forgiveness for his days at the used-car lot. “You see these clunkers come in with 80,000 miles on them and the pistons so loose the oil just pours through and they get a washing and the speedometer turned back and you bear yourself saying this represents a real bargain.”

Rabbit is not a rebel against small-town hypocrisy and narrowness, the so-familiar plight. He's got a flag decal on his car and he's a patriot in the barroom: “Poor old LBJ, Jesus with tears in his eyes on television, you must have heard him, he just about offered to make North Vietnam the fifty-first fucking state of the Goddam Union if they'd just stop throwing bombs.” If he has a spiritual quest it is to a mundane transcendence: his flight to his old coach, Tothero, where he takes up with Ruth, a tired and realistic woman, available but not exactly a whore, just hanging on. He flees while Janice is back home expecting their second child and he leaves Ruth to return, leaves her pregnant after convincing her not to use the “flying saucer.”

The years of Janice and Rabbit go on and lots of coitus, sometimes amid the residue of too much Gallo and too many bologna sandwiches, for him and for her and, of course, with others. The Springers, the cabin in the Poconos, a couple-swapping trip to the Caribbean, very heavy, Rabbit's days as chief sales representative of the Toyota franchise in Brewer. “This is a Corolla. … This particular car has four-speed synchromesh transmission, fully transistorized ignition system, power-assisted front disc brakes, vinyl reclining bucket seats, a locking gas cap.” Saturation, its reward. At the end, Rabbit is a grandfather. “Through all this she has pushed to be here, in his lap, his hands, a real presence, hardly weighing anything but alive. Fortune's hostage, heart's desire, a granddaughter. His. Another nail in his coffin. His.”

These wonderful novels are acts of conservation, a gathering of plant specimens north of the Delaware River, a rare and lasting collection of the fertilities of Updike's genius. Along the way, his diversions, vacations perhaps, have been a sort of brilliant excess, as if thrown away; but Bech and Bech Is Back (novels) are magical travel books, the best since Evelyn Waugh. His literary criticism, Hugging the Shore and pieces following, do not hug the shore, but instead sail out in an open boat where his curiosity and great intelligence seem to sail on and on, wherever.

John F. Fleischauer (essay date Summer 1989)

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SOURCE: “John Updike's Prose Style: Definition at the Periphery of Meaning,” in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXX, No. 4, Summer, 1989, pp. 277–90.

[In the following essay, Fleischauer examines the language and syntax of Updike's prose, particularly aspects of irony, symbolism, and literary detachment evoked in his use of descriptive vocabulary and imagery.]

John Updike has occupied a place near the center of the American literary scene for over twenty years. From the beginning, his works have attracted critical attention, most of it controversial, and at the heart of the commentary about Updike's prose has been a recognition of his distinctive style.

Throughout his career, a recognizable mark of Updike's linguistic signature has been the predictable appearance in stories and novels of striking adjectives and unexpectedly appropriate metaphors. In an October 1979 review of Problems and Other Stories, John Romano refers to both the metaphor and the “writer's word,” an adjective “so deft and efficient, paradoxically, that it's liable to distract us.” Romano cites adjectives such as “claxon” or “cruciform” and a climactic metaphor describing metal sparks from a gun barrel turning on a lathe: “Tan sparks flew outward to the radius perhaps of a peony.”

These two devices, though related, are nonetheless somewhat different in their functions as well as their effects. Updike's flamboyant adjectives—such as “claxon” or “tessellated” or the unforgivable “boustrophedonic”—stop the flow of narrative, whereas his metaphors serve to concentrate the flow. However apt the adjective modifiers turn out to be, their use mars the context by jumping beyond the reader's secure vocabulary and forcing a shift from emotional involvement to intellectual distance. This shift might upset a reviewer, but it performs a valid artistic function of producing an ironic perspective at a heightened moment, to keep Updike and the reader from straying into comfortable romantic sentimentalism. It reminds contemporary readers that neither they nor Updike want to be led into anachronistic emotional vulnerability and left there. Serious contemporary writing—or reading—demands a critical and skeptical awareness of the different value systems generated by the text, and Updike's self-conscious irony provides an opportunity for detachment by challenging within the fictive structure itself the legitimacy of conventional social goals such as those sought by his protagonists.

Updike's uniqueness lies in his process of detachment. Coming in adjective or adverb modifiers rather than main sentence elements, the ironic stance emerges without affecting plot or basic characterization. The predicative syntactic structures, with their governing nouns and verbs, remain intact; thus the story, however serene, stormy, optimistic, or tragic, goes on undisturbed and with, as it were, a straight face. Nevertheless, the author's implied distrust of motives or goals, which is manifested in the distracting elements, yields a fashionable literary Absurdism. This accompanies the story as an attitude toward both the action and the telling of it that intrudes comically upon occasion but then slips back behind the scene until it catches us unaware again. The converse technique is observable in more admittedly Absurdist works, from Ionesco's Rhinoceros to the works of John Barth and Tim O'Brien's contemporary war novel, Going After Cacciato, in which “straight” language is used to describe satirically absurd situations.

Updike's striking adjectives appear often; their intrusiveness increases in frequency and predictability in much of his fiction of the 1970s and early 1980s. Besides literary irony, they produce an ambiguity of intent or authorial attitude (hence tone) in his prose, which is matched somewhat by such incongruities as unexpected metaphors or visual comparisons. All of these figures, although appropriate functionally to the text, often call attention to themselves by the difficulty of their application. Measuring sparks from a gun barrel in terms of the size of a peony is a good example. The literary effects of the image are conventional and fairly obvious: the contrast of gun and flower arises from the 1960s and is easy to accept; also present are echoes of religious themes—the death instrument producing a life symbol, the “dead” metal sparking into an organic significance. The context of the story also includes a premonition of passage from innocence (that is, from dormancy to awareness). In fact, so much springs out of this comparison that its definite meaning as a focus of the story is impossible to determine. It carries meaning, but that meaning is cluttered; thus attention is called to the image as image.

In The Coup, Updike uses a similar contrast of ordinary materials to produce a heightened effect as his narrator, Col. Felix Ellelou, mentally synthesizes “irrelevant images” while preparing to execute his overthrown king and mentor. He feels a kind of adrenal ecstasy: “Think of the blade of that guillotine, wrapped in straw and burlap to protect its edge, but perhaps gaps worked loose in the wrapping causing glints of reflection to fly across the desert as the pack-camel swayed on its way as it brought humanitarian murder to this remotest and least profitable heart of Africa.” The effects here are much the same as those in the peony image examined above. The focus on such peripheral—but not irrelevant—details seems at first extraneous and indulgent, either the disorder of Ellelou's wandering mind or a vice of Updike's wandering pen. But real and apparently fruitful comparisons are being made: the oxymoron of “humanitarian murder”; the contradiction—identical to that in the peony image—of the lethal blade emitting light, a conventional life-symbol; the cultural contrast of modern machined steel with its natural primitive wrapping; and the further, implied, contrast of the slick fast motion of the guillotine blade with the swaying awkward slowness of the camel.

The reader is faced with a series of questions. Is this conglomerate of meanings reflective of Ellelou's futile efforts at blending modernization and traditionalism in his country? Is it prophetic of the advent, with modernization and its atrocities, of the end of innocent existence? Does it more simply, by joining an earlier reference to radiance and a later one to flashes of reflection from a scimitar, create a heightened visual concentration to match the narrative climax of the execution scene? It might, in fact, serve any or all of these functions; as in the case of the peony of sparks, the reader is dealt a spectacular but unfulfilling awareness of ambiguous meaning. We may admire the expert selection, but we cannot tell how to receive the image or which direction to head from it into the subsequent action. A distance is created between author and reader in this extended image, but it is not ironic distance as in the striking but indecorous adjectives. If the reader accepts the shift of focus toward tangential detail and the concomitant lack of resolution in these images, all is well. If, however, the reader assumes an authorial obligation for moral direction and consistency of stance, the literary experience becomes disappointing or at least disconcerting. This is the basis for some of the controversy in critical circles surrounding Updike's prose. Bringing into the story disparate images with their own conventional trappings is both heightening and confusing; the effect is, as Martin Price has written, “to soften focus and magnify the actual by means of a gentle blur.”

These two elements of Updike's art hint at a larger pattern of composition, which includes not just diction and imagery but also syntax and less visible approaches or techniques of expression. Although changes can be discerned over the years, a number of characteristics have continued to appear with a consistency that makes Updike's style familiar to readers. In general terms, the recurrent stylistic traits arise most prominently from a syntax that moves tangentially, through subordinate structures, often by association from noun to noun rather than in a forward logical sweep. At the beginning of Couples, Piet and Angela Hanema are introduced by means of a survey of their surroundings: “Their bed-chamber was a low-ceilinged colonial room whose woodwork was painted the shade of off-white commercially called eggshell.” The description avoids any mention of the furniture in the room and delays physical details of the characters at the center of the scene. Rather, the spatial adjectives lead into a relative clause of narrowed focus on peripheral minutiae—from low-ceilinged (“colonial”) to woodwork to an off-white color with a typical ironic modifier (“commercially called”) and apparently significant culmination in an indistinct fertility pun.

Within paragraphs or larger continuous scenes, a typical pattern of sentences begins with a short narrative or descriptive statement, which is followed by a generalized description of the setting in which the action takes place. This panorama is followed in turn by a series of increasingly longer descriptive sentences, heavily subordinate with details of the scene but increasingly trivial, tangential, or peripheral in relation to the initial point. Within such a series may be a planted image or a serendipitous object or modifier, which triggers an association suggesting possibly a metaphysical significance, a deeper structural level, or simply a direction of narrative movement. The end of the sequence is usually a culminating statement, which effects a detachment from the by-now-intense and cluttered scene but leaves an undefined sense of meaning and tone conveyed. The bedroom scene in Couples, although brief, fits this general scheme. Elsewhere in the novel, Updike sets up a tryst as follows:

Piet parked his truck in plain sight in the driveway. The Whitmans' surviving lilacs were leafless and his eyes winced in the unqualified light. Every season has a tone of light we forget each year: a kitchen with frosted windows, a leaf-crowded side porch, the chalky noons of spring, the chill increase, as leaves fall, of neutral clarity. October's orange had ebbed in the marshes; they stretched dun grey to the far rim of sand. The tide was low; the sea lay sunken in the wider channels like iron being cast. Foxy answered his second ring.

As in the bedroom scene, the central figure, Piet, is submerged by the stark environment, which recedes from house to porch to woods to marsh to shore. It moves with his implied vision from the stoop, although a plural structure surfaces with the intrusion of “we forget,” spoken with the author's keener sensitivity, so that we are not certain that Piet is actually seeing this decaying beauty. The scene breaks suddenly with the image of cast iron and Foxy's answering of the door, bringing our attention, and perhaps Piet's, back from this quiet but dying order to the pressing immediacy of his quest.

This pattern of shifting from trivial (or, in an existential sense, mistakenly important) central action to the fringes of an enclosing scene is even more obvious in an episode from The Centaur. The narrator is recounting a transitional period of his adolescence, although the scene is one he could hardly have witnessed:

Vera enters the back of the auditorium by one of the broad doors that are propped open on little rubber-footed legs which unhinge at a kick from snug brass fittings. She sees that Reverend March is over toward the corner, leaning against the stack of folding chairs that for assemblies and stage plays and P.T.A. meetings are unfolded and arranged on the flat area which is now the basketball court.

Other patterns of diction and technique provide the substance of this general syntactical pattern of digressive subordination. Within the subordinate clauses, adjectives, adjectival nouns and verbs, and hyphenated adjective-noun combinations accumulate, pulling attention toward the nature, shape, or color of actions or things and thus giving the surrounding environment more emphasis than the things themselves or their role in sentence action, even though the sentence may continue grammatically intact in spite of the syntactic and rhetorical interruptions. The total effect adds dimensions of external ironic observation to the “flat” plane of the story, enhanced by the distracting modifiers, which have been discussed above.

In the stories of The Music School (1962-1966), Updike demonstrates the range of variation within this general pattern. A paradigmatic example occurs in “The Indian,” like many of these stories an early sketch aiming toward the 1968 novel, Couples. Of particular note is the accumulation of descriptive adjective modifiers within long adverbial clauses or phrases:

The town, in New England, of Tarbox, restrained from embracing the sea by a margin of tawny salt marshes, locates its downtown four miles inland up the Musquenomenee River, which ceases to be tidal at the waterfall of the old hosiery mill, now given over to the manufacture of plastic toys. It was to the mouth of this river, in May of 1634, that the small party of seventeen men, led by the younger son of the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony—Jeremiah Tarbox being only his second in command—came in three rough skiffs with the purpose of establishing amid such an unpossessed abundance of salt hay a pastoral plantation. This, with God's forebearance, they did. They furled their sails and slowly rowed, each boat being equipped with four oarlocks, in search of firm land, through marshes that must appear, now that their grass is no longer harvested by men driving horses shod in great wooden discs, much the same today as they did then—though undoubtedly the natural abundance of ducks, cranes, otter, and deer has been somewhat diminished.

As in many descriptive passages, Updike drifts regularly from the adverbial locators of time or place toward descriptors of auxiliary things making up the mood of the environment. Concreteness captures his attention. Noticeable in this passage is a syntactic trait that tends to increase in prominence so habitually in Updike's prose through the 1960s that he seems to have made an effort to simplify his sentence structures in the stories of the next decade. Here the trait shows as a proliferation of participial and gerundive constructions that modify grammatically important nouns. These modifiers serve more as elaborating appositives than as clarifiers. The phrases “restrained … marshes” and “led … command” enhance our sense of the historical or geographical “flavor” of the town of Tarbox without adding information relevant to the location of the downtown area. As we might expect, these peripheral elements are Updike's focal concern for developing metaphysical significance. But because background holds so much importance for the author, these digressive details occur increasingly as interjections and interrupt the structure of the sentence kernel, which for most writers contains the centrally important idea of a statement.

The practice in this 1963 story is mildly distracting but acceptable because the inserted details provide useful tonal elements for the story; in later work, the insertion of participial or nominal modifiers between subject and verb becomes even more distracting, as Updike pushes more and more marginalia toward the center of vision. In the 1965 New Yorker story, “The Bulgarian Poetess,” which formed a core of Bech: A Book, interruptions produce a stutter of syntactic effort at progress:

At one point the teacher, a shapeless old Ukrainian lady with gold canines, a prima of the thirties, had arisen. …

The peasant woman, who seemed older to Bech than he was but who was probably under thirty, saw them to the edge of her domain.

Petrov, in whom he was beginning to sense, through the wraps of foreignness, a clever and kindred mind, seemed to have overheard his thoughts. …

The wizard, as a dancer, was inept, and once almost dropped her, so that anger flashed from her eyes.

The following passage from Couples (1968) shows the extent to which this tendency to scan the perceptual horizon for details has developed into a habit. Fragmented assertion is bogged down by the interrupting modifiers in the subject area and by similarly halting participial qualifiers in the predicate:

Angela, reminded by his tone and rhythm of her parents and uncle talking, of the tireless Gibbs pedantry, the sterile mild preachiness descended from the pilgrims, in which she had been enwombed, and from which Piet had seemed to rescue her, dozed, reawoke, heard Freddy still discoursing, and fell irrevocably asleep. He, having held her at bay and deepened his shame and completed his vengeance, felt himself grow strong and adamant and masturbated toward her belly, taking care not to defile her. Then both, parallel, floated toward dawn, their faces slacker than children's.

Downstairs, Piet, having poured himself one more bourbon, had grown cold beside the dying fire, and bored, and outraged.

Each sentence here contains a modifier separating subject from verb. In four sentences, thirteen participles occur, only one of which is part of a verb. The effulgence of the sentence syntax makes comprehension difficult; in the first sentence, subject and verb are separated by forty words. These words serve to reveal a number of levels of increasingly vague and remote influences on Angela's behavior, but the behavior itself almost escapes notice, and, by the end of the sentence, the parenthetical insertions have added little to the understanding of the reader or the movement of the plot.

An author noted for his style certainly becomes aware of his style. After the publication of Bech, Updike's prose shows signs of corrective effort. Marry Me (1976) seems almost consciously to avoid long sentences and contorted syntax. A Month of Sundays, published in 1975, masquerades as a diary. Its freer syntax and participial phrases more often provide conventional clarification than peripheral glimpses. In the stories of Problems and in “Trust Me,” published in 1979, the appositive construction has receded into insignificance, although Updike retains a focus on small details. In these sentences from “Trust Me,” featured details occur as subjects or as objects of prepositions in conventional sentence arrangements:

They flew out of Boston the day after starlings had blocked the engines of an Electra and caused it to crash into the harbor with such force that people were cut in two by their safety belts. They flew over Africa, crossing the equator at night—the land an inky empyrean lit by a few sparks of tribal fire.

The final absolute construction is the recognizable element of this passage, with its associative second look that focuses sharply on the heightened spiritual possibilities of the strikingly apt phrase “inky empyrean” and the remote but meaningful “sparks of tribal fire.”

From the very beginning, Updike has never moved away from the use of concrete associative combinations of environmental minutiae to point toward theme, although his attention to it has varied over the years as his self-consciousness about style as trademark has shifted. Even before leaving Harvard, he exerted what Robert McCoy calls “a good deal of descriptive energy on an apparently slight theme” in a Lampoon story entitled “Spring Comes to Cambridge.” The beginning paragraph of the story contains this sentence: “The awkward houses crouched like giant puppies who had been ordered to sit still, but who might at any moment spring nevertheless toward a bone-shaped cloud.” Disregarding the plausibility of Updike's simile, one can recognize in this early passage his focus on ambience and his penchant for a striking but connecting modifier, which joins by means of superficial association, not by logic or reality (houses—giant; puppies—bone-shaped). By 1972, Updike had refined his associational progressions, and the effect seems almost a parody of Nabokov or Proust in its conscientious excess. This can be seen here as he sets up a Horizon review of Remembrance of Things Past with an account of his wife's possession of the book:

… I opened my wife's tattered college copy of Swann's Way; she used to read under a sun lamp, and the cover was stained by a spot of oil. While our baby cooed in her white, screened crib, and the evening traffic swished north on the West Side Highway, and Manhattan at my back cooled like a stone, and my young wife fussed softly in our triangular kitchen at one of the meals that, by the undeservable grace of marriage, regularly appeared, I would read.

In more recent work, this digressive style of movement by association has been sharpened and made more functional, although the consciousness of its use is still apparent. In The Coup (1978), there are numerous passages in which the narrator “zeros in” (to use his own phrase) on a minute detail, moving it from the margin to a central point of attention in order to uncover a significance in the essence of detail itself:

Your face is vast; powder has silted into the pores; years have gently webbed your beauty; disillusion has subtly dimmed the once-blue lakes of your eye-whites, the sensitive black of your pupils; there is a girlish, anxious tousle to your hair. I want to hide amid its ruddy roots, from shame at having caused you distress, at having displaced your far-flung arrangements with the world, all the filaments of your careful socioeconomic compromise at a blow wiped away. Your great face, conjured from afar by the mystery of your unctuous, scrambling husband's death, turns a moment, before eclipse within the shadow of the Cadillac, toward the miraculously blank Kushite sky; your face is then blanched by solar fury as well as fatigue, and I, your invisible enemy, see, beneath your lifted upper lip, halfway down one of your splendid American incisors, a tooth bared by a vagary of thought and incandescent in the sun, a speck, no bigger than a bi, a speck of lipstick, a clot of blood.

It was certainly such perpetrated eccentricity that caused Truman Capote to conclude shortly after the 1978 publication of The Coup that Updike “writes beautifully but afterwards you can't remember what about.” Even in his recent novel, The Witches of Eastwick, marked by increasing efforts at syntactic control, Updike's associative comparisons shift back and forth between external and internal landscapes to force added temporal and spatial dimensions of significance: “The tiny staggering shadow of a bat passed in front of the moon and this too Sukie found consoling, the thought of something awake besides her mind, as when a late-night trolley car screeched around a distant unseen corner in the night when she was a girl in New York State, in that little brick city like a fingernail at the end of a long icy lake.”

Syntax forms a subtle and natural part of any writer's style, but other verbal elements also enter into the stylistic picture we receive. Often, especially in extremely personal passages of narrative revelation, Updike engages the reader in word games, either in or out of persona. His attraction to puns and graphic effects is shared by other contemporary American writers, most notably Vladimir Nabokov, although in combination with other elements the effect produced by the two writers is often quite different—Updike's ornaments provide an appearance of resonant harmony, somewhat like that of Donne's metaphysical conceits, rather than the sense of fragmentation of continuity produced by Nabokov's wit. In The Coup, for instance, Ellelou is said to have “kept tendony by tennis and tan by sailing through September on the cerulean, polluted surface of Lake Timmebago.” The protagonist-narrator elsewhere disdains American-inspired storefronts with “the gimmicky, plasticky, ball-and-jacky, tacky, distinctly dusty abundance of these toys, tools, hobby helps, and cardboard games.” Reviewing Couples for Commentary, John Thompson notices similar games in that novel, including a veiled paraphrase of the children's nursery rhyme, “Ding Dong Dell, Pussy's in the Well,” full of sexual puns. Thompson compares Nabokov's word play in Lolita with Updike's in Couples and concludes that Updike's use of such “power and accuracy” evenhandedly for the routine and the mysterious ends up killing the mystery by overexposure. On the other hand, Nabokov's extravagance is justified by the use of a “delirious” narrator, according to Thompson. Actually, many of Updike's narrators are also at least eccentric; but while his plays and puns might detract from the stability of his literary effect, they tend to arise from exuberance and a sense of metaphysical harmony within his work—often forming literary climaxes to his stories, as do the puns at the conclusion of “Giving Blood” from The Music School or the Pandora's Box image in The Centaur.

Thus Updike's verbal manipulations, like Donne's show that variant perceptions are or can be knit together into some kind of workable relationship. In Nabokov, such tricks more often show the way in which apparent harmonies or wholeness may in fact be seen as fragmented and destructive of hopes for resolution, and so the contrived coincidences of a brilliant misanthropic narrator create an element of defeating and sometimes humiliating irony. Updike's closest exercise in Nabokov's direction demonstrates the difference: in A Month of Sundays, the joke is always on the narrator himself, not the reader, and the play is ultimately for therapeutic purposes. Replete with alliterative strings and sexual-religious puns, this book reminds one of Nabokov “born again” or of John Donne modernized, seeking a harmony within the “post-pill Paradise” that Updike has already made famous. In the following passage, note not only the triple bilingual pun but also the repeated syllabic patterns and both Shakespearean and Biblical echoes:

I was told, indeed, that the Reverend Morse believed that nothing so became a parishioner's life as the leaving of it, with a valedictory bequest to the building fund. More, mors! At any rate the nominal members stayed away from the sabbath pews as from an internal revenue inquisitor, until the word went about in the land that lo! the new parson was not a hunting one, but a hunted.

As the recurrent elements of Updike's style are laid out for examination, they tend to produce a coherent pattern or “signature.” Critics have noticed Updike's consistent avoidance of the heroic in his work. The richness of the fictional experience arises not from the stature of his characters but from the milieu in which they act—or rather from the nature of the relationship between them and their surroundings. Most of Updike's characters are failures of some sort—at marriage, at leadership, at work, at parenthood or adulthood—and the rewards of reading Updike come from an appreciation of the patterns of their existence in a complicated environment rather than from any particular action they perform. Consequently, in Updike's work, scenes become more important than actions. Space is more important than time. In his diction, adjectives are more frequent than adverbs; adverb elements tend to be clauses with piled-up adjective phrases; and verbs, while colorful and active, are abnormally intransitive and seldom determine progress. Just as his artistic concern has focused upon ordinary rather than heroic characters, so his linguistic focus tends to be on subordinate rather than central structures, his attention shifted to the edges of described scenes for significance, and his sympathy attached to the unaware character trying to make sense of his lot.

In his interest in society's victims, Updike has been compared with the modern Jewish school, whose members often study the effects of a garish, crude society on a sensitive, self-denigrating hero. A significant distinction can be seen, however, in light of stylistic differences, which tend to clarify character ambiguities. In Bellow or Malamud, the protagonist is ultimately a victim of his own refusal to play society's rough games, and so the thrust—however comically portrayed—is of a sensitive, internally heroic misfit tragically overthrown. Syntactically, the focusing effect of subordinate structures remains on the subject or on centrally important nouns in the prose of these writers, whereas in Updike's work the “bulge” in sentence structure is in the predicate, and focus—whether metaphorical, adverbial, or adjectival—comes to the subordinate elements themselves.

A contrast becomes evident. In Updike, the theme is an ordeal by which the non-hero learns the little ways in which he is nevertheless rewarded for his persistence, in spite of failure or partial failure to achieve those successes urged upon him by a crass society. Updike, as Joyce Carol Oates has shown, is comic, not tragic. His stories are about modest successes on the periphery of social existence—often private successes, perhaps partial or indistinct, and frequently in the midst of more dramatic apparent losses. But there is an assertion of success or forgiveness as opposed to a rationalization of loss. Updike has repeatedly stated that his stories concern “gifts.” In the introduction to Olinger Stories, he claims, “We are rewarded unexpectedly. The muddled and inconsequent surface of things now and then parts to yield us a gift.” In an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels for Paris Review, he has said that he has “tried not to subdue my sense of life as many-layered and ambiguous, while keeping in mind some sense of transaction, of a bargain struck, between me and the ideal reader. Domestic fierceness within the middle class, sex and death as riddles for the thinking animal, social existence as sacrifice, unexpected pleasures and rewards, corruption as a kind of evolution—these are some of the themes. My work is meditation, not pontification.” The meditation, in a world of such fierceness and sacrifice, is one of the quieter rewards available at the edges of anxious action.

Peculiarities of characterization provide one of the broader patterns of repetition in Updike's work. Another is the use of geometric figures, which attend climactic passages to add a universalizing effect. Robert Alton Reagan has studied one geometric symbol—the circle—exhaustively. Reagan sees Updike's repetitions of circles, holes, and centers as elements of a neo-Kantian theory of knowledge—of the self as the focal point of truth. His work is careful and in many respects correct. It tends to clarify Updike's telescopic focusing and inconsistencies in narrative point of view. Reagan's limitation is his commitment to this one obvious device of Updike's, which, although it does act as a symbol of significant revelation, does not serve alone as a testimony of Kantianism.

In fact, throughout his career Updike has played with visions and perspectives of geometric forms, including the midpoint, radii, and circumference of the circle perhaps most often and most naturally, but including also a plethora of angles, intersections, triangles, rectangles, rhomboids, and complex networks. The common denominator of all these geometric images is an assertion of the existence of an abstract, natural, and perfect order, which sustains form in spite of perceived human tendencies toward short-coming and chaos.

The symbols sometimes help to identify larger themes of his work, as does the hole-and-net imagery woven through basketball-player Harry Angstrom's story in Rabbit, Run. Other times these symbols merely indicate undefined but important moments or point to cruxes of action or awareness, as in the circle-radius image of the peony in “The Gun Shop” examined at the beginning of this essay. In the same way, Marshfield confesses in A Month of Sundays, “we would tumble upon her low square bed, whose headboard was a rectangle of teak and whose bedspread a quiltwork sunburst …” (my italics). Other examples include: in “Harv is Plowing Now,” an old stove “heated a rectangular space of air around it …” (Music School); in Bech: A Book, “Her legs were white like knives, crossed and recrossed. A triangular bit of punctuation where the thighs ended”; in Marry Me, “She saw him, in this rare moment, as beautiful, a statue out of reach, … naked on a tympanum, his head bent to fit the triangular space …”; in The Poorhouse Fair, “Yet in visualizing this world which worshipped him, he returned to the triangles and rhomboids flashingly formed by the intersection of legs and torsos scissoring in sport, and the modulated angles of nude thoracic regions. …” (One is reminded by the last examples that Updike studied art and that in figure drawing the body is conventionally perceived as a complex of geometric structures.) Reagan provides many clear examples of Updike's circle imagery. For our purposes here, the consistent employment of these geometric symbols as triggers of a comfortable sense of order and grace is most important. They serve to provide an undercurrent thrust of assurance at points of stress.

Order is an inherent part of fiction. Updike has also regularly employed larger schemes to maintain order, and critics have examined many of these at length, notably the Greek myth informing The Centaur, the Peter Rabbit nursery tale behind Rabbit, Run, the linguistic design in “Museums and Women,” and the allegorical structures of Couples. Manifestations of these undercurrent structures often surface in the apparently trivial surveys of detail that characterize Updike's descriptive style, and such choices reinforce his commitment to the “undeservable grace” of regularity, which supports humanity's faltering efforts to achieve stature. Whether working in the larger structures of myth or the minuteness of geometric or linguistic symbols, the uniqueness of Updike's employment of patterns lies in the combinative force, a positive and optimistic mood woven into the forms and language of his prose out of the same rhetorical elements that in writers such as Nabokov or Barth produce a sense of fragmentation. Nabokov in his obscure allusions and parenthetical structures demonstrates disintegration; Updike works with the bits and pieces of language and syntax to fit together a potential synthesis.

Over the course of his career, Updike has developed favorite methods for displaying the possibilities of order or resolution and has emphasized and even stylized approaches to the fictionalization of his vision. Robert Detweiler has traced a similar development in Updike's story content from a “Lingering Romanticism,” through “Realism” (the belief that art follows life down to the irrelevant, non-artistic details), to a new area. “That next step,” he claims, “is the result of Updike's conviction that one can select moments from the flux of normal existence (or what passes for normal) and transform them into valid metaphors of meaning by extending them backward into time through memory, downward psychologically into myth, and forward ‘eschatologically’ with a hope that the future will somehow clarify one's present failed existence.”

Updike's efforts to assert the possibilities of continuity and meaning at the periphery of apparent fragmentation sometimes lead him to overextend. Elaboration of details, apparently gratuitous insertion of geometric patterns or mythic undertones, and planting suggestive metaphors have all led to charges of indulgence and stylistic flamboyance. Readers who are accustomed to structural consistency regardless of the vagaries of plot or character have trouble accepting Updike's self-conscious refocusing on previously ignored elements of the environment-whether geographical, psychological, or even artistic.

At least one effect of refocusing on details out of normal range is to grant the reader a sense of superiority, and so of potential victory, over the real-world correlatives to Updike's fictional failures or ambivalences. Rabbit Redux, for example, ends with a tolerance of insufficiency. The reunion of Rabbit and Janice is judged “Fair” by the characters, but the narrative voice leaves room: comfort overcomes climax, and “[h]e finds this inward curve and slips along it, sleeps. He. She. Sleeps. O.K.?” The reader is addressed as a higher consciousness than Rabbit or Janice—more literate, more observant, more appreciative of the “little gifts” of detail, albeit as a result of Updike's prompting guidance. Therefore readers can empathize with Rabbit's—or George Caldwell's or Felix Ellelou's—partial successes and can also vicariously and by analogy from their superiority, sense their own ability to realize even greater individual fulfillment than the Updike characters. The narrator's flattering attention to the readers' sensitivity changes the social weight of the stories from genuine existential tragedy to a modern comedy of escape. Oates has sensed this characteristic. In her remarkable study of Updike, she claims, “His genius is best excited by the lyric possibilities of tragic events that, failing to justify themselves as tragedy, turn unaccountably into comedies.” In his stylistic idiosyncrasies, we see what accounts for the shift. As in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, when perspective becomes distant enough, what might have been tragic with involvement and central focus becomes comic through the superiority of ironic detachment and the “gentle blur” of peripheral awareness.

Victor K. Lasseter (essay date October 1989)

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SOURCE: “Rabbit Is Rich as a Naturalistic Novel,” in American Literature, Vol. 61, No. 3, October, 1989, pp. 429–45.

[In the following essay, Lasseter examines elements of naturalism, literary realism, and deterministic philosophy in Rabbit Is Rich. According to Lasseter, “The theme of entropy which dominates Rabbit Is Rich can be understood in terms of the naturalistic trap. This is a novel about limits, energy crises, hostages, and death.”]

Throughout John Updike's “Rabbit” novels, Harry Angstrom makes striking economic progress. By most American standards, he has found success in Rabbit Is Rich. No longer feeling the need to escape, as he did in Rabbit, Run, and having survived the collapse of his marriage and the fire that destroyed his home in Rabbit Redux, he now runs the family Toyota franchise and lives with his reconciled wife Janice in their new suburban home.

Although Rabbit the automobile dealer seems reasonably successful, in Rabbit Is Rich—and in the two earlier Rabbit novels—Updike recreates in many ways the grim world of American naturalistic novels such as McTeague,The Red Badge of Courage, or Sister Carrie. A specific parallel to McTeague may be noted, for instance, when Janice and Rabbit make love on a pile of gold coins and to An American Tragedy when Nelson pushes his pregnant wife down the stairs. Indeed, Updike restricts his protagonist's freedom in so many ways that Rabbit Is Rich suggests the naturalistic “chronicle of decline,” the reverse success story. Like Carrie Meeber in her rocking chair, Rabbit in his new pink wing chair has achieved only a partial success. Caught in middle-aged complacency, Rabbit is sexually and spiritually unsettled and, more than he realizes, economically vulnerable. At the same time, Updike insists that Rabbit's only hope for freedom lies in his spiritual impulses and therefore depicts Rabbit's worldly successes as not only limiting and unsatisfying but reversible. Although Updike is not a twentieth-century naturalist like Norman Mailer or James T. Farrell, the Rabbit trilogy and Rabbit Is Rich in particular resemble classic American naturalism enough to make the title Rabbit Is Rich ironic.

The successful Rabbit seems rid of his oppressive past. As a boy in a lower-middle class family, “his life was a paltry thing.” After reaching his apogee as a high-school basketball star, Harry Angstrom surprisingly rises again from demonstrating MagiPeels and living in a miserable apartment house to running a Linotype machine and later managing his wife's Toyota agency during the energy crisis. Rabbit now lives close to a middle-aged nirvana: “For the first time since childhood Rabbit is happy, simply, to be alive.” He inhabits a world of expensive Japanese economy cars, cocktails, and golf. With money comes validation at his country club: “At the Flying Eagle Harry feels exercised, cleansed, cherished.” This leisure-class comfort seems to prove his guiding principle that “life can be lived selectively, as one chooses from a menu, or picks a polished fruit from a bowl.” Whereas in Rabbit, Run he flees from his wife and in-laws, he now submits to a matriarchy. “This is what he likes, domestic peace. Women circling with dutiful footsteps above him and the summer night like a lake lapping at the windows.” Home in Rabbit, Run is suffocating; but now at middle-age Rabbit tolerates restriction.

Since Rabbit himself seems to be happy at last, whether Rabbit Is Rich is a chronicle of decline is a point of dispute. James Wolcott maintains that “the mood of the book is grumpy and despairing, swollen with forlorn rue.” Updike has “dropped his butterfly coyness and pumped himself up with all the woe of Theodore Dreiser contemplating a boulevard of crushed souls.” Most writers, however, feel that Updike is basically sanguine about his protagonist. Thomas R. Edwards writes that the latest Rabbit novel is “a story of disasters averted” and that the couple's life is “reasonably equable and contented.” The ending, in fact, suggests further progress: Rabbit has a new Celica, an “elegant little stone house,” a granddaughter, and a son going back to college.

Similarly, Donald J. Greiner feels that Updike has developed Rabbit into a fairly happy character, although Greiner notes that Rabbit's earlier fear has been replaced by frustration. Without overstating the contentment, Greiner believes that there is little anguish in Rabbit Is Rich. “Questing in the first novel, mired in the second, [Rabbit] is secure and almost smug in the third.” Comparing Updike to Sinclair Lewis, Frederick R. Karl says that Updike is the “less enthusiastic naturalist” because “Rabbit remains on top.”

But is Rabbit really “rich”? Can he remain secure and successfully shape his life? Or does Rabbit face the Dreiserian fact that happiness is more easily achieved than maintained? Dreiser's lovers Clyde and Roberta “were deliciously happy, whatever the problems attending its present realization might be. But the ways and means of continuing with it were a different matter.” Updike too limits his protagonist's world in order to emphasize the futility of Rabbit's sexual yearning and the validity of his spiritual instincts.

Rabbit Is Rich resembles the classic naturalistic novel in several aspects, from the stylistic to the philosophical. There are several general resemblances in manner. The first is the use of documentary realism: the thorough, mimetic depiction of everyday life. The last two novels in the Rabbit trilogy especially share what June Howard in Form and History in American Literary Naturalism calls the naturalistic “prestige of fact.” In the latest Rabbit novel, Updike has learned the details of automobile dealerships, for instance, and also undergirds the novel with contemporary events such as the energy crisis. In particular, according to Karl, Updike is as notable for his “intense attachment to the artifacts of decline” as are Sinclair Lewis, Wright Morris, and John O'Hara. Second, in the manner of Zola or Norris, Updike has written a panoramic series involving two families over several decades; naturalism, James T. Farrell reminds us, began as a fiction of “extensiveness,” a broad depiction of the social milieu. Third, Updike's characters carry familiar naturalistic imagery. Nelson, for instance, is “a rat going out to be drowned.” When Rabbit carries his burden of gold to the bank, he sees himself in a Dreiserian image of cosmic defeat: “he stares up Weiser toward the mauve and brown bulk of Mt. Judge; in his eyes as a child God had reposed on the slopes of that mountain, and now he can imagine how through God's eyes from that vantage he and Janice might look below: two ants trying to make it up the sides of a bathroom basin.” Here the ant-like quality of human effort is Dreiser, but the God-consciousness, as we will see later, is Updike.“

Apart from these general, external similarities, Updike's treatment of sex and violence echoes a major preoccupation of naturalistic writers often summed up as “the beast in man.” In the naturalistic novel, sex is seldom tender or even erotic; sex is an animalistic, unfulfilled urge. Sex is one of Rabbit's primary goals, motivations, and failures. However, the text hardly supports the claim that Rabbit's sex life is “often imaginative and usually fun” or that the “frantic anguish associated with sex in Rabbit, Run seems lost forever.” During the first bedroom scene in Rabbit Is Rich, Janice falls asleep; in the second, Rabbit is too tired. In the next, Janice makes love reluctantly. During another love scene, Rabbit is able to climax by imagining Janice in a pornographic movie. Next, Janice falls asleep again and Rabbit masturbates. In the final scene with Janice, Rabbit discusses his desire for a new house. His thoughts drift quickly from erotic fantasies to sunken living rooms and real-property appreciation. The longest sex scene is a wife-swapping episode in which the disappointed Rabbit has to make love to the relatively homely Thelma instead of the attractive Cindy.

For one of his few passionate encounters with Janice, Rabbit has just purchased several thousand dollars of Krugerrands. The cause of this rare moment of passion is money: Rabbit has not had an erection “just blossom in his pants since he can't remember when.” As foreplay, Rabbit explains to his naked wife the advantages of gold as an investment. The love-making is detached; the gold attracts him but the reality of the flesh repels as Rabbit “fondles her underside's defenseless slack flesh, his own belly massive and bearing down. Her back looks so breakable and brave and narrow—the long dent of its spine, the cross-bar of pallor left by her bathing-suit bra. Behind him his bare feet release a faraway sad odor. Coins jingle, slithering in toward their knees, into the depressions their interlocked weights make in the mattress. He taps her ass and asks, ‘Want to turn over?’”

Updike is not D. H. Lawrence; rather, severity is characteristic of his sexual scenes. As George Steiner explains, “the more urgent, the more acrobatic the sexual moment, the tauter, the more contemptuous of facility is the writing.” The bleakness in this passage certainly negates eroticism; the sex is too clumsy and sad—not even urgent or acrobatic—to be a means of growth for Rabbit.

This gold scene recalls a similar passage in McTeague; McTeague's wife Trina also needs to convert money to a tactile form so that the sexual passion can be transferred to the material world. In solitude, Trina likes to take out her gold coins and “draw the heap lovingly toward her and bury her face in it, delighted at the smell of it and the feel of the smooth, cool metal on her cheeks. She even put the smaller gold pieces in her mouth and jingled them there. She loved her money with an intensity that she could hardly express. She would plunge her small fingers into the pile with little murmurs of affection, her long, narrow eyes half closed and shining, her breath coming in long sighs.”

In making love to her possessions, Trina is making love to herself. Her sexuality is thus autoerotic, and so—even though he has a partner—is Rabbit's. Noting this episode, Edwards claims that Updike's scene is different: Rabbit and Janice make love through rather than to the gold. But if the gold were a medium, a kind of sex toy, would not the Angstroms' lovemaking be less dreary and more exciting? If the gold were a kind of sex toy, would not the sex be more playful? Rabbit makes love to his gold, to his daydreams and fantasies, not to Janice, who is so much “defenseless slack flesh.“

In short, sex in Rabbit Is Rich resembles the sex lives of Joyce Carol Oates's characters: sex is “something which happens to them, a joyless, confusing event to be accepted with glazed looks and a mind wandering elsewhere.” Rabbit's sex life is one of his greatest discontents because the sexual reality is always less fulfilling than the sexual fantasy. This disparity between the imagined and the actual is fundamental to the naturalistic tradition; what Updike adds is that sex has become a nervous substitute for God.

A major expression of “the beast in man” theme is violence, for example the vicious homicide in McTeague. Usually from the lower classes, naturalistic characters tend to lack wealth, sophistication, and education. The fewer resources these characters have, the more likely they are to respond violently. Thus the naturalist deals with “the extraordinary and excessive in human nature.” In Rabbit Redux Rabbit beats Janice, strikes Jill, hits Skeeter, and has more passion for the Vietnam war than for his wife. In Rabbit Is Rich, the newly respectable Rabbit still harbors violent urges, but his affluence and position control his overt savagery. He is now ordinary and cautious. Gone are the black radical Skeeter and his political violence, the political fire that Rabbit courted in Rabbit Redux. Instead, the Rotarian Harry Angstrom often experiences both violence and sex vicariously. He daydreams several times, for instance, about bashing in his wife's head. When an acquaintance insults him, Rabbit imagines using a heavy glass egg as a basketball, “making the pivot from pounding it into Janice's stubborn dumb face to finishing up with a one-handed stuff straight down into Harrison's pink brainpan.” Fantasy combines a perfect basketball play with vengeance. But his violent passivity is paradoxical. He lets Skeeter insult him and takes out his rage at women by letting Skeeter kill Rabbit's young girlfriend. This very destructiveness and self-destructiveness also lead to the burning of his house. Rabbit is violent because he is declining: “Rabbit is the dark side of any man who realizes his ideals and his power are gone.” Thus the Rabbit series reflects the domestic violence of naturalistic fiction.

Nelson's favorite spectator sport is the most violent of all professional games, ice hockey; Nelson also satisfies his violent urge by smashing up several cars. Like his father, he fantasizes about bashing in heads. But at a friend's party Nelson, who resents being trapped in a marriage and having a pregnant wife at a gathering of young people, actually takes out his anger on his wife; he pulls her away from her dancing partner, “squeezing Pru's wrist to hurt.” “Her brittle imbalance makes him want to smash her completely,” but at first he only bullies her. As they leave the party, however, he knocks her down the stairs:

Impatiently Pru passes him on the left, fed up with him and anxious to be out in the air, and afterwards he remembers her broad hip bumping into his and his anger at what seemed her willful clumsiness, but not if he gives her a bit of hip back, a little vengeful shove. … So when Pru in those wedgy platforms turns her ankle, there is nothing for her to hold on to; she gives a little grunt but her pale face is impassive as in the old days of hang gliding, at the moment of launch. Nelson grabs for her velvet jacket but she is flying beyond his reach. …

This scene is a miniature of the drowning incident in An American Tragedy—a violent yet passive act. Clyde Griffiths' violence reveals his hesitation and incompetence; like Griffiths, Nelson suddenly changes his mind, trying to retract his action by grabbing Pru's jacket. Dreiser's protagonist decides not to drown Roberta; then as he changes his mind, she drowns accidentally. Furthermore, Griffiths has to drown Roberta because she is pregnant; Nelson too is an anti-life figure, resentful of the broad hips of pregnancy.

Naturalistic characters are often sexually maladjusted, violent “beasts” because they find themselves in a trap, an oppressive or dangerous situation which cannot be evaded. Of course, the trap creates more frustration and violence. Naturalistic fiction emphasizes limitation as a basic condition of life: Howard describes the naturalistic world as “constructed not according to indifferent laws but as a trap or even a torture chamber.” In Rabbit, Run, domestic life suffocates Rabbit. When Janice asks him to buy her a package of cigarettes, “Rabbit freezes, standing looking at his faint yellow shadow on the white door that leads to the hall, and senses he is in a trap.” His subsequent escape to the South of “orange groves and smoking rivers and barefoot women” is only an abortive quest, given up when, without a map, he dead-ends into a lover's lane and then retreats to urban, industrial Pennsylvania. After his return, the heavily drinking Janice accidentally drowns their baby. Basic to the Rabbit series, Tony Tanner notes, is an “extensive vocabulary of constriction.”

One of the most important naturalistic features of Rabbit Is Rich is that at his point of greatest success and freedom, Rabbit faces several constraints. First of all, he is not rich; he is a kind of economic prisoner. He may have a comfortable house in the suburbs but it is Janice, if anyone, who has the money. Janice, not Rabbit, owns half of Springer Toyota; when her mother dies, she will own it all. In Rabbit, Run Rabbit's irresponsibility—his refusal to be domesticated—was paradoxically his saving quality. Now, however, he can no longer run—and not simply because he is overweight. To run now is to lose Springer Toyota. The older he gets, the more he becomes a hostage to affluence, the more he becomes “a big bland good guy.”

Rabbit is hardly “cleaning up” and selling cars “like crazy.” Such misreadings suggest the power of Updike's irony to make Rabbit's wealth seem greater than it is; if we are not careful, we make Rabbit into Horatio Alger. Rabbit creates his own restraints. His work ethic is that the cars “sell themselves,” but at the same time he also argues that the agency cannot sell more than twenty-five cars a month—a decidedly uncompetitive attitude. Rabbit seems uninterested in business matters; he reads Consumer Reports but not the Wall Street Journal or Fortune. Rabbit leaves work to spy on his former mistress; his father-in-law used to keep the showroom open during blizzards. While he plays golf, his wife and mother-in-law make personnel decisions. Nelson, with his nostalgia for the large American automobile, represents a further remove from shrewd business tactics. The franchise gives the Angstroms a monthly net of $3500—before taxes. This is a very comfortable but not extraordinary income in 1979 considering a double-digit inflation rate, and Rabbit cashes in his sole investment to buy a new house. Forces beyond Rabbit's control could threaten the success of Springer Toyota. Mazda and Volvo offer competition. Interest rates are up. The cars, then, do not in fact “sell themselves.” Rabbit is not wealthy; he is temporarily affluent because buyers need his high-mileage cars.

Another tooth in the naturalistic trap is that in Rabbit Is Rich, even more so than in the very bleak Rabbit, Run, urban environment deadens the characters, as it often does in the naturalistic novel. No matter how affluent Rabbit becomes, his surroundings remain ugly and oppressive; even his vacation escape to the tropics is brief and unsatisfying. Updike's stylistic commitment to documenting the environment of Pennsylvania creates for his characters a high barrier: “as the prose meticulously itemizes the objects among which Harry moves, so we can feel the accumulating weight of them pressing on his eyes and nerves and thoughts to the point of claustrophobia.” Thus, as with Crane, Norris, or Dreiser, the impersonal urban environment stultifies; the city is ugly, cold, and inhospitable to dreams. Rabbit's habitat is the industrial Northeast, where farms have been replaced by tract homes and shopping centers. Big factories have closed, while marginal shops struggle to survive. Power has become decay: “everywhere in this city, once the fourth largest in Pennsylvania but now slipped to seventh, structures speak of expended energy.”

Is Rabbit's immediate, fairly prosperous environment—a bustling, shining car dealership—an exception to the general decay of Brewer? Even the seemingly successful Springer Toyota takes part in the larger decline. Symbolically, Harry's new office has walls of imitation boards on which hang yellowing clippings of his faded basketball glory. After his vacation, Rabbit must return to the old “snowless, leafless landscape, the dust of all seasons swirling and drifting, intermixed with paper refuse from the Chuck Wagon that has blown across Route III.” Nor does Rabbit's suburban dream home afford him a real escape from the dirty, congested trap. The house that Edwards refers to as “elegant,” Updike labels “pretentious” and describes with the detailed disdain of a Tom Wolfe: “a tall mock-Tudor with gables like spires and red-tiled roofs and clinker bricks sticking out at crazy melted angles, and a sort of neo-plantation manse of serene thin bricks the pale yellow of lemonade.” Furthermore, the world of youth is just as stifling as that of adults. Nelson admires the style of a friend's apartment overlooking “the deadened heart of the city.” Here the old oak floors have been “covered wall-to-wall with cheap shag carpeting speckled like pimento, and hasty plasterboard partitions have divided up the generous original rooms.”

This deadening concrete environment also destroys the rich, productive farms of rural Pennsylvania. In Rabbit, Run, Rabbit finds satisfaction working as a gardener. But after driving to rural Galilee to spy on the young woman he believes is his daughter, Rabbit finds the country in Rabbit Is Rich to be a briar patch. Summer weeds get in his way; a dog chases him to his car. Ruth's “soft dishevelled” farm shows the same neglect that has made the city ugly.

The landscape—urban, domestic, and rural—does not simply contrast to Rabbit's wealth; it repels and inhibits him. The first pages of Rabbit, Run introduce a prominent technique in the trilogy, the city tour in which Updike follows his anxious protagonist through suffocating Brewer, where Rabbit fears he will be assaulted. Updike uses this peripatetic device almost a dozen times in Rabbit Is Rich; these tours invariably circumscribe Rabbit's world to the dirty, the decaying, and the frightening.

The many resemblances between Rabbit and his son Nelson suggest another important naturalistic idea: heredity combines with environment to thwart the wills of the protagonists. Heredity in Rabbit Is Rich paradoxically suggests both sterility and impotence or generational doom, reinforcing the idea of the naturalistic trap. In Rabbit, Run Janice accidentally drowns their child. When Rabbit discovers that Nelson's girl friend Pru is pregnant, he offers to arrange an abortion. Nelson demurs, although earlier, upon learning that she was pregnant, he had persuaded her to go hang gliding in hopes of inducing a miscarriage. Seed imagery then suggests not birth or hope but determinism: “seed that goes into the ground invisible and if it takes hold cannot be stopped, it fulfills the shape it was programmed for, its destiny, sure as our death, and shapely.”

The hereditary trap extends from Rabbit's pathetic father to the third generation: the twenty-two year old Nelson is also out of gas. He is “a sick man” who is “just tired of being young. There's so much wasted energy to it.” Nelson is an adolescent cynic who reverses Huck Finn's move west. Nelson returns to Pennsylvania from Colorado; in the West, he claims, “There's nothing to see.” At the same time, to Nelson the old Detroit automobiles symbolize American power and destiny, but he cannot admit that this brief post-war period of American might is past. Even though Nelson rebels against limits, he comes to symbolize them; in fact, Updike associates Nelson's return to Brewer with the taking of American hostages in Iran. The Nelson-hostage parallel implies that Nelson is bound to his own myopic view of America, a view just as fear-driven as his father's.

Nelson is such an unsympathetic character that we risk sharply contrasting him to his happier, more accommodating father. Even though Nelson rebels against his father, their many similarities establish an hereditary chain. For instance, Nelson abandons his family just as his father had. Like Janice and Rabbit, Nelson and Pru are becoming fairly heavy drinkers. Rabbit Is Rich, moreover, uses a structural device of parallel parties to underscore the idea of hereditary force. At Webb Murkett's party, a gathering of the middle-aged, Rabbit voyeuristically rummages through the hosts' bedroom until he finds some Polaroid pictures of Webb and Cindy. At a gathering of young people, Nelson also becomes fascinated by his hosts' bathroom literature, in this case a picture book about the Nazis. In both instances, father and son are outsiders, discontented, seeking satisfaction in fantasy—one with voyeuristic sex, the other with fascism and death. Updike does not suggest as strongly as a naturalist like Zola that heredity is an irresistible obstacle to growth, but in many ways Nelson is Rabbit's aimless soul reincarnated, and Rabbit himself has to admit that “there's no stopping heredity.”

If the naturalistic novel emphasizes a decline in the protagonist, Rabbit Is Rich goes even further in depicting an entire nation mired in corpulent middle age. Allegorically, America was once young and powerful with inherited resources, as Rabbit himself is for an athletic moment in Rabbit, Run. In adulthood, however, unsolved political problems such as the racism and a bellicose foreign policy seen in Rabbit Redux begin to reveal national limits: Rabbit's typical neighborhood is “slowly spinning in the void, its border beds half-weeded.” Rabbit Is Rich shows the United States as middle-aged and perhaps unrealistically complacent, like Rabbit with his inventory of Toyotas that sell themselves. After ignominious retreat from Vietnam is humiliation at the hands of Iran. Representing the younger American generation, Nelson will only withdraw into the Springer home, just as his father had. In short, Rabbit has peaked at forty-six, but Nelson has peaked even in his youth. Both Rabbit and his America are trapped.

The theme of entropy which dominates Rabbit Is Rich can be understood in terms of the naturalistic trap. This is a novel about limits, energy crises, hostages, and death. The globe's natural resources are dwindling; America depends for fuel on other nations, which then take her citizens hostage; and Rabbit's own energy and aspirations fade in middle age.

The idea of entropy begins all three novels. Rabbit, Run begins as Rabbit intrudes on a basketball game. The month is March, when “Love makes the air light. Things start anew. …” But he does not belong with the young boys, and the game is in a back alley. The opening scene in the Angstrom-Springer chronicle raises this issue: can Rabbit still shoot, and if he can, does his retained skill offer him any advantage whatever at age twenty-six? After the game, he goes home to a wife he dislikes. Rabbit Redux begins in a bar: the topic is the failing health of Rabbit's mother and the infidelity of his wife. If the first Rabbit novel begins with a failed athlete and the second a failed husband and worker, the third goes on to suggest a failed national energy. Rabbit Is Rich begins with the phrase, “Running out of gas.” And at the end of the first day, when he has done nothing very strenuous, Rabbit is “dead tired.” He is not one of Crèvecoeur's new men, but a fatigued American Everyman.

By the end of Rabbit Is Rich, both Rabbit and Nelson become stationary, that is, indifferent. At forty-six, Rabbit has finally moved out of his mother-in-law's house. The novel ends with Rabbit inertly watching television. While the symbolic core of the first novel is Rabbit's running, the trilogy thus pauses at an “image of immobility,” an important motif in naturalism that deemphasizes human volition in favor of “enforced spectatorship.” Rabbit is now a watcher instead of a runner.

Updike wanted to be a writer like Flaubert or Joyce, whom he called “the great exquisitists.” Why would a writer with such a refined sensibility write a novel emulating naturalistic fiction with its sometimes plodding, documentary style and expansive themes? Of course, Updike may have wanted to answer critics who continue to complain that he is more style than substance. More importantly, however, the naturalistic emphasis on human helplessness appeals to Updike's Christian theology.

There have always been periods when theologians, philosophers, statesmen, and artists—that is, men attempting to interpret life—have had a bleak estimate of human nature and experience. Often belief during a period of this kind—the belief, say, of a St. Augustine, a Calvin, or a Hobbes—derives from a reaction against an exalted notion of a man held during a previous period and a responsiveness to the oppressive conditions of contemporary life. Often this belief thus stresses that man's ability to choose, to express his will consciously and freely, is limited both by his own nature and by the world in which he lives.

The Rabbit novels—marked by a naturalistic emphasis on boundaries—appeared during the “human potential movement” with its emphasis on expanded selfhood. Updike, however, echoes the naturalists' stress on limits. Still, he does not see decline as inevitable: the Rabbit chronicle hedges the determinism so important in the naturalistic novel. And the naturalism Updike emulates is itself, indeed, ambiguous about the human condition, a fact that recent scholarship has emphasized. While Howard acknowledges that two elements distinguishing naturalism from realism are “squalid scenes and pessimistic philosophy,” she also points out that naturalistic fiction depends on antinomies such as free will vs. determinism and optimism vs. pessimism. Invariably, a discussion of naturalism must deal with determinism; recent discussion has emphasized the degree of human freedom possible in naturalistic fiction. John J. Conder, for instance, argues in Naturalism in American Fiction: The Classic Phase that naturalism embraces both determinism and free will, using the Hobbesian definition of liberty as the absence of impediments not contained in the agent, a view which leaves room for individual will. One particular kind of naturalistic novel, as Pizer points out, is the “novel of questing, as in The Red Badge of Courage,Sister Carrie (for Carrie), and The Adventures of Augie March, in which the protagonist seeks inconclusively in a shifting, ambivalent, and often destructive world some form of certainty about himself.”

In spite of his naturalistic passivity, a dim but persistent spiritual force continues to operate in Rabbit which prevents the Rabbit saga from being only a tale of decline. In Rabbit, Run, Rabbit is called a kind of “mystic.” In Rabbit Is Rich, Updike continues to suggest that Rabbit might push beyond the emptiness of this material life. He welcomes rain because it represents “the last proof left to him that God exists.” His life is now sometimes haunted by “ghosts”—openings to a spiritual world—whose influence he cannot and really does not want to escape. These are dangerous ghosts, the narrator tells us, because every time Rabbit has made a move towards the invisible, someone has been killed. But this fear does not stop him from listening to the invisible world, nor does Updike suggest that it should. Rabbit feels these spiritual moments at odd times, on a bus or while playing golf: “The fairway springy beneath his feet blankets the dead, is the roof of a kingdom where his mother stands at a cloudy sink. … The earth is hollow, the dead roam through caverns beneath its thin green skin.” This passage, with its theme of mutability, does not suggest nihilism, however; Rabbit's recognition of mortality gives him a spiritual consciousness that naturalistic characters, such as the beer-bloated McTeague, lack. Recognizing his own diminishing sexuality, Rabbit confronts mortality. Updike thus associates sexuality with limits.

Eros fails Rabbit on the wife-swapping trip to the Caribbean. As the airplane ascends, Rabbit savors the revelation that “outside Brewer there is a planet without ruts worn in it.” He feels hope and a propulsion towards God who, “having shrunk in Harry's middle years to the size of a raisin lost under the car seat, is suddenly great again, everywhere like a radiant wind.” But God is secondary on this vacation. In paradise the routine becomes golf, eating, drinking, and entertainment “set in a rigid weekly cycle.” As if he were in Brewer, Rabbit talks about inflation and makes love to his wife “out of general irritation.” At the same time, paradise presents dangers: the stars “hang in the sky with a certain menace.” After this sadly anti-climactic vacation, frustrating to Rabbit because he loses in the wife-exchanging, his snare is set. “He has risen as high as he can. …” Updike is saying that the material, hedonistic Rabbit has reached his limit in his frustrating obsession with unloving sex. “Where eros and sadness meet” in Updike's writing, Steiner says succinctly, “theology begins.” George Hunt's study of Updike's theological sources may help here. In Kierkegaardian terms, Rabbit's sexual desires and attitudes keep him in the aesthetic sphere of existence, that is, hedonism. His spiritual currents, however, may prepare him for the religious sphere: the pursuit of God. He will have to keep looking into space, or closer by, for answers.

As Rabbit looks for God in space, Updike emphasizes in the return of Skylab the probe of the unknown. This interest in “heaven” is a persistent theme in the trilogy. Updike's aging protagonist “scans the paper every day for more word on these titanic quasars on the edge of everything, and in the Sunday section studies the new up-close photos of Jupiter, expecting to spot a clue that all those scientists have missed; God might have a few words to say yet.” Even when earthbound, Rabbit tries to float above the deadness of Brewer: “Harry has always been curious about what it would feel like to be the Dalai Lama. A ball at the top of its arc, a leaf on the skin of a pond.”

Nearby Galilee offers the possibility of renewal. Updike does not suggest that the pastoral is altogether blighted. In fact, one of the few idealists in the novel, Ruth's daughter, has grown up in the country. Although a minor character, Annabelle has escaped the cycle of meaninglessness that stunts so many lives in the Rabbit series. Unlike the worldly, confident Melanie, the burdened, cautious Prudence or the bitter Ruth, Annabelle lives by solid but idealistic values. Ruth, the ex-prostitute, has tried to raise her “very innocent.” Annabelle is calm, amiable, attentive, “willing to please,” but also independently pragmatic: she refuses to marry her boyfriend, who wants to go on to college, until they are both certain. Unlike the complaining Nelson, Annabelle has freedom, freedom from marriage until she wants it, for instance. And she is more of an idealist than almost any other character in the Rabbit books: she works in a rest home and shares none of Nelson's self-indulgent cynicism. When he can't understand why she works with sick people, she tells him, “I like taking care of things.” Rabbit's illegitimate daughter thus lives on the Kierkegaardian level of the ethical (between the aesthetic and the religious): a commitment to morality and a sense of personal duty.

If his new granddaughter represents another nail in Rabbit's coffin, as the book's last sentence indicates, she also represents the hope of exception (a grandson would imply another Nelson). Janice offers a precedent, for Janice seems a stronger person than she was at the start of the trilogy. She is much healthier than either Rabbit or Charlie, and even Rabbit admits that Janice has learned more from life than he has. Pru is strong enough to tell off Nelson, have the baby, and let Nelson go back to college, and Ruth steadfastly denies Rabbit's claim of paternity in order to protect Annabelle.

In spite of the gloomy naturalistic determinism in the Rabbit trilogy, Updike implies that his characters have freedom of choice. If some characters, like Nelson, seem doomed to make bad choices others, like Rabbit, have at least the opportunity to be less earthbound, while Annabelle suggests a possible escape from the round of futility. The chronicle of Rabbit Angstrom thus fits Donald Pizer's description of an ambiguity in nineteenth-century American naturalism: “The naturalist often describes his characters as though they are conditioned and controlled by environment, heredity, instinct, or chance. But he also suggests a compensating humanistic value in his characters or their fates which affirms the significance of the individual and of his life.” Jonathan Edwards erects a theology on Newtonian determinism but asks his auditors in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to give up their sins and turn to God; John Updike shows Rabbit ensnared but offers hope through his resilient interior life, as when he senses that “to be rich is to be robbed, to be rich is to be poor.” In order to force Rabbit to such insights, Updike puts him in a naturalistic trap.

George J. Searles (review date 1–15 October 1990)

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SOURCE: “Angst Up to the End,” in New Leader, October 1–15, 1990, pp. 21–2.

[In the following review, Searles offers a positive assessment of Rabbit at Rest.]

For sheer output and versatility, few writers can touch John Updike. Since his 1958 debut he has given us a play, four children's books, five collections of poetry, another five of essays—and, of course, the 24 volumes of superior fiction that have established his reputation as a major American author.

Updike's latest novel [Rabbit at Rest] completes a tetralogy about ex-basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, sometimes described as the Harvard-educated author's proletarian alter ego. Each of the books portrays Harry at a different stage of his troubled, unfulfilled life. Rabbit, Run (1960) introduces the young Harry: adulterous, confused, adrift. In Rabbit Redux (1971) Harry is 10 years older and still floundering, caught up in the tumult of the '60s. In Rabbit Is Rich (1981) Harry has inherited a Toyota dealership and achieved financial success, yet genuine happiness continues to elude him. Now, in Rabbit at Rest, he is semiretired, killing time on the golf course while battling not only his perennial psychological demons, but also the double bogy of cardiac illness and looming death.

It has often been suggested that Harry's thwarted strivings are on one level simply metaphors for the larger social problems of his era. The new work leaves no doubt. Even more so than the previous installments, Rabbit at Rest is a virtual directory of actual catastrophes: the AIDS epidemic, the Pan Am Flight 103 explosion, and the Challenger disaster, to name only a few. No wonder Harry Angstrom and his family are experiencing difficulties, Updike seems to be saying, things are tough all over.

Followers of the saga will remember Harry's rather unappealing son, Nelson, one of many characters reprised here from the earlier books. True to the Zeitgeist, he has fallen into cocaine and crack addiction and has virtually bankrupted the Toyota agency to feed his habit. Nelson's depredations, though, are merely part of the whole depressing picture. Everywhere one turns in this book promises are broken, contracts violated, relationships betrayed.

As if to emphasize the dishonesty of his characters' interactions, Updike relentlessly evokes the tacky, cheesy quality of American reality in the Reagan/Bush years. His handling of the ironically-named Deleon, Florida, and of Harry's retirement community there, is a tour de force of scornful mockery. But even in the more accustomed environs of Harry's fictional hometown of Brewer, Pennsylvania, Updike is ruthless in his mustering of negative details. The following passage, in which Harry and his wife attend the funeral of Harry's former lover, Thelma, is typical:

“The funeral service is in a sort of no-brand-name church. … Looking for it, Harry and Janice got lost and wound up at the mall in Maiden Springs. … The lazy girl in the booth [of a six-theater cineplex] didn't know where the church might be, nor did the pimply usher inside, in the big empty scarlet lobby smelling of buttered popcorn and melted M & Ms. … When finally, hot, embarrassed, and furious at each other's incompetence, the Angstroms arrive, the church is just a plain raw building, a warehouse with windows and a stump of an anodized aluminum steeple, set in a treeless acre of red soil sown skimpily with grass and crisscrossed by car ruts. Inside, the walls are cinder-block, and the light through the tall clear windows bald and merciless. Folding chairs do instead of pews, and childish felt banners hang from the metal beams. … The minister wears a brown suit and necktie and shirt with an ordinary collar, and looks rather mussed, and breathless, like the plump young manager of an appliance store who sometimes has to help out handling heavy cartons.”

Rabbit at Rest is a documentary of a society sinking in its own vulgar excesses, just as Harry himself nearly drowns early in the book. Repeatedly he functions as the symbol of a lost America. When the costumed Harry arrives at a July Fourth celebration, for example, “people with puzzled Eighties faces keep asking directions, because he is dressed as Uncle Sam and should know. He has to keep telling them he doesn't know anything.”

But Updike's primary purpose is not to make a political statement. He remains centrally concerned with Harry Angstrom as a person. “The private events are the main thing,” he stressed in a recent New York Times Book Review article about the new novel. His real interest is the mystery of the human consciousness, that swarming riot of impressions, recollections and impulses.

Thus we are made privy to the jumpy, often comical course of Harry's thoughts as he attempts to understand his own life, to make sense of the “atomic decay whereby the precious glowing present turns, with each tick of the clock, into the leaden slag of history.” This idea has preoccupied Updike throughout his career, and in fact provides the basis for his excellent recent New Yorker poem “Perfection Wasted.” Death is there defined as “the ceasing of your own brand of magic. … The memories packed / in the rapid-access file. The whole act.”

The narrating voice in Rabbit at Rest is a mix of Harry's and Updike's speaking always in the historical present. Technically, the story is told from the author's all-knowing point of view. But whole sentences and paragraphs must be read as Harry's, despite the purposeful omission of quotation marks and attributing phrases. Updike's subtle blending of voices enables him to maintain a strong sense of immediacy and realism without sacrificing the advantages of authorial omniscience.

The one drawback is that Harry's value judgments begin to take on the feel of sanctioned utterance. This is a problem because, to put the matter gently, Harry is not a politically correct person. His knee-jerk conservatism, his patronizing attitudes toward those of color, and his Cro-Magnon view of women are offered to us in a rather too forgiving light. After several hundred pages, this becomes a bit hard to take. Maybe Updike was anticipating such objections, for along the way he has Harry say of America, “God's country. He could have made it smaller and still made the same point.”

Perhaps the novel's trickiest feature, however, is the extreme improbability of two crucial scenes. The first—involving a most unlikely sexual alliance—seems far-fetched immediately. The other—drawing upon Harry's distant past as an athlete—is unrealistic only when you stop to think about it.

Implausibility, though, is also part of Updike's subject here. Again and again, he presents us with blatant absurdities that are routinely tolerated as part of “normal” life. His treatment of television, especially, reinforces the idea that almost anything is possible today, no matter how preposterous. Disturbing as this may be, it is quite comical as well in a sardonic sort of way:

“… The commercials revolt him, all that friendly jawing among these folksy crackerbarrel types about rectal itching and burning, and the one of the young/old beautiful woman in soft focus stretching so luxuriously in her white bathrobe because she's just taken a shit and all those people in the Ex-Lax ad saying ‘Good morning’ one after the other so you can't help picturing the world filling up with our smiling American excrement, we'll have to pay poor third-world countries to dump it pretty soon, like toxic waste.”

Such brash irreverence, coupled with a strong current of nostalgia, is partly what enables Harry to hold our attention for all of his obvious personal shortcomings. Although we may not like Harry, in some respects we are akin to him. We all feel hemmed in sometimes, vaguely threatened, subject to the whims of fortune and of our own quite fickle bodies. We're all sick of shlock. And we all yearn for certain cherished people, places and rhythms from our past, now forever gone.

But what really makes Harry interesting is the extent to which he is different, his refusal to grudgingly accept the leveling effects of day-to-day existence. He has always been at odds with the social contract, and now he is tilting against Mortality itself. That he's doomed to failure is irrelevant; what's important is that he will not go gently.

Rabbit at Rest is a long, often troubling, yet provocative novel. It is likely to dismay and entertain in nearly every measure. Readers who have followed the “Rabbit” chronicle from the start will be less surprised by Harry Angstrom's more philistine pronouncements, and will experience the satisfying sense of having come full-circle. They are more apt, too, to recognize the in-jokes. At one point, for instance, Harry says, “redux. … What a dumb word … you see it everywhere suddenly.” The initiated will wink, knowing that it was Updike who resurrected the term from diction's boneyard. But all readers will be struck by the book's poignant, elegiac tone, by its arresting topicality, and by the undiminished brilliance of Updike's masterly prose style.

Anthony Quinn (review date 26 October 1990)

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SOURCE: “Fifty-five and Fading,” in New Statesman & Society, October 26, 1990, p. 33.

[In the following review, Quinn offers praise for Rabbit at Rest.]

The past 30 years of American life have been pretty crowded by any standards, and will presumably continue to disgorge their historians, their scourges and their apologists. There will be many a baggy social chronicle to pin it all down, though few will match either the intimacy or the eloquence of John Updike's Rabbit sequence.

Centring on the fortunes and foibles of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, middle American anti-hero and everyman, each novel put the seal on a decade's end—the fifties in Rabbit, Run (1960), the sixties in Rabbit Redux (1971) and the seventies in Rabbit Is Rich (1981). In those rollicking, rueful comedies, Updike's talents were in overdrive, both as master of the heroic sentence and historian of the spirit. While Rabbit reeled through the years from marriage and dalliance to middle age and disillusion, Updike suggested the weight of history pressing upon the whole country, a period of transition which offered—and frequently withdrew—the possibilities of change.

With Rabbit at Rest, the sequence comes to a close, and we witness America on the slide: “Everything falling apart, airplanes, bridges, eight years under Reagan of nobody minding the store, making money out of nothing, running up debt, trusting in God.” The country has gone soft, complacent, allowing the Japanese to muscle their way to the top of the pile.

As for Rabbit, he isn't in great shape either. Prosperity hasn't managed to shoo away restlessness, or even improve his golf. Dividing time between his Pennsylvania hometown and a Florida condo with long-suffering wife Janice, Harry—once a strapping jock—has all but gone to seed, “55 and fading”, and what's more, a real fatty. He's slave to his junk palate, guzzling and gulping on pretzels and peanuts and Nutter Butter cookies; with all this sludge in his arteries, a major cardiovascular catastrophe seems inevitable—Rabbit is wrecked. But it's as much his mind as his heart that keeps us riveted, for Harry is that curious thing, the silent majority made vocal: he votes for Bush, hates to hear the authorities run down, and harbours a casual contempt for ethnics and “queers”. He even misses the cold war (“it gave you a reason to get up in the morning”).

Yet, even as his vitality dwindles and his girth expands, the central obsession of Harry's life remains constant: sex. It is, of course, central to the whole Updike oeuvre; Harry is just his chief spy in the house of lust. The erotic misdemeanours of his past life haunt the pages of Rabbit at Rest, which brings sex at last into a melancholy embrace with death.

Mindful of his tom-tom ticker, Harry has to keep the libido in check nowadays, and transgresses only once. Unfortunately, it happens to be with Pru, his rangy, redheaded daughter-in-law. “The worst thing you've ever done,” his wife sobs—“If I had a gun, I'd shoot you.” This isn't what Harry needs, what with their son Nelson bankrupting the family auto business with runaway debts from a cocaine addiction. Echoing the close of Rabbit, Run, Rabbit runs, making his escape across big-highway America towards solitude and the ambiguous consolation of rest.

Updike's concerns propel the novel, in common with the other three, far beyond the intricacies of domestic upheaval. Harry's common-man preoccupations—air disasters, American history or space travel—are simply an aspect of his creator's boundless appetite for the American way. Rabbit at Rest displays an encyclopedic familiarity with cars, cocaine, basketball, economics, heart surgery, TV shows, music, gardening and high-cholesterol food (lots of it), the complications and comforts of a life that Harry now clings to even as he is “falling, helplessly falling, toward death”.

Intimations of mortality flicker throughout the book, which is oddly the gloomiest and the funniest of the four. Crammed between its dark meditations on love and death are tiny gems of incidental detail, such as the way a streetlight “projects rhomboidal ghosts of the window-panes, alive with a spasmodic motion as rain-drips tremblingly gather and then break down-ward in abrupt streaks”. Locked in a short circuit of prejudice, vulgarity and selfishness, Rabbit has not been a lovable creature, but he will, I suspect, be sorely missed. This junk-fuelled joyride through end-of-the-century America left me saddened and exhilarated. Updike is so far ahead of the field right now he barely needs to glance in the rear mirror.

Barbara Leckie (essay date Spring 1991)

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SOURCE: “‘The Adulterous Society’: John Updike's Marry Me,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 61–79.

[In the following essay, Leckie examines the social, literary, and philosophical significance of marriage and infidelity as presented in Marry Me.]

[F]iction is also a mode of spying; we read it as we look in windows or listen to gossip, to learn what other people do.

—John Updike, Picked-Up Pieces

The quintessentially private life that entered the novel … was, by its very nature and as opposed to public life, closed. In essence one could only spy and eavesdrop on it. The literature of private life is essentially a literature of snooping about, of overhearing “how others live.”

—Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination

The 26 April 1968 Cover of Time Magazine features a picture of John Updike. The illustration, in the manner of American realist painting, depicts Updike looking candidly out at the viewer from hooded squinting eyes. A black and white banner in the top right-hand corner announces “The Adulterous Society,” and the cover implies that Updike has identified a contemporary American phenomenon: not simply occasional or isolated adulteries but an entire adulterous society. One could be alarmed or thrilled, but the evidence is indubitable: adultery's secret and private existence, the closed activity of the bedroom, has been exposed; the bedroom door has been opened.

The article itself is illustrated by Titian's “Christ & the Condemned Fallen Woman” with the accompanying comment: “The Biblical woman accused of adultery would be safe in Tarbox [the town in Couples]; here no stones are thrown, only envious glances.” This article brings together many issues central to Updike's work: adultery, aesthetics, religion, and the dialogue between aesthetic movements which have promoted and deepened religious experience and the twentieth-century aesthetic movements which have emptied art of its sacred resonance. In what follows I want to turn to Marry Me, one of Updike's less frequently discussed novels, to make a contrast between the privacy implied by infidelity and the publicity implied by contemporary American attitudes committed to confessing the “truth about sex.” In other words, after adultery has been publicly legitimated (in Couples and on the cover of Time) can it still maintain its transgressive, liberating, and, for Updike, quasi-religious status?

The issue of conjugal infidelity is much discussed by critics of Updike; but most critics read his treatment of this theme in the context of de Rougemont's elaboration of the Tristan and Iseult myth (discussed in detail by Updike) and the riddles of religion (exemplified by Kierkegaard, Barth, and Tillich, figures to whom Updike's essays and novels explicitly point). These analyses are convincing, and often illuminating, but by no means adequate to the tension between reticence and exposure, invisibility and visibility, the private and the public, which Updike's novel is concerned to address.

The crux of Marry Me is simple enough: should Jerry separate from his wife Ruth and go to live with his “mistress” Sally? Jerry cannot decide. In the Kierkegaardian context this indecision may be read as the “dread” or “anxiety” produced in the face of uncertain “possibilities” (Concept of Dread). In the context of de Rougemont this indecision is precisely what animates desire: to choose is to have and to have is to put an end to desire. But one can also locate such indecision in a sociocultural context. As Franco Moretti notes, indecision is inseparable from the modern condition. Discussing Joyce, Moretti argues that the connection between possibility and anxiety, so central to Kierkegaard, has been eroded in contemporary society. “This connection,” Moretti writes, “was still strong … in that great and pained exploration of the logic of a possible second life which was the nineteenth century novel of adultery. … In Ulysses, adultery has become a harmless pastime, and even the most extreme experiments of its Modernist imagination may well produce stupefaction but no longer evoke anything threatening.” Similarly, Tony Tanner views Updike's representation of adultery as emptied of its cognitive force. “A novel like John Updike's Couples is as little about passion as it is about marriage; the adulteries are merely formal and technical. Adultery, we may say, no longer signifies.” In Marry Me adultery is neither a harmless pastime, nor merely formal and technical; indeed, it is precisely in the contrast between an adultery replete with all the romantic dreams of “a possible second life” (an adultery, that is, which “signifies”), and an adultery which has been exposed, institutionalized, and commodified that the tension of this novel is located.

The exposure of adultery involves a dual process of being brought into the common language (and the cheapening of the experience which this implies); and being brought into the community. To the extent that adultery is privileged as an activity distinct from both the common language and the community (as antithetical, in other words, to everything that “the adulterous society” implies) its space must be maintained as a realm apart in which freedom is gained only at the cost of an absolute cleavage from the social. Jerry is able to maintain this romantic image of adultery because, as he states, Americans, unlike Europeans, do not have a tradition of adultery; adultery persists as one of the last remaining pure, ironically unfallen, and decidedly uninstitutionalized activities. In a world that has been permeated by technological innovations and facile media commentaries, adultery seems to hold out the dim promise of the untouched, the immediate, even the sacred. If this understanding of adultery is clearly fanciful, it is nevertheless persuasive; and in Marry Me the tension between this romantic version of adultery and Richard's more pragmatic “philosophy of affairs” is animated in the novel's desperate translation of its organizing dilemma—Jerry's indecision—into an aesthetics of doubt which shifts the open-ended sense of possibility desired by Jerry to the level of the novel's form. The irony, however, is that this aesthetics collapses at once into the very things from which it desires to distinguish itself: religion and sexuality.


In Marry Me Updike's geographical terrain is suburban, that liminal space between the city proper and the country; and his thematic focus is adultery, the liminal space between monogamous marriage and complete sexual freedom. The novel focuses on the interwoven lives of Jerry and Ruth Conant, and Sally and Richard Mathias, names which themselves signal Updike's concern to explore epistemological strategies. Mathesis, derived from the Greek mathesi, a short step from Mathias, is defined as “mental discipline; learning or science, esp. mathematical science. Also personified,” and the root of Conant, “con,” means simply “to know.” Infidelity in both relationships splinters not only these marital unions of “knowledge,” but also the possibility of knowledge insofar as knowledge, traditionally understood, is the faithful reflection of the true.

The text is divided into five sections each of which ostensibly corresponds to the perspective of one of the main characters. The two framing chapters, “Warm Wine” and “Wyoming,” are told from Jerry's perspective, the inner frames, “The Wait” and “The Reacting of Richard,” are told from Sally's and Richard's perspectives respectively (although Richard's chapter is actually told, for the most part, from Jerry's perspective), and the central chapter, “The Reacting of Ruth,” is told from Ruth's perspective. The “Wyoming” chapter is itself divided into three alternative endings that entertain three possible lives for Jerry in the process of elevating aesthetics—and the novel, in particular—to the position of moral salvation for which Jerry seeks. The point to note here, however, is that the narrative structure frustrates the closed integrity of the isolated subject: first person interior monologues from Jerry's perspective are planted in Sally's and Richard's chapters; Ruth's section is tied to Jerry's (insofar as it repeats details which Jerry has already related) and to Sally's and Richard's (through the telephone which penetrates both the material boundaries between homes, and the artificial boundaries between chapters). When Ruth begs Jerry for a decision, Jerry pleads: “What I want is too tied up with how it effects everybody else. It's like one of those equations with nothing but variables. I can't solve it. I can't solve it.” Jerry's quest for an elusive ontological freedom then only finds him entangled in the mundane domestic relations of the everyday, the very relations from which he imagined release in his adulterous affair.

Most critics locate Updike's treatment of infidelity in a realm of freedom and self-affirmation (the first romantic version of adultery discredited by Moretti above). In brief, an individual is freed from social constraints and as such can authentically and autonomously affirm one's self. Marriage then is pitted against freedom. Kerry Ahearn nicely summarizes the standard argument: “Marriage is enforced by the ceremonial code and notarized by the contractual law, but confirmation of one's existence requires passion, and passion demands freedom.” And Donald Greiner writes that for Updike “[m]arriage may have the sanctity of ceremony, but adultery promises the freedom of desire.” Critics who develop this self-affirmation via adulterous freedom argument typically follow Updike's lead in grounding such sexual dynamics in de Rougemont's study, Love in the Western World, the purpose of which is to “describe the inescapable conflict in the West between passion and marriage.” But the problematic is not, in fact, so simple. Does adultery, by definition, imply freedom? First, in the genre of the novel freedom is doubly exposed: the reader intrudes on the private lives of the characters, and the characters themselves expose their private lives to one another. Secondly, the concepts of freedom and adultery derive from an extensive literary tradition. The very fact that Updike situates his understanding of infidelity in the context of de Rougemont, for example, indicates his commitment to the Tristan and Iseult myth from which an enormous body of literature on infidelity has developed. Updike's equally explicit dialogue with Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter further locates his exploration of infidelity in a literary context, a context which could easily be extended to other writers (like Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, and Edith Wharton) and shifted to other domains (like art history.) Thirdly, and most importantly, Updike explicitly denies the necessary connection between freedom and adultery in the competing versions of adultery he represents in Marry Me; and in Jerry's dawning realization that what he took for freedom and renewal could be reduced to a dominant domestic ideology of adultery of which the label “the adulterous society” is only one indication.

In Marry Me adultery is represented from two different angles: the affair between Ruth and Richard; and the affair between Jerry and Sally. Toward the end of Marry Me Richard's philosophy of affairs is related by Ruth to Jerry: “He talked about the philosophy of affairs. He said the woman's responsibility was not to get pregnant and the man's was to stop it when the woman began to get emotionally dependent.” In the former case one must be wary of a woman's physical excess, her capacity to become pregnant, and in the latter it is a woman's emotional excess which demands curbing. In both cases, however, it is the woman who threatens to challenge an otherwise rational, responsible man unsusceptible to physical and emotional limitations. Neither marriage nor the family is mentioned although the implication is that affairs should not be serious, and that both parties should take every precaution against the serious affair, that is against a woman's physical or emotional desire for a serious affair. Richard's philosophy then guards against exposure; it articulates a pragmatic approach to sexuality which does not contest, but rather is accommodated by, the dominant social institutions.

But only the affair between Richard and Ruth corresponds, superficially at least, to the “rules” presented above. Following Richard's philosophy, his affair with Ruth is “successful”; Ruth becomes neither pregnant nor emotionally dependent. On the contrary, Ruth's affair is in every way subordinated to her marriage. Ruth's relationship with Richard is formed on the basis of their talks about Jerry as Richard is ostensibly helping Ruth with Jerry's problems. Updike summarizes the completed affair from Ruth's perspective as follows:

On the whole she [Ruth] was well satisfied with her affair. … She judged herself improved and deepened in about the normal amount—she had dared danger and carried wisdom away, a more complete and tolerant woman. She had had boyfriends, a husband, a lover; it seemed she could rest.

She had not quite intended Jerry never to know. She had done it, her conviction grew in retrospect, less for herself than for him; her surrender to another man came to seem a kind of martyrdom, a martyrdom without an audience. … her marriage had stood with the stupid solidity of an unattended church.

The affair is valorized as something daring from which wisdom and wholeness—the “normal” and the “complete”—are found. Updike quickly shifts, however, from Ruth's self-improvement to her marriage, and specifically her husband. Ruth is no longer a hero who “dared danger” but a “martyr” who “surrenders” herself. And later Ruth explains her affair to Jerry, Sally, and Richard: “Jerry wanted me to … I thought it would make me a better wife!” Ruth's affair, then, does not threaten, but rather reinforces (as she sees it), her marriage. If it is kept in its context (essentially the nonserious context outlined by Richard) it can be a positive event, something to be celebrated. When Jerry tells Ruth about his affair, therefore, she tries to situate it in this context of the nonserious: “I told you I had an affair because I got over it. You do get over them, Jerry. It's great, it's exquisite, it's the nicest thing there is, but it doesn't last.” Marriages are permanent; affairs are not. But marriage is also difficult to maintain because it does not generate the same excitement as the affair. Ruth thus marks a second distinction (a distinction which also parallels de Rougemont's thesis) between an affair and a marriage: “Don't you see, it's a problem any woman has, when she's a wife; there are no obstacles. So she has to make them.” Affairs are “great,” “exquisite,” “the nicest thing there is,” “wonderful”; but they are not, and they should not be confused with, marriage. Sharply demarcated from marriage, this first version of adultery understands affairs to be nonserious, short-term, and neatly terminated.

But although Ruth is able to maintain a level-headed distinction between her marriage and her affair, and hence to have a “successful” affair, Jerry is unable to recognize the difference in kind between an affair and a marriage. Clearly Jerry anticipates—the Kierkegaardian sense of possibility with its attendant dread—“a possible second life.” Sally, on the other hand, sees, where Jerry does not, the significance of being either a husband or a lover, a wife or a mistress. Sally describes herself to Jerry as “this miserable woman pretending she wanted a lover when what she really wanted was you for a husband”; and she notes, “In making me feel so loved you've convinced me being somebody's mistress is too shabby for me.” If Sally is Jerry's “mistress and momentary wife,” Jerry is Sally's “unreal lover” and “husbandly lover.” But this both/and situation quickly becomes an either/or which Sally tries to resolve with a series of quick determined moves. When Jerry is not ready to embrace marriage, for example, Sally retreats to the more certain ground of an affair: “If you can't take me as a wife, don't spoil me as a mistress.” Jerry responds to Sally as follows:

But I don't want you as a mistress; our lives just aren't built for it. Mistresses are for European novels. Here, there's no institution except marriage. Marriage and the Friday night basketball game. You can't take this indefinitely; you think you can, but I know you can't.

Richard's philosophy of affairs to which both Ruth and Sally on some levels also subscribe is inadequate. There is no institution except marriage. The title of the novel, of course, makes this point explicit: although adultery may damage local marriages, it does not in any way invalidate marriage as an institution. But what is marriage in this novel?

The marriage into which the reader gains the most insight is Ruth's and Jerry's. They meet in art school and the marriage itself is described in consistently aesthetic terms. Their marriage, referred to as a “merger,” is “aesthetic”; and Ruth and Jerry artistically complement one another. “Ruth, though her perspective was always awry and her formal definition vague … showed a rare color touch. … Her talent struck Jerry as remarkable because his lay the other way. His gift was for line, outline.” To sacrifice the marriage, Ruth sees, would be “simple, bold, pure, aesthetic,” and sex is an “aesthetic duty” to enjoy. Later Jerry bluntly states, “You married me because—I could draw. I'd make the outlines—and you'd put in the—colors.” H. H. Arnason's description of the history of art coincides with this description of the Conant's marriage: “[p]ainting from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century,” he writes, “had increasingly become a power struggle of drawing versus color.” A recurrent motif throughout the novel, moreover, is Jerry and Ruth sitting “side by side” at their easels, and although this merger seems both aesthetic and wise (insofar as it resolves a power struggle), it is this very resolution or decision against which Jerry rebels. But where marriage stresses the materials of aesthetic production—the lines and color, the easels—adultery stresses what is produced. This production may be read in the context of self-affirmation discussed above (adultery produces a self), or as a reflection without an origin in the real (in his pursuit of the real Jerry encounters only reflecting mirrors).

From the start Jerry's relationship with Sally is characterized in terms of mimesis (the first chapter recalls Plato's allegory of the cave—to which I will return later—in which the issue of mimesis is paramount). Sally's “face freckled, rapt,” for example, “seemed a mirror held inches below his own face, a misted mirror more than another person.” In one of Jerry's passages of interior monologue he says that Sally was “a territory where I went on tip-toe to steal a magic mirror.” In the magic mirror Jerry finds himself. Sally, on the other hand, finds in the mirror what Updike suggests the reader finds in a novel: “her shock at the mirrors in their [hers and Richard's] room had subsided to a level interest. This was what people did; this was what they were.” This is “what other people do,” this is “how others live”; the private activities which fiction, as a mode of spying, registers, are made public.

It is ironic and consistent in this context that Sally's alibi for her rendezvous with Jerry is an art appreciation course. This alibi invites a reading of the affair (like marriage) in the context of aesthetics, and aesthetics in the context of the affair. In the National Gallery, for example, Jerry rapidly shifts from paintings by Vermeer to a commentary on his relationship with Sally. “‘And this one, the light on her hands and the gold and the pearls. That touch, you know; it's a double touch—the exact color, in the exact place.’ He looked at her and smiled. ‘Now you and me,’ he said, ‘are the exact color but we seem to be in the wrong place.’” This painting is likely Vermeer's “Woman Holding a Balance” which represents a woman, behind whom there is a painting of the Day of Judgment, balancing a pair of scales. If the imagery is heavy-handed in the painting, it is not so in the novel where Updike depends on his reader's familiarity with the National Gallery's painting and refrains from making an explicit identification. Norman Bryson's comments on Vermeer are strikingly appropriate to the formal complexity of Updike's narrative. Bryson argues that Vermeer complicates the position of the spectator: “the spectator is an unexpected presence, not a theatrical audience; nothing in the scene ‘View of Delft’ [by Vermeer] arranges itself around his act of inspection, or asks him, in Albertian fashion, to place his body at this particular point at which the founding perception was ‘gathered.’” Bryson continues:

The Vermeer records the perception with unprecedented accuracy, but the perception is presented to the viewer to examine from his own position—he is not being invited to move up to the viewfinder, or to step inside the perception; there is an asymmetry between the original perception, recorded in the image, and the act of viewing. Trompe l'oeil is in fact renounced: the bond with the viewer's physique is broken and the viewing subject is now proposed and assumed as a notional point, a non-empirical Gaze.

Vermeer's paintings are not designed to focus a single point of observation; Updike's Marry Me similarly frustrates the reader's efforts to stabilize the narrative's progression from a unified point of view. As such, the narrative generates the same radical doubt by which Jerry, in his failure to treat adultery as a harmless pastime, is paralyzed.

Jerry's and Sally's affair does not correspond to Richard's philosophy of affairs in the same way that Updike's novel of infidelity does not correspond to the traditional novel of infidelity. Marry Me does not accept the premise of “the adulterous society” even as it represents its pervasiveness; Updike is interested in the affair which contests the institution and refuses to submit to Richard's glib, but workable, philosophy. The irony is that the indecision, incompleteness, and paralysis which Jerry's alternative version of adultery engenders repeats, with its coda of “marry me,” the very institution from which he is ostensibly trying to escape.


Although critics may consider Marry Me to be “unexceptional thematically” but technically rich in “originality and unusual experimentation,” no critic actually makes a connection between this form and Updike's content (his unexceptional theme of infidelity), his literary context, or his particular sociocultural milieu. The assumed conflict between freedom and fidelity, however, is complicated through the multiple points of view, the experiments with narrative fidelity (most explicitly in the loose analogy to Plato's allegory of the cave), and the stress on double-binds and “binding.”

Marry Me exhibits a fragmentation of perspective similar to Bryson's account of Vermeer's relation to the spectator. Contrasting the novel to the epic, Bakhtin remarks that within “the genre of the novel, there is no … immanent position for the author”; the choice of point of view then is a rhetorical and a political choice, as Susan Lanser illustrates, and it inescapably structures the concerns which a narrative will engage. In Marry Me the shifting points of view disrupt the naturalist or realist view that the present tense narration encourages. But these shifts also foreground the distinction between first-person narration and limited third-person narration. Updike gains the control of an omniscient narrator—privileged access to the thoughts of three of the central characters—in the guise of what would usually be first-person narration. Such a technique recalls Henry James's development of a central character, or center of consciousness, through whom his story is told, but in Updike this center is multiplied, or, in terms of Marry Me, adulterated. The result is twofold: there is a more complete exposure of each of the main characters; and a radical instability as to both the nature of this exposure and the position from which one interprets the narrative.

Updike has been celebrated as a consummate stylist and an acute observer of realistic detail. The question of the “real” and the language in which it is represented finds a parallel in Plato's exploration of mimesis in his allegory of the cave. The parable is well known: Plato contrasts the world of the cave in which the inhabitants see only shadow images reflected on a wall to the real world, epitomized by the sun, where things are seen directly. To be in the cave is to be a prisoner, and to be able to view the sun is to be free. I discussed a similar opposition earlier with respect to the two versions of adultery: in one version adultery is philosophized and institutionalized; in the other, it denotes an originary freedom, pure and unmediated access to what exists. Not surprisingly, Jerry's and Sally's affair is understood both in the context of the sun (as freedom from the cave and the false commodified social world which it suggests) and originality (they are “the original man and woman”). During Sally's and Jerry's meeting on the beach, for example, there are twelve explicit references to the sun in a short chapter of eighteen pages. But whereas Sally is explicitly associated with the sun—“You're the sun,” Jerry says to her—this sun is not kind. The sun's “tyranny” is nowhere more clear than in Jerry's dramatic paraphrase of Marvell. In despair Jerry cries, “‘It won't stand still.’ He gestured upwards and stared as if to blind himself. ‘The fucking sun won't stand still.’” For Jerry the sun itself is seen through the prism of poetry and as such it frustrates the promise of an unmediated reality (Plato's sun) as Sally herself is represented through the myth of Tristan and Iseult. In this context it is apt that Sally, in the second chapter, is reading Camus's The Stranger: “She concentrated into the Camus. The gun in his hand, the blinding light. The Arab in dungarees. The whiplike gunshot. The unreality.” In a review Updike notes Camus's “obsession with that harsh wonder the sun” (Picked-Up Pieces) and here the sun does not sharpen but rather obscures, or blinds, “the real.” This first chapter, in which Jerry repeatedly closes his eyes against the sun or impotently curses the sun, prefigures his exposure while it at the same time casts this exposure in terms of the opposition between the imitation (the shadow-world) and the real (the sun). In the same way that the opposition between marriage and adultery (upon which both versions of adultery depend) is rendered untenable in its anti-institutional cast, so the opposition between the sun, tellingly described through Marvell and Camus, and the cave is not as discrete as Plato (or Jerry) may wish. If Sally is the sun, she is also a mirror, as I noted above. And where Plato describes a “release from chains, and turning away from the shadows to images and the light, and an upward passage from underground to the sun” (Book VII), Sally “had looked into the mirrors in Paris and seen the truth of it; people were animals, white animals twisting toward the light.” But to see the truth in a mirror is, of course, exactly what Plato denies.

It seems no coincidence that the climactic meeting between the Conants and the Mathiases occurs when they go Greek dancing in a basement hall, a twentieth-century version of Plato's cave. The “frosted basement windows of the hall were aglow with a milky fire, of a tumultuous cavern within; music penetrated the walls.” But the distinctions have by this time been so eroded that they parody the fastidious integrity of Plato's distinction between the shadow images and the real. The sun is itself underground, in the cave. Sally, dressed tellingly in a bright orange dress, tempts Jerry to a truth to which he cannot help but succumb: the truth of infidelity. In front of Ruth, Jerry and Sally dance flagrantly and Jerry believes finally that he experiences the revelation for which he has been waiting. He will leave Ruth. But insofar as the truth embraces infidelity, it is not a faithful truth. And indeed, even after his “revelation,” Jerry continues to oscillate between Sally and Ruth.

Both the varied points of view and the loose analogy to Plato's allegory of the cave indicate Updike's interest in spying on private life and exposing (in both senses of the word) the real. The real, however, is not a thing but a method. Indecision and paralysis are most evident in Jerry's understanding of his bind, a bind which parallels not simply the formal structure of the text, but also the unresolved tension at work in the understanding of adultery in an Anglo-American context. Updike describes the novel's structure as follows: “Marry Me was always a book in my mind, not a collection, or collage, and was written pretty much in a piece, with the five chapters symmetrically alliterative as I have them, and their lengths in the proportion of a diadem” (Hugging). These symmetrically alliterative chapters recall Updike's notes for Couples: “I drew in ballpoint pen a square, with corners labelled M, M, W, W and with dotted diagonal lines connecting opposite corners.” The “W, W” of “Warm Wine” thus inverts the “M, M” of Marry Me in the same way that the Williamses invert the Morrises in Couples. And the repeated “W” and “R” in the chapter headings hints at the constant oscillation between wrong and right with which this book is concerned. Moreover, the text as “diadem” signifies a central difficulty in the narrative; the root of diadem is “to bind,” a short step from the double bind in which Jerry finds himself, a double bind which in fact makes it impossible “to bind.” “Bind” means both to fasten, attach, and connect (the sense in which diadem is used above to indicate an intertwined connecting of the text), and to prevent such fastening, attaching, connecting: to be “in a bind.” Bind is further related both to band (as in wedding band—it is not surprising that one definition of bind is. “To engage or unite in matrimony” [OED]) and to be bound. A process of binding in the connective sense, moreover, signifies the way in which the novel itself is read and, following Lukács, is specific to the novel genre. Bernstein writes:

In their discursive [that is discourse/sjuzhet (the way in which the story is told) as opposed to story/fabula] presentation events are bound together as parts of a whole; initially, or at its lowest level, this binding occurs at the level of plot where earlier events generate later events, and later events fulfil or complete earlier events. Progressive binding ties together the action-consequence-action pattern of human action with our epistemic capacity to follow stories in their movement through time. Retrospective binding ties together the recollective ordering of the past into interpretive sequences with our capacity to have followed a story.

Several theorists specify a “problem of time” as unique to the novel genre. Lukács writes, however, that “[t]ime can become constitutive only when the bond with the transcendental home has been severed” (Theory of the Novel); and the novel is, provocatively, “the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God.” Updike shifts the transcendental home to the mundane level of the marital home, but in Jerry he creates a character who longs for a spiritual or metaphysical home. When Jerry says to Sally, for example, “I was never home except when I was with you,” he is referring to this transcendental home which the harried pulse of time in the novel ultimately displaces.

Binding is also closely related to the possibility of thinking itself. Thus Heidegger describes logical behavior as “binding together” and astutely notes of Kant:

“I think” means “I bind together.” All binding together is an “I bind together.” In any taking-together or relating, the “I” always underlies—the [subjectum]. The subjectum is therefore “consciousness in itself,” not a representation but rather the “form” of representation.

The “I” finds its form in relations, and relations demand a binding together. When this binding is thwarted (as in the case of Jerry and Sally caught interminably between an either/or), then a sense of paralysis stalls domestic relations. But binding has an even more significant position in Heidegger's thought. It is a necessary component of mimesis as aletheia, as “letting something be seen in its togetherness with something—letting it be seen as something.” It is not a “manipulation of physical occurrences where the ‘problem’ arises of how these bindings, as something inside, agree with something outside.” It is not then a truth of correspondence. Jerry wants an immediate vision of truth—aletheia—to resolve his difficulty in deciding between Ruth and Sally. Again most of Updike's critics interpret this desire for aletheia in the religious context of revelation or incarnation. But following Heidegger's interpretation of Plato, mimesis implies both imitation or adequatio (a faithful reflection of things) and revelation or aletheia (a sudden illumination, or uncovering of things). Updike's novel as diadem then would aim to bind the narrative together in a thoughtful manner such that the ultimate binding of thought in aletheia may arise.

But the novel is also explicitly about a man who is in a double bind. Not surprisingly, Gregory Bateson's theory of double binds leads to exactly the opposite problem the person in a double bind is unable to accurately or appropriately put things together. One of Kierkegaard's double binds, for example, is that to maintain one's existence one must “arrive at a decision” and “renew it.” Jerry's constant affirmation and then renewal of his decision to marry Sally unavoidably subscribes to this structure.

On several occasions Jerry straightforwardly defines the form of the double bind in which he finds himself. He says to Sally, “You need me and I can't give myself to you. I want you and I can't have you. You're like a set of golden stairs I can never finish climbing. I look down, and the earth is a little blue mist. I look up, and there's this radiance I can never reach. It gives you incredible beauty, and if I marry you I'll destroy it.” For Jerry then, to possess what he wants is to destroy it. His repetition of “I can't” and “I can never” marks his undeniable preference for doubt over decision. Jerry persists, “What we have, sweet Sally, is an ideal love. It's ideal because it can't be realized. As far as the world goes, we don't exist. We've never made love, we haven't been in Washington together; we're nothing. And any attempt to start existing, to move out of this pain, will kill us.” To exist—to come into the light, the common language, the community—is, ironically, to die. Jerry finally recognizes that his valorization of adultery as a space apart is untenable: the public domain makes a difference.


“The whole town knows we're in trouble,” Ruth informs Jerry. Ruth, more careless of communal knowledge than Jerry, thinks about her affair with Richard: “Did everybody know? Let them.” And with respect to Jerry's affair with Sally, Updike writes: “Everybody knew. All their friends, as July slipped by, came to know. Ruth … felt the fine net of knowing that enclosed her.” But Jerry's passion for Sally cannot withstand such visibility. In the first chapter Jerry can assure Sally, “There's nobody around, we're really quite hidden.” But in the last three chapters everybody is around, and Jerry and Sally are increasingly exposed. Jerry's response to this exposure is to desire obscurity; “he was hunted” and he felt that “he must hide.”

Jerry goes sheepishly over to Sally's, aware finally that his love for her lay precisely in its impossibility and invisibility—in its avoidance of spying eyes. This knowledge is underlined by his aversion to Sally's implicit suggestion that they make love in her home, a suggestion which Jerry can only view as an invitation to publicity: “Was she offering, incredibly, to make love, here, with all the world watching?” Jerry realizes that “Richard's knowing had swept through things and left them bare; the trees were stripped, the house was polished and sterile like a shop window.” In this shop window stand Jerry and Sally, exposed: the adulterous affair commodified. Updike at this point emphasizes the sunlight in the kitchen, a sunlight which implies their own exposure: “She stood; he stood; they seemed, the two of them, bombarded by light perilously. He wanted to hush her brilliance, for it cried out, declared, through the miraculous transparence around them, their position, when they most needed to hide.” But can the novel also be seen as a shop window through which the reader curiously peers at the small details of domestic life? As Jerry desperately searches for a freedom which he, in error, associates with Sally (as sun and mirror), it becomes clear that there is no place for Jerry's version of infidelity; Sally and Jerry, as Jerry says with respect to the Vermeer, are always in the “wrong place.”

In Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence, Archer says to his desired lover Ellen: “‘I want—I want to somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that [mistress]—categories like that [mistress versus wife]—will not exist. Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other; and nothing else will matter.’ She [Ellen] drew a deep sigh that ended in another laugh. ‘Oh, my dear—where is that country? Have you ever been there?’” In Marry Me Updike attempts to create this country, not as a real place, but as a reading experience, an experience which the reader, in fact, is invited to “marry.” The final words of the novel are as follows: “This was the place, it tasted right. He had always told her there was a place, and now he had found it, made good his promise, and brought them here. … The existence of this place satisfied him that there was a dimension in which he did go, as was right, at that party, or the next, and stand, timid and exultant, above the downcast eyes of her gracious, sorrowing face, and say to Sally, Marry Me.” The “place” to which Jerry refers, of course, is a romantic fiction. But in a twentieth-century suburban America keen to confer labels like “the adulterous society,” there is no place where “words like that—categories like that” do not exist. If the “truth about sex” is the truth of infidelity and the narrative is destabilized accordingly, then it will always be infidelity which is quite literally publicized in the shop window, on the cover of Time, and even in a novel which both calls itself Marry Me and disavows its claims to fidelity to add the qualifier: A Romance.

Matthew Wilson (essay date Spring 1991)

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SOURCE: “The Rabbit Tetralogy: From Solitude to Society to Solitude Again,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 5–24.

[In the following essay, Wilson examines elements of social drama, historical consciousness, and tension between the desire for isolation and integration in Updike's Rabbit tetralogy.]

Frederick R. Karl in his exhaustive survey of postwar American fiction has little to say about novel sequences because, he claims, in comparison to Britain, there is a “paucity of sequential novels” in America. Our “social expectations” and “our need for movement and escape” militate against novel sequences, which, of necessity, imply “limited options.” The relative scarcity of this form, he argues, is “tied to our optimism, [and] our desire to break from predetermined forms, to free ourselves from the historical past, emerging into that purer atmosphere of pastoral, which promises liberation.” The predominant “predetermined form” from which American writers have attempted to liberate their characters has always been that of society, which, as Richard Poirier pointed out in discussing Huck Finn, has been previously conceived of “as nothing but artifice, tricks, games, and disguise.” Poirier concludes that Huck Finn “discovers that the consciousness it values most cannot expand within the environment it provides, that the self cannot come to fuller life through social drama.” All that self can do is to escape, and, like so many other American male protagonists, Huck flees society, women, and history, and Twain's inability late in his career to imagine a subsequent life for Huck is evidence, as Fitzgerald claimed, that in America there are no second acts. Having once escaped, the characters have no imaginable social milieu within which to exist.

Against Karl's model of interpretation, I am going to offer John Updike's Rabbit tetralogy as a paradigm of how American novel sequences, in the postwar years, instead of rejecting, embrace “predetermined forms,” in particular familial and social connections, and how Updike's main character, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, comes to “fuller life through social drama.” Over the course of these four novels, Updike transforms Rabbit from the traditional solitary American male character fleeing society and women as representatives of that society to a man integrated into society and surrounded, almost comically, by women; the final novel, Rabbit At Rest, transforms him again into a man isolated from his family and society, but his isolation is not a return to an earlier mode of being because Harry has developed an almost acute historical consciousness. In these novels, Updike has been exploring a long-term tension in American experience, the kind of tension that Emerson articulated in “Solitude and Society”: “[N]ature delights to put us between extreme antagonisms, and our safety is in the skill with which we keep the diagonal line. Solitude is impracticable, and society fatal. We must keep our head in the one and our hands in the other. The conditions are met, if we keep our independence, yet do not lose our sympathy.” The tetralogy executes, I will argue, a complicated interplay between these “extreme antagonisms.” Moving from the solitude of the fleeing young man to the solitude of the death-saturated older man, the sequence tacks between solitude and society (and achieves a momentary balance in Rabbit Is Rich), only to have that moment inevitably destroyed by Rabbit's dwindling toward death. Within this interplay, the sequence also reveals an increasing awareness of history, which becomes a subject, almost obsessively, in the guise of contemporary events, and which is transformed in the final novel into a historical consciousness within Harry Angstrom.

In broad national terms, the first novel, Rabbit, Run, is the least impinged upon by contemporary history and “takes … little account of the public terms of life in its time.” (Thomas R. Edwards). Although Rabbit was in the army during the Korean war, he served stateside, and apart from the dim memory of this period, his world is largely innocent of anything outside of Brewer, Pennsylvania, the insulated setting of the series. That very limitation, however, makes the novel typical of what Robert Lowell called the “tranquilized Fifties”: a time of conformity and of national somnolence. It was also a time that saw the beginnings of the revolt against that conformity, as seen in the Beat movement, but Rabbit (like the country one could almost say) is so self-involved that he is not aware (as he is in later novels) of participating in or reflecting any national trends. As Updike has written, this novel was a “product of the 50's” and not “really in a conscious way about the 50's” (“Why Rabbit Had to Go”). Not conscious of his place in time and history, all Rabbit knows is his primary emotion—a feeling of being trapped and enclosed.

Crucially, Rabbit is a former high school basketball star, aware enough to realize that his life offers him only diminishment. As he says, “I once did something right. I played first-rate basketball. I really did. And after you're first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate” (Run). His dissatisfaction with himself and with his “second-rate” marriage drives him to leave his wife, Janice; he takes up with Ruth, a part-time prostitute, whom he abandons in turn when Janice goes into labor with their second child. He returns to his wife, whom he abandons again for Ruth, and the final sentences of the novel find him in ecstatic escape once again: “His hands lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing higher and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs, Runs” (Run).

All of Rabbit's improvised escapes, all of his bouncing back and forth demonstrate the impossibility of any flight except the most provisional. His improvisations are based on his insistence on the primacy of his own feelings: “All I know is what's inside me. That's all I have” (Run). Or as he says to Ruth late in the novel: “All I know is what feels right. You feel right to me. Sometimes Janice used to. Sometimes nothing does” (Run). His instincts tell him his marriage has gone wrong; he is tired of holding “this mess together” (Run), tired of domestic responsibilities, all of which is compounded by the failure of sex between him and his wife. This is a crucial failure because it has been in basketball and in sex that he had defined himself. He thinks of the first girl he had sex with in high school: “if she wasn't sure … he was much bigger, a winner. He came to her as a winner and that's the feeling he's missed since. In the same way she was the best of them all because she was the one he brought most to, so tired.” The triumphs of basketball and sex “were united in his mind” (Run). Once his basketball career was over, he inevitably “brought” less to sex because he could find no public role and, consequently, no way of conceiving of himself as a “winner.” In this diminishment, however, sex became the sole expression of the ecstatic in his life, and much of the connection between him and Ruth is sexual. Sex with her returns him to a kind of physical freedom, makes him feel a winner again, free of all traps, momentarily “out of all dimension” (Run). When at the end of the novel, however, she demands that he turn the ecstatic into the domestic and public, divorce his wife and marry her, Rabbit runs again. In these novels, consequently, sex is the promise of escape, but it is also always the enactment of the impossibility of escape.

In running to and from women, Rabbit leaves unhappiness and eventually death in his wake, but there is something admirable in his struggle against the inadequacy and deadness around him. Ruth says she likes him “Cause you haven't given up. In your stupid way you're still fighting” (Run). This is a struggle, however, with no object. Inevitably, sex seems to become institutionalized, and escape is another trap, a widening enclosure. The one time he actually tries to leave town, resolving to drive south, he sees himself entangled. He looks at a map and “the names melt away and he sees … [it] whole, a net, all those red lines and blue lines and stars, a net he is somewhere caught in” (Run). In Rabbit, Run the only escape, the only liberation is provisional—in sex or in the first moments of running.

Obviously, Rabbit shares the impulse to “break from predetermined forms” that Karl discusses, but the novel demonstrates the constant bafflement of that impulse. In his desire to evade social constraints, Rabbit is allied to the Huck Finn who stated “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest. …” What Rabbit enacts in this novel, however, is the state of belatedness; there is no “Territory” to flee to, and even Kerouac's protagonists have only the object of the open road itself. Rabbit cannot attain even the freedom of the road, and although the final sentences of the novel (quoted earlier) seem to promise escape, the structure of the novel leaves no doubt that the effort to “find an opening” (Run) is a futile one. In Updike's world there are either no openings, or any seeming opening inevitably closes to become a trap. Rabbit runs in circles.

In both of his escapes, sex and running, Rabbit is fleeing his wife, and in an interview, Updike suggested possible connections between fleeing women and the social circumstances of '50s America:

there is a case to be made for running away from your wife. In the late Fifties beatniks were preaching transcontinental travelling as the answer to man's disquiet. And I was trying to say: “Yes, there is certainly that, but then there are all these other people who seem to get hurt.” That qualification is meant to frame a moral dilemma.

The moral dilemma that Updike is framing is, in part, that the women get hurt; women are desired and feared; and women are, centrally, the representatives of society in the constraints of marriage, the entanglements of which the protagonist seeks to cut through. In cutting through, Rabbit badly damages two women: we do not see the results for Ruth until twenty years later in Rabbit Is Rich, but the consequences for Janice constitute a large part of both Rabbit, Run and of Rabbit Redux. One indirect result of Rabbit's attempts to escape is the death of their baby; a direct result of these escape and returns is Janice exacting her revenge by leaving Rabbit for another man in Rabbit Redux.

Rabbit, Run is an enactment of the inevitable bafflement of “Harry's search for infinite freedom” (Pieces), and Updike's choice to write a sequel, Rabbit Redux means that Harry is being “led back,” obliquely, to the “diagonal line” of society and contemporary history. Updike has reported that after Rabbit, Run he had been asked what had happened to Rabbit, and his decision to write a sequel meant confronting “all the oppressive, distressing, overstimulating developments of the most dissentious American decade since the Civil War” (Hugging the Shore). This dissentiousness meant that the “60s were much more self conscious, more self conscious of themselves as a decade” than were the 50s (“Why Rabbit Had to Go”). In contrast to the earlier novel, Rabbit Redux is a “political novel of a particular historical moment” (Edwards), that of the embattled '60s, where the contentious public issues of Vietnam and civil unrest are unavoidable even in insulated Brewer. Although Rabbit combatively claims that he does not “‘think about politics’” (Redux), politics are inescapable in this era, and his are, predictably, intuitive. He has an almost religious, fervent belief in America. Whereas the younger Rabbit ignored politics, the older one identifies himself with what he perceives as the beleaguered America of the Vietnam era.

Rabbit is locked into his intuition that to describe any of America's actions as a “power play” is to miss the point. America is beyond power, it acts as in a dream, as a face of God. Wherever America is, there is freedom, and wherever America is not madness rules with chains, darkness strangles millions. Beneath her patient bombers, paradise is possible. (Redux)

Whatever else is changed, Rabbit is still the man who relies on his instincts, which have changed him from a passive to an active patriot. In the tranquilized fifties, Rabbit's politics were invisible; in the rebellious sixties his politics are to mystify and apothesize America.

Although in Rabbit, Run Harry was the complete outsider, he is still in Rabbit Redux an outsider but one who defends conventional values, yet who enjoys confronting and testing those values. Janice, for instance, sees that his anticlimactic final return (between novels) means he has, in fact, bought into the values of the society he once so eagerly fled. As she says, “Maybe he came back to me, to Nelson and me, for the old-fashioned reasons, and wants to live an old-fashioned life, but nobody does that any more, and he feels it. He put his life into rules he feels melting away now” (Redux). As the rules come under greater attack, Harry's defense of them tends to be complicated by his perception of himself as an outsider, as one who has earlier attempted to escape.

In the first of the Rabbit novels Harry found most of his energy in the rebellion of flight; in the second, however, he expresses his rebellion in less energetic, more social ways. As the novel opens, Rabbit and Janice have virtually exchanged roles. He has become passive, his desire to flee all but bled out of him by ten years of 9 to 5 work, and his passivity is connected, in part, to the failure of sex as a mode of escape. After giving up running in order to return, he finds himself increasingly incapable of having sex with his wife, and he refuses to let her conceive again: “It had all seemed like a pit to him then, her womb and the grave, sex and death, he had fled her cunt as a tiger's mouth” (Redux). Sex “with her had become too dark, too serious, too kindred to death“ for him to be able to find escape or even much physical release in it. Sex has become the memory of death, the death of their baby girl. Because he associates sex with Janice with death, he is quick to try to reestablish the ecstatic in his life, once she has left him, by taking up with someone else who from the first is identified as a “girl.” This relationship creates the possibility for sex unshadowed by death, but sex with her lacks intensity, and his desire for her is ambiguous from the start. The first time she strips for him, Harry sees: “The horns of her pelvis like starved cheekbones. Her belly a child's, childless. Her breasts in some lights as she turns scarcely exist.” He sees her as “childless” and also as slightly androgynous. He walks into the bathroom and sees her bending over: “From behind she seems a boy's slim back wedged into the upside-down valentine of a woman's satin rear.” It is as if in having sex with her Rabbit is more aroused by this hint of androgyny and her age (eighteen) and her upper class background than by her physical appeal. Sex with her is not a complete failure as it was with Janice because it is transgressive, a crossing of boundaries invisible until personified in Jill.

Soon after Jill begins living with him, Rabbit also takes in Skeeter, a crazed black Vietnam vet, and his relationship with Skeeter also has erotic overtones:

Physically, Skeeter fascinates Rabbit. The lustrous pallor of the tongue and palms and the soles of the feet, left out of the sun … The curious greased grace of his gestures, rapid and watchful as a lizard's motions, free of mammalian fat. Skeeter in his house feels like a finely made electric toy, Harry wants to touch him but is afraid he will get a shock.

He is tempted to touch, to experience that shock in a scene in which Skeeter, Rabbit, and Jill, stoned, role-play in the dark. Skeeter directs a scene out of slavery but reverses the roles: he plays the white master while Jill and Rabbit play the black slaves. He extends his role to having sex with Jill while Rabbit watches; Skeeter, as white man, has sex with Jill as black woman and Rabbit, as black man, is powerless to intervene. Rabbit, although powerless, wants to see more clearly and turns the light on:

“Hey man, what's with that? Cut that light.”

“You're beautiful,” Rabbit says.

“O.K., strip and get into it, she's full of holes, right?”

“I'm scared to,” Rabbit confesses: it's true, they seem not only beautiful but in the same vision an interlocked machine that might pull him apart.

The ambiguity of Rabbit's statement, “You're beautiful,” emphasizes his desire for them both, something Skeeter seems unaware of, but the beauty of the vision is predicated on his position as voyeur, on his awareness of difference, both social and racial. Rabbit senses that to cross over from vision to touch would mean a kind of self-destruction; he would be inserting himself into an “interlocked machine” that would rend him, tear at him in directions powerfully opposed. He is saved from his temptation and fear by the appearance of yet another voyeur, this one looking in through the living room window, who breaks up the scene.

The next night Rabbit makes love to Peggy, a woman his own age, and he sees a parallel to the evening before; she is “kneeling to him in the pose of Jill to Skeeter, so he has glided across a gulf, and stands last night where he stared” (Redux). This sense of a gulf crossed points to a devastation avoided, and this encounter ends up being “a fuck innocent of madness,” an act that confirms his identity rather than one that would have destroyed it. “Pulled apart,” he would no longer have recognized himself. And one reason why sex with Peggy confirms his identity rests on the fact that she is of Rabbit's generation and she confirms the values with which he grew up.

In Jill and Skeeter, by contrast, he constantly confronts his social and generational fears. For a time, they, with his son, Nelson, constitute a marginal community—sharing meals, smoking dope, and having what used to be called “consciousness raising sessions”—but this community can be only precarious and provisional, serving the same function as did sex and running in the earlier novel. The very existence of this interracial, intergenerational community in Harry's white suburb, however, emphasizes how much he has become marginalized. His wife has left him, he has lost his job, he smokes dope, but as a marginalized defender of the status quo, he is compromised by Jill and Skeeter. They belong to a generation rejecting the values he so ardently defends, and they are from class backgrounds he finds troubling. Jill has fled her affluent parents in a Porsche, which she ruins by forgetting to check the oil. Although Rabbit mourns her “waste” and “carelessness,” he has no scruples about taking advantage of her carelessness about her own life. Once he is having sex regularly with her, he can take her and her class background for granted because he has imprinted himself in her in a way he never can with Skeeter. What he thinks about Peggy is relevant here: “A blank check. A woman is blank until you fuck her. Us and Vietnam, fucking and being fucked, blood is wisdom.” Jill is no longer blank to him; he imagines his semen as corrosive, leaving marks on her body like “acid burn[s]” and “he has the vision of her entire slender fair flexible body being eventually covered in these invisible burns, like a napalmed child in the newspapers.” The imagery is clearly destructive, and the topical allusion alerts the reader to the political implications of Harry's vision. Sex with him is burning her away, just as Skeeter is burning her out by hooking her on drugs again, the two of them, uniting, to burn out her class and her gender and her life.

With Skeeter, on the other hand, color and class lines can not be crossed, and Rabbit finds himself both terrified by and drawn to the black man. As Skeeter says of all blacks: “We fascinate you, white man. We are in your dreams. … Why else you so scared of me, Rabbit?” Rabbit's answer, “Because you're a spook,” although dismissive, is also quite accurate; he does fear blacks—for their obvious differences and for their sudden prominence in the '60s with the civil rights movement and, during the action of the novel, with riots in the streets of nearby Pennsylvania cities. On a more personal level, he is fascinated by Skeeter because he still feels the attraction of disruptive energies, an electricity in Skeeter, and because the black man represents and eruption of the demonic in what Rabbit calls “this stale peace.” Indeed, Rabbit sees him as a reflection of his own abortive revolt ten years before; he says: “I once took that inner light trip and all I did was bruise my surroundings. Revolution, or whatever, is just a way of saying a mess is fun. Well, it is fun, for a while, as long as somebody else has laid in the supplies.” In his passive mode, Rabbit is ambivalent; by allowing things to happen, he is creating a “mess,” so he is both revolutionary outsider and defender of the status quo, but his revolution in this novel is social, moving beyond the boundaries of his immediate surroundings and incorporating troubling and troubled outsiders.

This little community becomes the last expression of his revolt. The degree to which he has marginalized himself is made clear when Rabbit is taken aside by two neighbors who tell him he is sullying “a decent white neighborhood” by allowing Jill and Skeeter to be together, and they demand that he throw Skeeter out. He ignores their warning, but his failure to ask Skeeter to leave comes not out of any conviction about integration or even personal freedom, but out of instinct. He can still claim, late in the novel, “I did what felt right,” but as Jill points out, there is now a kind of nihilism in him: “your thought is frozen because the first moment your instincts failed, you raced to the conclusion that everything is nothing, that zero is the real answer.” His nihilism and his passivity combine, and he is drawn to, sucked into, disaster: his house is firebombed, Jill burns to death, and Skeeter goes on the run.

At the end of the novel, Rabbit is almost completely bereft, but as his sister points out, that in itself is a kind of freedom: “You like any kind of disaster that might spring you free.” Again, his freedom liberates him into nothing, and he retreats into domesticity and marriage; in the final scene, he and Janice reconcile. His little community shattered, the death of Jill on his conscience, a death balancing that of their daughter in Rabbit, Run, he opts for the shelter of his marriage, and this retreat is “a return to the past” (Suzanne Henning Uphaus). This second return to his marriage is, of course, a different return from the first; the intersections of the public and personal in his experience have made him more aware of his place in the world, and more aware of the threat that the world outside the marriage can bring with it. In that sense, this “return to the past” is in itself a kind of escape, a refuge from a series of bruising confrontations with an antagonistic world.

By the time of Rabbit Is Rich, the world is no less threatening, but Harry has learned how to ride the threat and profit by it. The novel begins with Harry's heightened social and historical awareness: “Running out of gas, Rabbit Angstrom thinks. … The fucking world is running out of gas” (Rich). In the middle of the gas shortage of 1979 Harry is, surprisingly, doing well as the manager of his wife's and mother-in-law's Toyota franchise. As a businessman, he is, perforce, more aware than he has been in the previous two novels of what is happening in the nation and the world-at-large, and in this sense the novel could be called “a story of the economic life” (Edwards). Since his modest success, Rabbit has become something of a model citizen, a man of consequence in his town: “he likes the nod he gets from the community, that overlooked him like dirt ever since high school.” Ironically and inadvertently, he has gone back to being “the star and spearpoint,” “the man up front,” and again he has the qualified approval and approbation of his community. In the earlier novels, there had been no way for him to integrate himself; he could find no public equivalent of being, as his sister says in Rabbit Redux, the “showboat” of the basketball team. In the absence of that adulation, he becomes a lone wolf, constantly affronting and confronting his society.

Enjoying the “nod” of recognition and approval from his town, Rabbit entirely relinquishes his status as outsider. He not only has a position within society, but he has also become resolutely social, part of a circle of friends and acquaintances. This is the most radical change in the Rabbit novels, for in the previous two, he has been the solitary American hero, seeking to evade the constraints of a society which offered him no place for his disruptive energies. He now realizes that “the stifled terror that always made him restless has dulled down. He wants less. Freedom, that he always thought was outward motion, turns out to be this inner dwindling.” Giving up outward motion, his energies dwindle, and he plants himself in society; he belongs to a country club, the Flying Eagle, where he plays golf, and with the crowd from the country club, attends a constant round of parties, and even takes a Caribbean vacation.

Harry's new affluence and his social choices bring his world closer to that of Updike's other novels—those of upper middle class suburban marriages like Couples, but Updike's depiction of that affluence and Harry's social world clearly has a satirical edge. That satire is balanced, however, by what Edwards has identified as Rabbit's “almost saintly capacity for sympathy and concern,” a sympathy which alerts us that Rabbit, in this novel, balances between “extreme antagonisms,” his “safety … in the skill with which [he] keep[s] the diagonal line” (Emerson). Rabbit has invested, however, so much in his image as outsider, that his diminished energies threaten his idea of himself. He has to find ways not to bloat and degenerate in the smug satisfactions of his success. As Updike himself remarked in an interview: “a person who has what he wants, a satisfied person, a content person ceases to exist. Unfallen Adam is an ape” (Pieces). What keeps Harry fallen and unsatisfied in Rabbit Is Rich is sex and paternity: he obsesses about a younger wife in his social circle, and he worries over his strained relationship with his son, Nelson, and, in compensation, about a girl who he thinks could be a child he fathered by Ruth who was pregnant when he abandoned her.

Because Janice is unable to have children, sex with her is no longer serious; it has been deprived of an edge, especially because it seems no longer “kindred to death” (Redux). It seems to Harry just sad, a “blurred burrowing of two old bodies, one drowsy and one drunk” (Rich). To arouse himself, Rabbit thinks of Ruth from Rabbit, Run and of a girl in ninth grade, her “wisps of armpit hair” and the “thin cotton of her blouse … against the elastic trusswork of her bra” (Rich). Sex is not a mode of revolt or escape in the novel; it is a regression into fantasy. He also thinks of Cindy, the young, sexy wife of one of his golf partners, as “a plump brown-backed honey still smelling of high school.” The reference to high school suggests that Rabbit is unconsciously in search of the kind of frisson of sex and success he knew then, and his lust for her is so persistent that it becomes, at times, comic. When during an episode of wife-swapping on a Caribbean vacation, Rabbit's fantasy of Cindy seems as if it will be fulfilled, he ironically and comically gets the wrong wife. This “wrong” wife, Thelma has been obsessed by Rabbit much as he has been by Cindy, but Thelma is Rabbit's age and is dying of lupus. She says: “I want to do something for you so you won't forget me, something you've never had with anyone else” (Rich). She suggests anal sex, which Harry has never experienced, and it has the nature of a negative revelation: “The grip is tight at the base but beyond, where a cunt is all velvety suction and caress, there is no sensation: a void, a pure black box, a casket of perfect nothingness.” Afterwards, he “can't take his mind from what he's discovered, that nothingness seen by his single eye.” Instead of the frission of sex and success he expected, Rabbit experiences a frisson of sex and death, rather than the kind of inhibitory pressure death placed on sex in Rabbit Redux. This vision of nothingness presages the conclusion of the novel and is an unexpected revelation in the only Rabbit novel where no one dies and where, as Edwards has pointed out, “disasters [are] averted.”

Because sexuality is not a venue of revolt or escape, and because the central sexual action in the novel is such a negative revelation, family is what keeps Harry unsatisfied, discontent, and fallen. Early in the novel, he begins to count his family dead who have been “multiplying, and they look up begging you to join them, promising it is all right, it is very soft down here. Pop, Mom, old man Springer, Jill, the baby called Becky for her little time. Tothero. Even John Wayne, the other day” (Rich). In reaction to his awareness of all these deaths, he fantasizes about a girl who could have been his daughter by Ruth, and he worries over his son Nelson, who, a co-worker reminds him, is “all you've got” (Rich). His obsession with his could-be daughter is played out when he finds the courage to confront Ruth who denies the girl is his. In seeing Ruth again, Rabbit experiences her anger at him, and he measures the consequences, for this woman, of his running twenty years before. The reason he is ready to face Ruth is that his relationship with Nelson is so bad that he unconsciously wants another child. Nelson, he tells Ruth, is “enough … bad news.” The deep antagonism between Nelson and his father dates from the night their house was firebombed and Jill burned to death. Nelson's grievance against his father, however, is not so much Jill's death, but that Harry seems to have come to terms with the past, and he will not allow past disasters to disrupt his present success. Nelson, on the other hand, cannot relinquish his past, and throughout the book he acts out against his father: by dropping out of college, and by smashing up, one by one, Harry's cars. Nelson seems almost suffocated by his father. Nelson says: “He's forgotten everything he ever did to us. … He's so smug and satisfied, [sic] is what gets me.” Rabbit, for all his distress over Nelson, takes an almost perverse delight in Nelson's opposition; as he says to Janice: “I like having Nelson in the house. … It's great to have an enemy. Sharpens your senses.” Nelson functions much as Skeeter did in Rabbit Redux; he constantly threatens his father, and part of Rabbit takes sustenance from this antagonism.

If Nelson's role is similar to Skeeter's, Harry's has changed dramatically; no longer is he any kind of outsider. He is the one to have “laid in the supplies” (Redux), and because he has laid them in, he is the one being rebelled against. What Harry does not understand is Nelson's revolt against him, his father. When younger, Harry did not flee his parents; he fled his wife. As he says to Nelson, “In my day kids wanted to get out in the world. We were scared but not so scared we kept running back to Mama. And Grandmama. What are you going to do when you run out of women to tell you what to do?” (Rich). Although Harry is himself surrounded by women, he can speak from the authority of all his abortive flights, and in his “inward dwindling” he can gauge his life. Not only can he see the difference between his experience and Nelson's, but he can also see, worrisomely, patterns about to repeat themselves. Nelson now faces the same choice Rabbit did when he was younger: whether to marry a woman he has made pregnant. Apparently, for Rabbit, there was no choice, but he now tells Nelson:

“you could just … disappear for a while. I'd give you the money for that.”

“Money, you're always offering me money to stay away.”

“Maybe because when I was your age I wanted to get away and I couldn't. I didn't have the money. I didn't have the sense.” (Rich)

Even though Nelson opposes him throughout the novel, Harry is still willing to provide the money for flight, and although his desire for Nelson to go away is certainly self-serving, he does see his son, as himself, diminished:

“I just don't like seeing you caught,” he blurts out to Nelson. “You're too much me.”

Nelson gets loud. “I'm not you! I'm not caught.”

“Nellie, you're caught. They've got you and you don't even squeak. I hate to see it, is all. All I'm trying to say is, as far as I'm concerned you don't have to go through with it. If you want to get out of it, I'll help you.”

Nelson refuses all help from his father and goes through with his marriage. When Rabbit sees him step outside the church a few minutes before the wedding, his magical word springs to mind: “Run, Harry, wants to call out, but nothing comes.” Although he does not flee at the wedding, Nelson eventually does run, deserting his new wife even before the birth of their child; but unlike his father, he does not run in circles, he runs to something—back to college where Rabbit must pay the bills.

At the end of the novel, Harry is in his newly-bought house, in society and surrounded by the women of this family, watching the Super Bowl on his new Japanese TV, and the half-time show helps to locate Harry and his domestic drama even more firmly in contemporary history: “‘Energy is people,’ they sing. ‘People is energy!’ Who needs Khomeini and his oil! Who needs Afghanistan? Fuck the Russkis. Fuck the Japs. We'll go it alone, from sea to shining sea.” Harry's combative jingoism is simply a reflex, and his TV and his Japanese car dealership demonstrate the comic fall into interdependency and prosperity of the traditional solitary male American hero. He cannot, the country cannot, “go it alone,” and his prosperity depends on a fortuitous combination of family circumstances and international relations. Dependent on the vagaries of family (Janice inheriting her father's Toyota dealership) and on those of international relations (the oil crisis), Harry watches the Super Bowl, surrounded by women: mother-in-law, wife, daughter-in-law, and the last, marvelous sentences of the novel, one more: “in his lap, his hands, a real presence hardly weighing anything but alive. Fortune's hostage, heart's desire, a granddaughter. His, Another nail in his coffin. His.” The “His” here shifts Harry's acquisitiveness throughout the novel into another key, and it also reminds us of the central sexual, negative revelation of the novel. Harry is dwindling toward death, but he also found a kind of freedom in social drama, the drama of “the skill with which we keep the diagonal line.”

The final novel of the tetralogy, Rabbit At Rest, is death-saturated from the first sentence: “Rabbit Angstrom has a funny sudden feeling that what he's come to meet … is not his son Nelson and daughter-in-law Pru and their two children but something more ominous and intimately his: his own death.” Physically, Harry has deteriorated—he is a junk-food addict, seriously overweight, and in the course of the novel, he has two heart attacks, the second of which kills him. Harry's physical degeneration, however, is only one sign among many of how he has been thrown back, almost without his understanding how it has happened, into a solitude even more isolating than that he experienced as a young man in Rabbit, Run. In Rabbit At Rest, Harry's sexual energy has almost completely disappeared, depriving him of one of his primary goals, and he is semiretired, living half the year in Florida, depriving him of the milieu of work and the social circle at his country club. Marginalized, again an outsider, seemingly less a child of history than he has ever been, Harry becomes, unexpectedly, a kind of historian, replete with a historical consciousness of personal, regional, and national pasts.

In the ten years that intervene between Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit At Rest, Nelson has been managing Springer Motors, taking away from Harry his advertent position as “the man up front” (Rich), leaving him with a tightly constricted identity. As he confesses to Thelma, the woman with whom he's carried on a ten-year affair: “The reason I never left Janice and never can … is, without her, I'm shit. I'm unemployable. I'm too old. All I can be from here on his her husband” (Rest). At least when he was managing Springer Motors, he had a kind of sustaining male social interaction, in particular with Charlie Stavros. Harry remembers how “the two of them used to stand by the display window over at the lot on dull morning and rehash the day's news.” Now that Stavros is retired and Harry lives half the year in Florida, they rarely see each other; he sees the group from the Flying Eagle even more infrequently. He nostalgically recalls “those boozy late afternoons at his old club back in Diamond Country, the Flying Eagle, before Buddy Inglefinger married that lanky crazy hippie Valerie and moved to Royersford and Thelma Harrison got too sick with lupus ever to show up and Cindy Murkert got fat and Webb divorced her so you never saw anybody anymore.”

His social world having dissolved, he feebly attempts to reconstruct it in Florida by playing golf, only to have his status as outsider reinforced. Harry feels that everyone in Florida is “cautious, as if on two beers they might fall down and break a hip,” a caution due to age, but also among his golf partners a caution due to cultural difference. Harry's three partners are Jewish: for them, he feels

he is a big Swede, they call him Angstrom, a comical pet gentile, a big uncircumcised hunk of the American dream. He in turn treasures their perspectives; it seems more manly than his, sadder and wiser and less shaky. Their long history has put all that suffering in its pocket and strides on.

Although he craves, like he did with Stavros, a perspective that he feels is more linked to a kind of history he has no access to, that very lack of access means that he is never quite sure, as he was with the Flying Eagle crowd, where the boundaries are. His bringing up the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland makes them, he feels “uneasy”; with Jews, he thinks, “everything in the papers comes back to Israel,” to a place, and to a history.

If he is, among these Jewish men, a “pet gentile,” unanchored to time and place, he is also in Florida an outsider among the women. He envies the “solid domestic arrangements” and the “sexy elderly wives” of his golf partners, but, late in the novel when an older woman is friendly to him, he feels that she has been “invading him [so] he takes two Nitrostats to quell his heart.” And in a sense, this fear of invasion typifies Harry's social relations, and even he realizes that his present feelings are almost a complete contradiction of what he has desired throughout most of his life:

[t]here was a time, when he was younger, when the thought of any change, even a disaster, gladdened his heart with the possibility of a shake-up, of his world made new. But at present he is aware mostly of a fluttering, binding physical resistance within him to the idea of being uprooted.

Harry cannot even contemplate anymore the provisional transcendence of sex; it is as if the distinction between the promise of escape in sex and the enactment of the impossibility of escape had collapsed, and all Harry can see is its sad futility. As Janice thinks: “poor Harry, until he began to slow down, he hopped into bed every night expecting wonders.” Having diminished expectations in general, Harry rarely makes love to his wife, (as she notes wryly during the novel), and after his first heart attack, he breaks off his ten-year-old affair with Thelma, in part because he is feeling physically fragile, “his heart as an unwilling captive inside his chest,” and in part because he simply does not have the energy for sex or for an affair. Early in the novel, he thinks, momentarily, of buying a “skin mag,” only to realize that “he will not be enough aroused, boredom will be his main feeling. … How disgusting we are, when you think about it—disposable meat.”

As Brooke Horvath has argued about the first three Rabbit novels, Rabbit At Rest enacts the consequences of Harry's failure as an erotic quester; like a superannuated roué, he is now disgusted by the “wonders” he expected throughout his life. Horvath would argue that this failure is an inevitable one because of how Harry imagines the connection between sex and the world. He quotes from an early review of Updike's where Updike discusses, through personification, the Western love-myth: “her concern is not with the possession, through love, of another person but with the prolongation of the lover's state of mind. Eros is allied with Thanatos rather than Agape; love becomes not a way of accepting and entering the world but a way of defying and escaping it” (“More Love in the Western World”). One could argue that for Harry, eros has always been allied to Thanatos; he remembers in Rabbit At Rest, for instance, Ruth calling him, thirty years before, “Mr. Death,” and clearly, eros has also always been, as I have been arguing through this essay, a way of “escaping” the world.

In addition to putting Harry's eroticism into perspective, this passage from the review also helps to illuminate the most troubling moment in the whole novel: when Harry returns from the hospital after having an angioplasty, he and his daughter-in-law, Pru, have sex:

Pru says “Shit,” jumps from the bed, slams shut the window, pulls down the shade, tears open her bathrobe and sheds it, and, reaching down, pulls her nightie up over her head. Her tall pale wide-hipped nakedness in the dimmed room is lovely much as those pear trees in blossom along that block in Brewer last month were lovely, all his it had seemed, a piece of paradise blundered upon, incredible.

Any sense of transgression in this incident is almost completely denied by the visionary quality of Harry's perception of Pru's nakedness. For him, this moment, as “a piece of paradise blundered upon, incredible,” is unparalleled, it is almost as if by not attempting to escape, he has finally achieved a kind of transcendence. This is, I would offer, the only instance of eros in the Rabbit novels where sex is not a mode of escape; rather, Harry is “accepting and entering” the world, a change which is signaled by his reference to the “pear trees in blossom.” Before his angioplasty, driving around the Brewer area, “freshening his memory and hurting himself with the pieces of his old self that cling to almost every corner,” Harry comes upon, unexpectedly, a vision of spring:

Rabbit is suddenly driving in a white tunnel, trees on both side of the street in white blossoms, the trees young and oval in shape and blending one into the other like clouds … he is moved enough to pull the Celica to the curb and park and get out and pull off a single leaf to study, as if it will be a clue to all this glory.

As Janice remarks when he tells her about this vision, “‘you see differently now.’ Since his heart attack, she means.” His new angle of vision and his new receptivity allow him to enter and accept, whether that acceptance means the sight of trees in flower or sex with his daughter-in-law. Although he thinks of their encounter afterwards in a slightly diminished way,—“[a] certain matter-of-fact shamelessness about Pru reduced a bit the poetry of his first sight of her”—he never feels shame or remorse.

Even when Pru reveals their encounter, Harry seems unaware of the transgressive nature of this sexual experience. Janice lists all of his infidelities and says, “‘now you've done something truly unforgivable.’ ‘Really?’ The word comes out with an unintended hopeful lilt.” Janice's reaction is that having sex with Pru was “perverted” and “monstrous [sic],” and the collision between his vision of Pru as naked “paradise” and his wife's reaction of moral outrage drives him back to his elementary, intuitive response—he runs. One last time he flees his family and society, but this time he runs away from one home to another. He goes south, to Florida, and finishes the journey that he began thirty years before. Ending his life in almost complete social isolation in their condominium in Florida, he takes solitary walks around Deleon, where, twice, he plays basketball. These scenes are clearly meant as echoes of the shooting of basketballs early in Rabbit, Run, and, fittingly, Harry has his final massive heart attack during the second game.

This isolation would seem an unexpectedly sour ending to this tetralogy, and would be except for an unanticipated change in Harry. As one of the basketball players says: “‘Hey man,’ the third one … taunts him, ‘you're history.’” He is, in the sense of that taunt, history: he is superannuated, he is the past, he is irrelevant, contemptuously to be dismissed. On the other hand, as history he should not be so easily seen as without value, the novel insists, and the most revealing sign of this is his marching in the Mr. Judge fourth of July parade as Uncle Sam:

They wave ironically, calling “Yaaaay” at the idea of Uncle Sam, this walking flag, this incorrigible taxer and frisky international mischief-maker. … The crowd as it thickens calls out more and more his name, “Harry,” or “Rabbit”—“Hey, Rabbit! Hey, hotshot!” They remember him. He hasn't heard his old nick-name so often in many years; nobody in Florida uses it, and his grandchildren would be puzzled to hear it.

As the figurative embodiment of America, Harry can, through the reaction of the crowd, recall a part of himself he thought irrecoverable: his public identity. Momentarily, he experiences people's recognition of him as Rabbit, as “hotshot,” as former basketball player. And at the end of the parade, his personal and mythic identities fuse: “Harry's eyes burn and the impression giddily—as if he has been lifted up to survey all human history—grows upon him, making his heart thump worse and worse, that all in all this is the happiest fucking country the world has ever seen.” Even though he knows this is a “sort of foolish revelation,” he increasingly has been “lifted up to survey” history, both as an embodiment of American history and in his own experience. Although his development of a historical consciousness might seem to be at odds with his social isolation throughout the novel, it may be that he finds a kind of consolation for his isolation and approaching death in the contemplation of history, and it is also a logical extension of his growing awareness in the novels of being in history. As Dilvo Ristoff writes of Harry: “‘And he is the man in the middle,’ pressed between life and death, past and future, an object of the cosmos, an object of history.” Although I find this formulation a little hyperbolic, I do agree that Updike wants us to see Harry as an object of history, but as one who becomes increasingly aware of his status as an object over the course of thirty years. Harry may be as isolated and as much of an outsider in Rabbit At Rest as he was in Rabbit, Run, but in the later novels, he is aware of having, as Nathan Zuckerman says in Philip Roth's The Counterlife, “a role in history without its having to be obvious,” aware of “standing in time and culture.”

An example of his standing in time and culture is what Harry sees from his hospital bed when he is recovering from his angioplasty. Looking out his window, he can see, across the street, the top of three buildings with “festive patterns of recess and protrusion, diagonal and upright, casting shadows in different ways at different times of the day” (Rest). He wonders whether these bricklayers “out of another century” were Pennsylvania Dutch or immigrant Italians, then out of his moment of historical awareness, he creates a metaphor for his own place in history:

he tries to view his life as a brick of sorts, set in place with a slap in 1933 and hardening ever since, just one life in rows and walls and blocks of lives. There is a satisfaction in such an overview, a faint far-off communal thrill, but hard to sustain over against his original and continuing impression that Brewer and all the world beyond are just frills on himself … himself the heart of the universe. (Rest)

This is a variant of the Emersonian dilemma I discussed earlier, except that his version pits the “communal thrill” against an Emersonian sense of the individual as center. As Emerson wrote in his journals, “I have taught one doctrine, namely, the infinitude of the private man.”(Selections) and as a corollary of that belief Emerson was rather dismissive of history which he scorned as “a shallow village tale.” (Complete Works II) In “Self-Reliance,” he is even more explicit about the proper function of history; “history is an impertinence and an injury if it be anything more than a cheerful apologue or parable of my being and becoming.” (Complete Works II) In the passage above, Harry is contesting versions of history and Emersonian individualism, one which asserts, with Pink Floyd, that he is just another brick in the wall, whereas the other tries to hold onto a sense of the centrality and “infinitude” of the individual, a position which reduces history to a parable of that ever “becoming” infinitude.

If there are moments when Harry insists on his centrality in the novel, he is incessantly pulled back by his historical consciousness, by his awareness of having been marginalized. For instance, when he comes back to manage Springer Motors for a few weeks while his son, Nelson, is in a drug rehabilitation center, he realizes that in “terms of Springer Motors he has become a historian” (Rest). His is the institutional memory, and this memory is allied to a sense of the history of the region where he grew up. Lovingly, he registers the details and the changes, much as Updike himself did in the first chapter, “A Soft Spring Night in Shillington,” of his recent autobiography, Self-Consciousness. Harry's historical awareness is so extensive, however, that he realizes that even the land to which he longed to escape, the South, is replete with its own history: in Florida, “all feels virgin, though in fact there is a history too, of Indians and conquistadors and barefoot mailmen who served the mosquito-plagued coastal settlements.”

But the most amazing sign of Harry's historical consciousness is his reading—reading of history. The only previous reading he has done is of Consumer Reports, but throughout Rabbit At Rest, Harry reads history: “in his semi-retirement he has taken to reading history. It has always vaguely interested him, that sinister much of facts our little lives grow out of before joining the mulch themselves, the fragile brown rotting layer of previous deaths.” Reading in bed, he leans “back against its padded satiny headboard with a book, staring dizzily down into the past as if high in a jade-green treehouse.” Late in the novel, when his doctor asks him if he has any hobbies, Harry says, “I read a lot of history. I'm a kind of buff.” His reading and his awareness of current history, as Updike himself has pointed out in “Why Rabbit Had to Go,” make him even more aware of his marginalization. As Harry thinks in the novel: “Without the cold war, what's the point of being an American?” Updike's gloss on this sentence is quite illuminating:

His sense of being useless, of being pushed to one side by his wife and son, has this political dimension, then. Like me, he has lived his adult life in the context of the cold war. He was in the Army, ready to go to Korea, hawkish on Vietnam, proud of the moon shot, and in some sense always justified, at the back of his mind, by a concept of freedom, of America, that took sharpness from contrast with Communism. If that contrast is gone, then that's another reason to put him, regretfully, to rest in 1990. (“Why Rabbit Had to Go”)

These sentences make quite clear how solidly the Rabbit tetralogy has been anchored by the cold war, by the history of the last thirty years. Even though Harry was quite unaware of contemporary history in Rabbit, Run, he was a product of that historical moment, and, as Ristoff has made clear in his discussion of the first novel. Updike has pointed unmistakably to that postwar consensus (see Rabbit Run). As Harry says, “The cold war. It gave you a reason to get up in the morning” (Rest).

Having no reason to get up in the morning, Harry has but one option, to die, and the novel could be seen as a long suicide on his part. Even though he has grandchildren—one of whom he saves from drowning, thus balancing the death of his daughter in Rabbit, Run—the grandchildren are not enough to sustain him. Janice and Nelson change in the course of the novel, but Harry cannot adapt, “reared in a world where war was not strange but change was” (Rest). Change, he discovers, is unavoidable: “the world was not solid and benign, it was a shabby set of temporary arrangements rigged up for the time being.” Comprehending the provisionality of the world, Harry tries to escape, only to circle back into social drama, tacking, in Emerson's terms, between the impracticability of solitude and the fatality of society. Because he understands provisionality, he also begins to see himself as an historical creature in a nexus of social and familial drama, a nexus out of which only one escape is possible—in Karl's terms, the final “limited” option—that of death. But the Rabbit tetralogy has demonstrated how the desire to “break from predetermined forms” (Karl) is defeated by the “historical past,” and how, in these novels, one is drawn back, even on the verge of death, into history and social drama.

Martin Amis (review date 10 November 1991)

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SOURCE: “Magnanimous in a Big Way,” in New York Times Book Review, November 10, 1991, p. 12.

[In the following review, Amis offers a positive assessment of Odd Jobs.]

We often think in terms of literary pairs, like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, etc. But what about literary opposites? Jorge Luis Borges versus Joyce Carol Oates, Nicholson Baker versus Leon Uris, Thomas Pynchon versus C. P. Snow, Norman Mailer versus Anita Brookner. John Updike has no obvious soul mate or near equivalent, unless it be Anthony Burgess, who boasts a similarly hyperactive cortex. But he does have an opposite, and a diametrical one Samuel Beckett.

Beckett was the headmaster of the Writing as Agony school. On a good day, he would stare at the wall for 18 hours or so, feeling entirely terrible, and, if he was lucky, a few words like NEVER or END or NOTHING or NO WAY might brand themselves on his bleeding eyes. Whereas Mr. Updike, of course, is a psychotic Santa of volubility, emerging from one or another of his studies (he is said to have four of them) with his morning sackful of reviews, speeches, reminiscences, think pieces, forewords, prefaces, introductions, stories, playlets and poems. Preparing his cup of Sanka over the singing kettle, he wears his usual expression: that of a man beset by an embarrassment of delicious drolleries. The telephone starts ringing. A science magazine wants something pithy on the philosophy of subatomic thermodynamics, a fashion magazine wants 10,000 words on his favorite color. No problem—but can they hang on? Mr. Updike has to go upstairs again and blurt out a novel.

Odd Jobs is his fourth cuboid volume of higher journalism, following Assorted Prose (1965), Picked-Up Pieces (1975) and Hugging the Shore (1983). It shows us a huge mind at once crammed and uncluttered. If writers—if people—are either clean-desk or messy-desk (and I write these words from under the familiar haystack), then Mr. Updike is clear-work-surface atop tightly packed drawers: he is organized. He is also, apparently, a master of all trades, able to crank himself up to Ph.D. level on any subject he fancies: architecture, typography, cave painting, computers, evolution (“asteroidal or cometary causation” set against “punctuated equilibrium”) and Gospel scholarship (“It is roughly true that Matthew = Mark + Q and that Luke = Mark + Q + the considerable body of narrative and preachment present only in Luke”) or how about this:

“Edward is the son of the famous painter Jesse Baltram and his mistress, Chloe Warriston, and Stuart of the famous writer Casimir Cuno's son Harry, who married Chloe when she was pregnant with Edward, and Harry's first wife, Teresa nee O'Neill, a Catholic from New Zealand who, like Chloe, died young, having produced one male child.”

John Updike even knows what's going on in a novel by Iris Murdoch.

On the whole, he is modest about his formal education. “I peaked, as a scholar, in my junior year,” he writes, “and capped my academic career with a dull thesis and a babbling display of ignorance at my oral examination.” Since then, in a trance of evergreen precocity, he has been educating himself doing his homework and writing his essays. It is a commonplace that the autodidact is trying to impress somebody—mother, father, a twinkly old schoolteacher, one's platonic self. But there's no need to ask whose approval Mr. Updike is after. He aspires, in his own way, to an earthly omniscience, while heeding various New Testament recommendations about kindness, self-abnegation and turning the other cheek.

It isn't the first or indeed the second thing that strikes you, but Odd Jobs is a record of near-biblical suffering. (Maybe the second half of the title should be pronounced with a long “o.”) The “prose,” Mr. Updike stoically notes at one point, reviewing “Children of the Arbat” by Anatoly Rybakov, “comes across as colorless and rarely gets off the ground”: the book is 685 pages long. And still the supposed masterworks are heaping up on the mat, from Chile, from Paraguay, from Austria, from Albania. You have only to look at the bibliographical lead-ins to feel your lower lip tremble “CITIES OF SALT, by Abdelrahman Munif, translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux 627 pp.”—627 pages! Yet Iron John dispatches that one. More often he is found chirpily welcoming a “sprightly first novel” or the latest from a “brave little publishing house.” Although many writers leave Mr. Updike unstirred (deficient in juice, in warmth, in life), only a handful succeed in disheartening him. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Thomas Bernhard, Jacques Derrida.

In one of the four admiring essays on John Cheever, Mr. Updike fondly recalls a trip they made together in 1964 to Russia, where Cheever's “lively fancy and brave ebullience” made the grim tour “as gay as an April in Paris.” We therefore share Mr. Updike's consternation (“It was with some surprise that I read …”) a few pages later, when he comes across the following from “The Letters of John Cheever.”

“Updike, whom I know to be a brilliant man, traveled with me in Russia last autumn and I would go to considerable expense and inconvenience to avoid his company. I think his magnanimity [sic] specious and his work seems motivated by covetousness, exhibitionism and a stony heart.”

Still reeling from that, we then get S. J. Perelman writing to Ogden Nash about “the characteristic nausea that attacks me when this youth performs on the printed page.” Mr. Updike takes this hard, but he takes it, and his admiration doesn't falter. On the way up, the aspirant sees literary eminence as an ocean liner, with a champagne reception awaiting him in first class. Once there, he encounters “a kind of Medusa's raft,” littered with snarling skeletons.

Actually, the density of Odd Jobs is not just an indication but a proof of Mr. Updike's magnanimity. As Karl Barth says of Mozart, “Joy overtakes sorrow without extinguishing it. … The Yea rings louder than the ever-present Nay”; and Mr. Updike has always been spiritually committed to the Yea. Oddly, it is his generosity that causes the only kind of trouble he ever gets into—trouble with the bien-pensant left. His recent, quirky autobiography, Self-Consciousness, contained a contorted essay on Vietnam called “On Not Being a Dove.” Here, Mr. Updike's selective blindness, his reluctance to think ill, led him to reject the radical package of malaise, conspiracy and paranoia. Included in Odd Jobs is a speech entitled “How Does the State Imagine?,” given in 1986 as part of the 48th International PEN Congress, in which Mr. Updike sings a sunny little hymn to the United States Postal Service. A postscript tells us how very badly the speech went down, in the “goblin air of fevered indignation and reflexive anti-Americanism.” Mr. Updike sometimes seems a lonely and anachronistic figure in this age of irony and dread. But only a cynic would accuse him of cynicism, for cynics are condemned to see cynicism everywhere.

In Self-Consciousness, Mr. Updike revealed that his father, in later years, took to wearing a wool Navy watch cap: “It kept his head warm, yet also made him look like a cretin.” This is one of the perverse consolations of aging, Mr. Updike argued: pleasure in looking foolish, whimsicality, unselfconsciousness. One can see a similar strain, perhaps, in Updike Jr. (who now wears a watch cap himself, all winter, inside and out). There is a trundling quality, increasingly indulged: too much trolley-car nostalgia and baseball-mitt Americana, too much ancestor worship, too much piety. In his collected art criticism, Just Looking, Mr. Updike often seemed happier with the hack than the genius. Here, too, you feel he is more relaxed with the likes of Sherwood Anderson and William Dean Howells than with, say, Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov—his only obvious superiors in the second half of the American century. Mr. Updike can't afford to get much mellower. He will fall off the branch with a plop.

But let's be clear. This book is a torrent of finely phrased justice: the “rather blithely morbid sensibility” of Graham Greene; “the ailment of excessive clear-sightedness” suffered by Tolstoy; Umberto Eco's permanent “orgy of citation and paraphrase”; John O'Hara, in whose work “all sorts of irrelevancies stick up, almost like bookmarks”; the “slightly unctuous stiffness of tone” in a biography of T. S. Eliot, as if “[Peter] Ackroyd were trying to make adequately stuffy conversation with an odd old type with whom he has been condemned to spend a fiendishly prolonged sherry hour”; or the sensation, in Kafka, “of anxiety and shame whose center cannot be located and therefore cannot be placated; a sense of an infinite difficulty within things, impeding every step; a sensitivity acute beyond usefulness, as if the nervous system, flayed of its old hide of social usage and religious belief, must record every touch as pain.”

Almost the harshest words in my proof copy of Odd Jobs appear on the cover: the usual command about not quoting from the unfinished work. Reviewing R. F. Christian's two-volume translation of “Tolstoy's Diaries,” Mr. Updike, normally so tolerant, becomes quite querulous about the “big grim gray pages” and numerous typos—“including a persistent tendency to spell ‘worldly’ ‘worldy.’” One can easily see how John Updike, even with his degree of benevolence, of otherworldly equanimity, would find that annoying.

Barbara Kingsolver (review date 6 February 1994)

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SOURCE: “Desire under the Palms,” in New York Times Book Review, February 6, 1994, pp. 1, 26–7.

[In the following review, Kingsolver offers a positive evaluation of Brazil, but objects to racial stereotypes and elements of misogyny in the book.]

Tristão and Isabel, the hero and heroine of John Updike's 16th novel, Brazil, never quite realize the epic valor of their name-sakes of medieval legend and Wagnerian drama. They mean well, but they just can't seem to resist silk shirts and kinky sex.

The knight-errant, Tristão is strutting the Copacabana beach in his shining armor of night-black skin when he first lays eyes on pale Isabel, in her bikini and rich-girl languor. “This dolly,” he declares, “I think she was made for me.” With a razor blade in his pocket and the vague sense that he has outgrown a life of crime, Tristão makes his way to her, pledging his devotion with a D.A.R. ring previously snatched from an elderly North American tourist. Thus begins a new life of crime, for their love will force Tristão and Isabel to break all the rules of class, race and social convention. Even so, Tristão has a hard time giving up prostitutes and his razor blade. Isabel develops a habit of stealing family heirlooms to finance her marriage, and she shrugs off a lifetime of infidelity by reasoning that her spirit has remained true.

In an afterword, Mr. Updike cites Joseph Bédier's “Romance of Tristan and Iseult,” which he says gave him his tone. But these new lovers seem to have more in common with Othello and Desdemona, Romeo and Juliet, and perhaps Sean Penn and Madonna. They are not merely doomed but also adolescent and wildly foolish. To say that they loved “not wisely but too well” is in this case a kind of comic understatement.

The author has left his favored fictional terrain, the metaphorical deserts and jungles of suburban American marriage, for the very real deserts and jungles of class-engraved Brazil. The novel recalls an earlier work, The Coup, which was set in the mythical African nation of Kush. Because Brazil lacks the gentle, trenchant realism that is Mr. Updike's trademark and glory, it may at first seem slight to his seasoned fans. Some readers will also, undoubtedly, grow tired of the onslaught of rape fantasy and racist imagery. The novel is thoroughly salted with phrases to make the politically sensitive reader cringe: in their fantastic journey across the Brazilian hinterlands, the lovers encounter innumerable varieties of so-called Indians who scowl and steal children or flee “with the unembarrassed cowardice of savages.” There are ubiquitous references to Tristão's “yam,” the organ that arises (so to speak) as the book's central character, and whose monstrous size is explicitly linked with Tristão's African ancestry.

But a writer of Mr. Updike's accomplishment cannot be dismissed without a hearing. Brazil, for all its political incorrectness, seems good-natured and bent on self-parody, in exactly the same way his Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom—especially in the last of the series, Rabbit at Rest—winds up personifying flawed maleness.

My own many volumes of Mr. Updike's work have their margins blotted with scrawled protests—mainly the question, “Does he expect to get away with this?” He does, and he will. Whatever one feels about Mr. Updike's world view, it is hard to resist the depth of his mind and the seduction of his prose. Once again, in Brazil, that prose is measured, layered, insightful, smooth, as addictive a verbal drug as exists on the modern market. For every tiresome appearance of Tristão's yam, there is also an image or observation that seems, against all odds, to mark the arrival of something new in the English language.

Mr. Updike's characterizations are quick and deadly. All the many people who move outside the sanctified love zone of Tristão and Isabel are minor but unforgettable. César, the hired hit man, lectures Isabel on morality and Brazilian history as he kidnaps her (“The Portuguese did not bring to the New World the discipline and austerity that the Spanish did,” he explains. “If we were not as cruel as they were … it was because we were too lazy to have an ideology”), and he outlines his plan to retire and become an eco-tour guide: “Only Siberia and the Sahara can rival Brazilian vastness,” he points out, “and they have deplorable climates.” Isabel's widowed father is also a standout, as the impeccable, slavish diplomat whose “flavorless” Portuguese and melting profile play counterpoint to his daughter's Brazilian willfulness. “He knew so many other languages,” she observes during one of his paternal lectures, “that his mind was always translating; his tongue had no home.” The practical old man explains to her that love is a dream, “as all but the dreamers can see,” then adds, “It is the anesthetic nature employs to extract babies from us.” We recognize the voice as authorial, even as we refuse to believe what it says.

Tristão's mother is perhaps overdone, even for tragicomedy, as the torpid, whoring slattern. But his brother and sister-in-law are splendidly drawn as they claw their way to the middle in the industrial suburbs of São Paulo. “Chiquinho and Polidora seemed to him a couple crouching as they moved down a narrow corridor, with flaking paint and leaking walls, bumping their heads every time they tried to straighten up, never coming to the large room they envisioned. … Instead, they had this long apprehensive creep together under flickering light bulbs, while their bones turned brittle, their skin shriveled, and their hair fell out.”

True love promises the way out of every prison: deprivation or materialism, crime or innocence, blackness or whiteness, ignorance or pedagogy. As Isabel and Tristão flee their disapproving families and run westward from Brazil's colonized shore, they also move backward through time, through Brazil's colonial history, past mestizos and Indians and even a lost band of Portuguese conquerors, until the imposed covenants of class are irrelevant and no longer keep them separate.

If they could have stopped there, Tristão and Isabel would have slipped through the cracks of tragedy. But they are better than this. In their sunbaked life of hardship, they gradually merge. Then, in an act of primordial magic, they move through and beyond the gulf that once divided them. When they come out standing on opposite shores, Isabel and Tristão have changed places. “Black,” the book's opening line promises, “is a shade of brown. So is white, if you look.” Passionate love is the embodiment of empathy. The promise is fulfilled.

If the book's surface is sometimes a little sticky, its allegorical underpinnings are graceful and firm—and maddeningly circular. In the folds of a mythic, slightly funky love story, the magician John Updike has concealed layers of contradictory acknowledgment of the workings of the world. In the very last moment, he transcends wisecracks and holds fast to drama. Brazil is the tribute of a man in his 60's—a little cynical by reputation—to the youthful religion of love.

By the time everyone has had a chance to sing, this “Tristan and Isolde” is an operatic lament for the things we leave behind, as nations and as animal selves. The story pivots on the moment when Isabel must give up the D.A.R. ring, in a bizarre sacrifice through which she both saves and loses Tristão and herself. “Heartsick, she slipped off the inscribed ring and set it in the shaman's cupped hand. … As if a tooth had been knocked from her face, she knew she would never get back what she had just surrendered. Life robs us of ourselves, piece by small piece. What is eventually left is someone else.”

And of course, the author might remind us here, with a wink, that ring was stolen in the first place.

John Bayley (review date 12 May 1994)

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SOURCE: “Off the Map,” in New York Review of Books, May 12, 1994, pp. 23–4.

[In the following review, Bayley offers a tempered evaluation of Brazil. “The hazards of the wilderness,” writes Bayley, “do not suit the genius of suburban America.”]

In the literary climate of postmodernism it seems not too difficult for a novelist skilled in his own trade, and knowledgeable in the history of the genre, to select an exotic country or unknown milieu, and write about it with conviction, and even with his own brand of authority. Fiction today does not recognize any predominance of truths; and it accepts an alien setting in the same spirit in which a social realist used to make himself an expert on his own backyard.

In this spirit the English novelist Julian Barnes had a go at modern Bulgaria, and now [in the novel Brazil] John Updike has forsaken—one assumes temporarily—middle America, to explore the untapped fictive potential of Brazil, its jungles, beaches, and favelas. The results are as vivid as one might expect, and make quite an impact, although the reader may find that this diminishes abruptly with the book's ending, vanishing like the magic of the lost cities of the old jungle films. The Updike novel has taken a holiday in Brazil, and learned an impressive amount about the idiom and the atmosphere of the vast country; but a holiday it was, and the reader certainly does not feel that the novelist has left his heart and his affections there, as E. M. Forster did when he came back with A Passage to India.

What makes the whole project feasible in the first place is probably our acceptance today of magic realist guidelines. There is nothing vague or romantic about them: the brutal facts are all there, but at any moment they may be shaken up kaleidoscopically and produce a wholly new impression or pattern. These techniques are not quite so new as we sometimes like to think. One of the first books I remember, on first learning to read, was R. M. Ballantyne's Martin Rattlerr, the adventures in Brazil of the young hero and his faithful Irish friend and counselor Barney O'Flanagan. At first all went swimmingly, and I was speedily enthralled and excited by the rare fruits they ate, the blowpipe darts they miraculously avoided, the peccaries, diamonds, and piranha fish. But after a while, even at that age, I was aware that the author's interest in his own invention, or recollection, had sharply diminished. He and his young reader had begun to experience the boredom of sheer size and un-meaning: a Boys' Own Paper equivalent of jungle cafard, and what we have now come to call the Tristes Tropiques. Invention flagged: Martin became a bore, and Mr. O'Flanagan quite intolerable. I found a little later on that this did not occur with the same author's other romantic adventure, The Coral Island, a fantasy appropriately limited by its area and subject.

Brazil must have always presented the same problems to the non-indigenous novelist: Perhaps to the native-born as well, for who can measure sheer size, vacancy, indifference? Updike has taken strenuous measures against this fictive emptiness, as did Evelyn Waugh in a rather different way in the ending he gave to A Handful of Dust. His explorer Tony Last was left reading Dickens (a wicked choice) endlessly and in the deep nowhere to the appalling Mr. Todd. The aporia of Updike's young hero is cut off sharply by a more drastic coup de grâce. But in both cases, alas, the hero—and in Updike's case the heroine as well—has already lost substance and fictive being, the character that goes with having a place in a comprehensible society. They have faded into a pattern of legend and literary precedent.

For in an afterword Updike explains, with his usual air of almost adolescent probity, how the deed and the trick were done.

Two great books have gone into the making of this small one: Rebellion in the Backlands [Os Sertões] by Euclides da Cunha (translated by Samuel Putnam) and Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss (translated by John Russell). Through the Brazilian Wilderness, by Theodore Roosevelt, is perhaps not a great book but I found it entertaining and informative.

Several other books came to hand, including Brazil, by Elizabeth Bishop and the Editors of Life; and the stalwarts of the support group were Joachim Machado de Assis, Graciliano Ramos, and other purveyors of “truly Brazilian fiction.” But most significant of all, probably, was Joseph Bédier's The Romance of Tristan and Iseult, which “gave me my tone and basic situation.”

Well, it is a truth universally acknowledged in critical circles today that books can only be produced by other books, and that all fiction is a joint venture not only between the writer and the reader, but with the host of visible and invisible influences that swarm around. Yet the fact remains that a novelist such as Updike has always struck us as very much himself; so it is a trifle disconcerting to find him joining the postmodern cooperative, or good neighborhood fiction workshop. As surprising as if Jane Austen added a little foreword, or a coda, to her novels, telling us that they had all come out of Fanny Burney and Dr. Johnson and the Spectator and The Gentleman's Magazine. It would in one sense be true, but we might prefer not to know about it.

Updike's Tristan and Iseult are Tristão and Isabel, two young Brazilians from very different backgrounds. Tristão is black, or nearly so; and his mother lives on a hillock in Rio continually washed away by sewage and tropical rainstorms. Isabel Leme comes from one of the oldest and proudest of Brazilian families, and is slender, white, and beautiful. They meet on the beach—where else?—and fall in love.

At this point they seem to possess the kind of simplicity which Updike has been a master in suggesting in all his fictions, in the Rabbit books particularly; and it is a simplicity which, unlike innocence, is both convincing and endearing. We feel for the young couple, and with them, and we wish their romance well. The atmosphere hereabouts is not wholly unlike that in Vikram Seth's novel, A Suitable Boy, where the young Indians of the middle class combine a sort of sophistication with a pristine belief in life, society, and their futures, the sort of belief that must be becoming rare in the Western urban world. Neither India nor Brazil may be exactly the land of tomorrow, but young people may feel that tomorrow is theirs nonetheless, and that at least for them it is sure to come.

Having, fallen in love, and experienced the conventional refusal of both sets of parents to countenance a wedding, the couple get married nonetheless, and set off on the train upcountry. They are penniless, except for the possessions that Tristão has stolen, with his loved one's connivance, from her grand parental home; and the money they get for these does not last long. The object of their journey is of course to introduce the reader to a variety of Brazilian people and places, and this works well, except that the more places we see, and the more interesting things we have to eat and drink, with names like feijoada and caipirinhas, the less close and companionable our sense of the young couple inevitably becomes. A guidebook makes a jealous third party. The lovers fade away, even when Isabel has a couple of babies and Tristão goes to work in the Volkswagen assembly plant in São Paulo, an episode described with all the panache that Updike has long known how to bring to the relations between urban man and his artifacts. All painted tan and brown, the little “beetles” are known in Brazil as fuscas.

His first assigned task had been the sweeping up of loose screws, Styrofoam food containers, slivers of metal, and oil spills—the sticky secretions of a giant industrial beast. Then he was promoted to the position of right-handed bolter—at first, of the bearing-retaining bolts for the rear brake plates (sixteen millimeters, tightening to a foot-pound torque of forty-three), and then, at the beginning of his second year, of engine-mounting bolts, which were seventeen millimeters in diameter but were tightened to a torque of only twenty-two … He marvelled at the look of his hands, each little muscle over-developed to bulging, and a slab of callus across the palm where the torque wrench was gripped.

His bolting partner, the second year, was a good-natured left-handed cafuzo from Maranhão named Oscar. As they functioned all day in symmetry, turning and tightening the six bolts (four major and two minor) that held the plucky little engine to the fusca's compartment brace, Oscar's broad flat face, in which genes fetched by slaving ship from Africa met Asian genes transported on foot from Siberia to the sweltering Amazon, became more familiar to Tristão than his own …

Sometimes, to relieve their boredom, they would bolt in an engine upside down, and if the workers further along the line, who made the cable and hose connections, cooperated in the jest, the hardy little automobile, at the far southern end of the factory, would actually propel itself and its driver the few hundred yards to the parking lot where shipping was staged. The Volkswagen was a great-hearted machine, Oscar explained, designed by a famous sorcerer called Hitler to take the German masses to a place called Valhalla.

Brazil is a great industrial country with Amazonian mysteries and unbounded magic still in place. Updike obviously enjoys the paradox, and the fun of meticulously describing the one in terms of the other, as much as Kipling would have done.

At this point Tristão is separated from his Isabel, whose powerful family has successfully parted the lovers, with the aid of a gangster or two; and while Tristão works under guard at the fusca plant she languishes in luxury on a family estate. But they will not be parted for long. Fleeing, they fall into the hands of Indians, who kidnap the two children, and are only rescued by bandeirantes—brigands—who, however, enslave Tristão, while Isabel is put into the harem of the old chief bandeirantes, and willy-nilly bears him another child or two. Escaping, and united again at last, they make their way back to Rio, where riches and tranquility seem at last to beckon, until by a final twist of fate—but I had better not reveal the ending.

It will be seen that Updike has added the excitements of the romantic cliffhanger to his more normal attractions of curiosity, high spirits, and unfailingly good writing. There is also the normal complement of exuberant sex, with some special components in the way of local color and vocabulary. (There was of course no sex in Martin Rattler, if we except the charmingly unspoken relations between Martin and his older boyfriend O'Flanagan.) And it is noticeable that a diet of romance and suspense does not really go with such fleshly modern conventions: the reader brushes past them almost absent-mindedly as he makes his way through the tropical luxuriance. Although the author tells us that he has relied on the story of Tristan and Iseult for what he calls “tone and basic situation,” there is also an unadmitted and perhaps unconscious influence at work: that of one of the greatest romances of the eighteenth century—Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's Paul et Virginie.

This story of a naturally innocent and naturally upper-class couple in their forest and island setting, with its powerful overtones of the Noble Savage and Rousseau's goodness of man, can, it appears, still be infectious, even after our prolonged exposure to structural anthropology and Lévi-Strauss. The heart of its matter is of course an unfailing correctness of feeling and idiom on the part of the young persons, no matter what their situation. Could this have returned to strike an echo in the political correctness of our own time? The language of Rousseau's friend the author, and of his period, is pervasively present in the convention by which Updike envisages and monitors his young hero and heroine; and it contrasts rather effectively with the vivid and precise writing with which the author—as usual—confronts scenes of action and describes physical detail, as when Tristão defends himself and Isabel with his pistol against attacking Indians.

The attacker dropped his spear and, uttering a guttural cry of astonishment, clawed at his side, as if at a bee-sting. He tried to run, but this injury to his mechanism made his legs asymmetrical, so he ran in a circle, and then fell inward, toward the fire, still pedalling, his feet digging the sand. The other Indians, with the unembarrassed cowardice of savages, had vanished at the sound of the shot.

It shows into what precarious places style can stray when handled by an expert like Updike in such an unfamiliar and exotic setting. The effect depends here partly on a very politically incorrect reading of Indians as mechanisms that can be shot off cliffs and trees (“yet another bit the dust”) and partly on a sophisticated “making it strange” use of language, of which Conrad in Heart of Darkness was acknowledged master.

But though the Indians are not familiar with eighteenth-century concepts like honor, cowardice, devotion, and fidelity, these come naturally to Tristão and Isabel. She has leapt to her feet, to stand beside him “in their final second.” He has kept two bullets “for you and me, if they return.” At moments in this tricky setting Updike plunges heavily into the idiom of old faithfuls like The Sheikh, and his more torrid modern equivalents. “The thought of being killed by him had a beautiful rightness that made Isabel's loins clench.” But language swiftly recovers an older sort of propriety, as when the rational Tristão, who believes like his eighteenth-century forebears (his blackness is of course an added irony here) that the world is elaborately made for our reverent admiration by the great watch-maker, reproves Isabel for her despair in the face of “terrible accident” and the meaningless jungle. He tries to comfort her for the loss of her children.

“We have … no power to recover them. Even if we did, how would we protect them against the hazards of the wilderness? They are perhaps better, dearest Isabel, with those who know how to survive. Had the savages meant to slay them, they would have done it on the spot.”

Ultimately, it must be said, the hazards of the wilderness do not suit the genius of suburban America, with its cozy adulteries and Toyota franchises. Updike in this world is about as naturally at home as Mark Twain would have been in the Berkeley Square high life of Disraeli and Trollope. But it was a gallant couple, even a believable one, if we make allowances for the carefully mixed cocktail of linguistic calculation that seems to have produced them. No doubt next time Updike will be able to relax back in the town and country Northeast where his great skills are more at home.

Jay Parini (review date 6 November 1994)

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SOURCE: “All His Wives Are Mother,” in New York Times Book Review, November 6, 1994, p. 7.

[In the following review, Parini offers praise for The Afterlife and Other Stories.]

A writer as prolific and variously gifted as John Updike is bound, eventually, to frustrate readers. How does one absorb a body of work that includes 16 novels, 6 volumes of poetry, 5 fat compilations of essays and reviews, a memoir, a play, 4 books for children and now—after a pause of 7 years—his 11th collection of short stories? Were all this writing mediocre, one might still wonder at its mere volume. What is perhaps more striking is that so much of it is good, even dazzling.

I remember stumbling on Pigeon Feathers, his second (and, for me, finest) book of stories, 30 years ago I was a teen-ager in a small Pennsylvania city not far from Mr. Updike's Reading, and it thrilled me to see the texture of my life so lovingly transcribed, subjected to such intelligent scrutiny. Although in his later fiction the author has strayed as far afield as Africa and Brazil, in The Afterlife, his new collection, he is often lured back to eastern Pennsylvania and the world of Pigeon Feathers.

William James once remarked that his brother, Henry, chewed more that he bit off; the same might be said of Mr. Updike who, to put it more flatteringly, tends to focus narrowly, almost obsessively, on the reality at hand. He records the minute fluctuations of feeling that occur as people move bodily through time, falling in and out of love, suffering the usual mortal indignities, experiencing small joys and occasional moments of grace. The medium of these transactions is the famous Updike style: fluent to a fault, rich in metaphor, rising to exquisite heights in places, toppling elsewhere into preciousness and affectation. Such a style, with its necessary subjugation of plot and character, is more serviceable in briefer forms; as a consequence, Mr. Updike has excelled at the short story.

Readers familiar with his previous work will feel at home in The Afterlife. He is an unashamedly autobiographical writer, especially in the short stories. Pigeon Feathers set the parameters of his life's endlessly recalibrated master plot: a bookish, shy and acutely sensitive boy grows up under the tutelage of a strong, rather overbearing mother and a weak, affectionate father. The father teaches at a high school in the nearby town (read The Centaur for details). When the boy is 13, his family resettles in the countryside with his maternal grandparents, occupying a stone farmhouse surrounded by 80 acres. He is lonely there, but eventually goes off to Harvard, where he marries a woman from Radcliffe whose father is a theologian. They have children. The married couple's names change occasionally, although they are most often called Richard and Joan Maple. In successive story collections, we follow this archetypal marriage: the pleasures and griefs, the affairs, the inevitable divorce and its bittersweet aftermath, the fate of the children, the remarriage of both parties and now (in “Grandparenting,” the last story in this new book) the first grandchild. It has been, as Mr. Updike says in his memoirs, “a fortunate life, of course—college, children women, enough money, minor fame.”

Mr. Updike habitually revisits his own past lives, including those he might have lived had circumstances been different. (The extreme example of the latter is found in the four Rabbit novels.) His typical protagonist is often a thinly disguised version of himself: fiercely alert to his surroundings, sensual, dependent on women, narcissistic, kindhearted. The magnetic center of his universe is always Mother, with “her body arching over his life like a firmament.” This all-embracing mother was featured in Of the Farm, a bucolic early novel in which the adult son, called Joey Robinson, takes his wife and son to visit his mother on her beloved farm. “The Great effort of her life,” Mr. Updike says of Joey's mother, “has been to purchase this farm and move us all to it.” The place was her genius, her body, her world, and it beckoned to her son as she beckoned to him; his refusal of it produced feelings of guilt, but he had either to leave the farm or suffer total absorption in Mother and the loss of his own identity.

One has by now read so many fictional and nonfictional accounts of the elder Mrs. Updike (who died in 1989) that she is almost as familiar to readers as her son. In “A Sandstone Farmhouse,” the centerpiece of this new collection, Joey, resurfacing from Of the Farm, pores over his deceased mother's college yearbooks. “With a magnifying glass he studied her unsmiling competitive face, with her hair in two balls at her ears and a headband over her bangs.” In Joey's memory, which snags every detail of her life in the well-aimed crosshairs of its telescopic tens, she is often pictured running, “bright and quick and small, like an animal caught in a gunsight.” This was the mother he loved most, “the mother before they moved, before she betrayed him with the farm and its sandstone house.”

“A Sandstone Farmhouse” retells the author's master plot with devastating artistry, reconfiguring a familiar theme with 20–20 artistic hindsight. For this majestic story alone, the book is worth its price, but there is much more to celebrate. “The Other Side of the Street,” for instance, offers a shimmering orgy of memory in which a man called Rentschler goes back to his boyhood home in the town of Hayesville (Olinger, Alton, Reading, whatever). His mother has recently died, and he needs to see a notary public to transfer the title of her car. The notary he selects happens to live across the street from his old house in town, and he is bathed with longing as he finally sees it “on the other side of the street ablaze; the porch light and front-room lamps were lit up as if to welcome a visitor, a visitor, it seemed clear to him, long expected and much beloved.”

Memory, too, is at the center of “The Brown Chest,” which concerns an heirloom that has been left undisturbed for years in the barn adjacent to an old farm house in New England. Mr. Updike delicately pushes the object of memory forward into the present as the wife-to-be of the main character's son giddily opens the chest and a long-boxed-up smell leaps out “with the same vividness that had astonished and alarmed his nostrils as a child, the sweetish deep cedary smell, undiminished, cedar and camphor and paper and cloth, the smell of family, family without end.”

Mr. Updike's world without end is utterly familial history and politics scarcely intrude on the centripetal forces that bind his near-nuclear circles of husbands and wives, mothers and sons, lovers and ex-lovers. “History, his fragile knowledge of it, was crumbling under him,” the author remarks of George, his protagonist in “Aperto, Chiuso.” One argument consistently made against Mr. Updike is that he often ignores history or merely uses it as a backdrop for his otherwise claustrophobic tales. This is true enough; in fact, one sorely misses in his work some consciousness of the larger web in which families, and individuals, operate. Even his portraits of group behavior, like Couples, his popular 1968 novel, or “The Man Who Became a Soprano,” a story in the new collection, transform their respective characters into cozy family clusters as wives turn into lovers and then ex-wives, and husbands move breezily among the women.

The men, like homing pigeons, gravitate toward what, in “Baby's First Step,” the author calls “that female openness and depth of interrogation which remind men of the dark, of the ocean, of the night sky, of everything swallowing and terminating.” As feminist critics have long noted, Mr. Updike's male protagonists are deeply sexist that is a given in his work Like Glenn Morrissey in “Baby's First Step,” they desire the same thing: “What he wanted was for women to stay put, planted in American plenty, while he ambulated from one to another carrying no more baggage than the suit on his back and the car keys in his pocket.” The wives in Updike land are reincarnations of Mother demanding, warm, protective, willful and ruled by whim. Readers who can't take this aspect of his work must well, read somebody else.

Again and again in The Afterlife, men and women in their 50's and 60's are forced to confront death with that special intensity brought on by its hoary imminence. The title story features a couple visiting some retired friends in England, the husband's accidental tumble down a stairwell at night brings on intimations of mortality. In “The Journey to the Dead,” a recently divorced man called Martin Frederick meets Ariene Quint, a cancer-stricken friend of his ex-wife's. When he visits her in the hospital for the last time, he is “shamed by the shining unblinking fury of Arlene's eyes.” The prospect of death has cast her into withering isolation.

Most trenchantly, this collection is about the passing of generations, and the way that passing leaves people marooned. In “His Mother Inside Him,” Mr. Updike's narrator reflects on his mother's legacy, her attainment of a stunted version of eternal life.

“She was in him not as he had been in her, as a seed becoming a little male offshoot, but as the full tracery of his perceptions and reactions; he had led his life as an extension of hers, a superior version of hers, and when she died he became custodian of a specialized semiotics a thousand tiny nuanced understandings of her, a once commonplace language of which he was now the sole surviving speaker.”

Reviewing a novel by Vladimir Nabokov in 1961, Mr. Updike said: “He writes prose the only way it should be written—that is, ecstatically.” That ecstasy is evident on every page of The Afterlife. Indeed, John Updike has rarely written more affectingly, more from the center of his being. Several of these stories will, I suspect, enjoy the kind if afterlife granted to few writers in any time or place.

Julian Barnes (review date 28 January 1996)

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SOURCE: “Grand Illusion,” in New York Times Book Review, January 28, 1996, p. 9.

[In the following review, Barnes offers a positive assessment of In the Beauty of the Lilies.]

Domestic and epic, intimiste and magisterial, In the Beauty of the Lilies begins with a sly misdirection. D. W. Griffith is filming “The Call to Arms” on the grounds of a mock-medieval castle in Paterson, N.J., in the spring of 1910. Mary Pickford, short of sleep and over-costumed for a hot day, faints. This scene takes two pages. But Griffith, Pickford and the Biograph Company never reappear in the novel, they are images raised to be wiped. Instead, cut to:

“At the moment when Mary Pickford fainted, the Rev. Clarence Arthur Wilmot, down in the rectory of the Fourth Presbyterian Church at the corner of Straight Street and Broadway, felt the last particles of his faith leave him. The sensation was distinct—a visceral surrender, a set of dark sparkling bubbles escaping upward.”

This champagney transformation of Clarence Wilmot leads into a densely compelling account of the freedoms and terrors involved when a man of the cloth feels, and submits to, “the calm, merciless, impersonal truths” of irreligion. It is not until the pagination is in three figures that the cinema is mentioned again. Yet Mary Pickford has been there all the time, a questioning bubble in the reader's brain. Her loss of consciousness, her fall into darkness, are bluntly yoked by John Updike to Clarence's emergence into doubt's sunshine. Why the linkage? Left to ourselves, we work it out. The Rev. Clarence Wilmot and Mary Pickford, religion and the movies two great illusionary forces, two worlds in which the primal image is of darkness conquered by light.

The long delay of any overt linkage is part of the cleverness of the novel, which for half its length disguises itself as a family saga set against unrolling American history. Clarence loses his faith and becomes an encyclopedia Salesman (a wry shift, since the encyclopedia also “plays God” and is a “replica of Creation”); downward mobility for his wife and three children ensues, and then, following Clarence's death, a pauperish relocation to Delaware. The focus at this stage of the novel appears to be on the division between those who suffer life and those who seize it, between those fearful of reality and those who construct and control it. This schism is embodied in Clarence's two sons cheerful pushy book-ignorant Jared, a semicriminal entrepreneur who has caught “the rhythm of America to come” and for whom life is explained in brash epigrams from the trenches, versus slow, different Teddy, the town postman, uncomfortable with given notions of manhood, uncompetitive (“yet this seemed the only way to be an American”) and disturbed that others misstate “the delicate nature of reality as he needed to grasp it for himself.” Movers and shakers versus watchers and decliners of life, with—in the novel's terms—comparative victory to the losers: slow Teddy's courtship of and marriage to the maimed, disregarded but staunchly admirable Emily is in its exalted ordinariness the emotional high ground of the novel.

In the Beauty of the Lilies is a compressed tetralogy, and it's possible Mr. Updike intended a sense of underlying symphonic order: Teddy's story as the hushed slow movement, followed by his daughter Essie's as the skittish, hard-driving scherzo. With Essie—who travels from star-struck infant to teenage model to cinema goddess to television doyenne—the movie theme is finally given full voice. If (to put it over-schematically) the first half of the book concerns itself with individual responses to American reality, the second half, while continuing the family history, tracks in on how that reality is formed and perverted. Movies as escapism, movies as the model that pitiful reality attempts to match, movies as a higher form of reality altogether, “a realm beyond time and space.” Hollywood, with its new and lustrous gods and goddesses, supplants and even parodies old religion thus when film stock changes from cellulose nitrate to cellulose acetate, immortality is assured, and every film festival return offers a new resurrection of the body. Even for those who hold to the old religion, the movies may become part of the divine plan: for Clarence's widow, Ama, Essie's success is God's way of making things right for the family after Clarence's “fall.” Mr. Updike does not quote it, but lurking hereabouts is that definition of the perfect Hollywood film: a tragedy with a happy ending. (Which would translate easily into religious terms human life followed by heaven.)

Four generations. A great-grandfather who loses his faith and finds in the “sorcery” of the movies brief respite from “the bleak facts of life, his life, gutted by God's withdrawal”; a grandfather whose life consists of “guarded refusals,” who retreats from both religion and “American reality” into a doting marriage; a mother who seeks and mainly finds, in movie-stardom what others had previously sought in religion—transcendence, higher reality immortality, resurrections.

Then comes the son, Clark, in and for whom religion, the movies and the nature of American reality make a grim compact. Clark shares the first four letters of his name with his great-grandfather, and when, after a neglected childhood, druggy growing up and botched career in movie production, he turns to religion, we might be tempted to conclude that Clark was bringing the family history full circle. We might be further tempted when Clark, on his first night at a Colorado commune known as the Temple, brushes his teeth with baking soda—which long ago had been Clarence's habit too. But circles are rarely full in life, and Clark's orbit is lower and more degraded than his great-grandfather's. Clark's American reality has had holes blown in it by drugs, while his movie saturation is such that the cinema rather than life has become his primary reference ground: every memory is an “inner movie,” and at one point he can only make visual sense of a girl if he thinks of her as “looking like Sissy Spacek used to.”

But the religion that appears to save Clark from corrupted reality is corrupt itself: the Temple houses a crazy survivalist-Adventist sect that stockpiles guns while waiting for “the Reckoning.” These “heroic believers,” as Mr. Updike ironically terms them, are fueled by paranoia, spiritual elitism and a self-glorying death wish: they are also ultimately competitive—and there fore authentically American—in their belief that only 144,000 souls will make it into heaven on the day of the Reckoning.

There is inevitably, a Waco-style carnage, during which Clark kills the sect leader who is directing the murder of women and children. This may look like a redemptive act, but in fact is just as movie-influenced as Clark's other deeds: he knows what to do less because of some moment of spiritual clarity than because the cliché of action movies insists that the compromised hero retain our sympathy by killing the bad guys and then dying himself.

This is, as the ending confirms, a deeply disenchanted novel disenchanted with America, religion, the movies. It is not, however, a piece of dismayed authorial valetudinarianism, but rather a novel of accumulated wisdom, with Mr. Updike in full control of his subtle, crafty and incessantly observing art. The book gives its final scenes to Teddy, the slow raissonneur of the novel, whose marriage to Emily is the narrative's tender yet unsentimental oasis—Teddy, who declines to come to judgment on the bad new days, remembering all too well how the bad old days were had too. This is a novel that acknowledges with Clarence (via Einstein) that in this century “the universe is getting stranger,” but declines to endorse the all-American story of innocence and its loss. Rather, it is a novel that insists that the presumption of past innocence, the conviction of a fall, the gaudy lures and ashy disillusions of both religion and Hollywood, are all part of a wider if doomed American quest for a better reality, for a world elsewhere and above.

A. O. Scott (review date 12 February 1996)

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SOURCE: “God Goes to the Movies,” in Nation, February 12, 1996, pp. 25–8.

[In the following review, Scott offers a positive evaluation of In the Beauty of the Lilies.]

The title of John Updike's seventeenth novel is foreshadowed in Self-Consciousness, the memoir he published a few years ago:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea—this odd and uplifting line from among the many odd lines of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” seemed to me, as I set out, to summarize what I had to say about America, to offer itself as the title of a continental magnum opus of which all my books, no matter how many, would be mere installments, mere starts at the hymning of this great roughly rectangular country severed from Christ by the breadth of the sea.

Whatever this means, it gives a sense of the intended scope of the new novel, as well as of the dimensions of Updike's ambition over the course of his career. Apparently he has not merely been chronicling, in prose of unsurpassed loveliness and verve, the erotic predicaments and spiritual conundrums of American suburbanites: He has been singing America itself. And if In the Beauty of the Lilies is just an installment in the continental magnum opus, it would seem by its title to be the part that stands for the whole. In any case Updike tries here to cover more of the geographical, social and historical landscape of this godforsaken, god-obsessed country than he has in any other novel. In design, if not in achievement, nothing less than a saga of American modernity, In the Beauty of the Lilies follows four generations of the Wilmot family, from Paterson, New Jersey, in the days of the great silk strike through Depression-era Delaware and postwar Hollywood, and, finally, to the remote Colorado compound of a Branch Davidian-like cult in 1990. It is a large, diffuse novel, as baffling, and at times as lovely, as the line that provides its title, and held together by a weave of very American themes: movies and messianism, sex and success, religious faith and worldly ambition.

Updike, writing of an abortive project he undertook in the late 1960s, has confessed himself to be “too earthbound a realist or too tame a visionary for the vigorous fakery of a historical novel.” In the Beauty of the Lilies is indeed a historical novel, and to some extent bears out this diagnosis. An afterword lists nearly two dozen sources—on subjects from Delaware history to gardening to David Koresh—and the pages of the novel are crowded with detail. While Updike's learning, and the unpretentious alacrity with which he acquires and displays it, have always been impressive, his novelistic method is ill suited to the formal demands of historical fiction. Updike writes from the inside out, his realism bound not so much to the earth as to the person, to the phenomenological welter of individual consciousness and sensation. His most consistent (and consistently controversial) preoccupations—sex and religion—are at bottom complementary manifestations of an overriding concern with what it means—what it is like—to have a body, to be a self. In the Beauty of the Lilies succeeds when the sensuality of Updike's prose matches the sensitivity of his characters, and creates an interior world thick with feeling and experience. The novel falters when he tries to plot those experiences on the broad canvas of American history. Updike has written, “Truth is anecdotes, narrative, the snug opaque quotidian.” When he forsakes overblown continental prospects for the home truths of this credo, especially in the two middle sections of the book, he gets closest to the texture of history as it might have been lived.

For all the scholarly legwork he has done, Updike finds the germ of his story in the lived history of his own family. In Self-Consciousness, he writes of his paternal grandfather, Hartley Updike, a Presbyterian minister forced by pneumonia to abandon his calling. The world-weary Hartley died a decade before his famous grandson was born, and perhaps for that reason came to figure prominently in the younger man's sense of familial character: The shadowy image of his frail person stands “at the center of the mythic disaster” that scattered the Updike clan from prosperity in Trenton, New Jersey, to Florida, Connecticut and, most significantly for the history of American letters, to Shillington, Pennsylvania. Hartley Updike is redrawn here as Clarence Wilmot, his lost voice now a symptom of lost faith. And Shillington, the subject of the most rhapsodic and penetrating chapter of Self-Consciousness, is clearly the model for Basingstoke, Delaware, the benign, sleepy town that Clarence Wilmot's grandchild, like Hartley Updike's, abandons for the glittering prospects of fame.

But I'm ahead of the story. In 1910, when the novel opens, Clarence has fallen down the slippery slope of religious modernism into absolute and painful unbelief, undone by intellectual curiosity and a weak will. The claims of nineteenth-century textual scholarship—that the Bible was not revealed but rather collated—leave him defenseless against the corrosive logic of Hume, Renan, Nietzsche and the arch-atheist Robert Ingersoll: “Meaning to undermine them,” he complains, “I was undermined instead!” The arguments of his pragmatic, Missouri-bred wife, Stella (“Faith is something we build; it's a habit”), and of Harlan Dearholt, the jovially blustering chairman of the Church Building Requirements Committee, leave Clarence remorseful but unswayed. He travels to Jersey City to seek a “demission” from his calling. There he encounters Thomas Dreaver, a bright young church official who sounds, as he tries to persuade Clarence to stay in the ministry, rather like a late-twentieth-century professor in his blithe relativism and his breezy interdisciplinary style (“I mean, ‘the real’ isn't quite as self-defining as we intuitively think”). Clarence's unbelief, however, is the obverse of the strain of faith, derived from Kierkegaard, Chesterton and Barth, that Updike has, in novel after novel, defended against glib voices of pragmatic and liberal Christianity. If you can't have the objectively existing God, however unknowable, then you have nothing. And Clarence Wilmot, his universe emptied of all meaning, is reduced to the bleak absurdity of selling encyclopedias door to door: “All the information there can be, and it breaks your heart at the end, because it leaves you as alone and bewildered as you were not knowing anything.” He loses himself at the movies, emerging from each picture further eroded by the contrasting bleakness of a world “gutted by God's withdrawal.”

The disputation between Clarence and Dreaver is a classic Updikean set piece, though it would be even more so if the disputants were coveting (at least) each other's wives. Updike has a good ear for the idioms and rhythms of intellectual argument, but too often in this novel he uses dialogue to drag in untransmuted lumps of historical context and canned opinion. At the center of the section devoted to Clarence, for example, is a dinner-table symposium on the nature of American capitalism featuring the mill owner Dearholt (“progress is inevitable, and everyone benefits by it in the long run”); Mr. Kleist, a millworker fired for political organizing (“come the revolution, see how the bosses like being stretched on the rack”); and an Italian immigrant widow and her daughters (“I like America. … It is a hard country but you are free”). Conversations like this crop up frequently, as do random newsreels of historical background:

In Hollywood, the first Academy awards went to Wings and Emil Jannings and twenty-two-year-old Janet Gaynor, who starred in three films that year. In Chicago, Al Capone was jailed for carrying a gun, and in Washington oil tycoon Harry Sinclair was jailed for contempt of Senate. … Henry Ford signed an agreement to build a factory in the Soviet Union that would produce one hundred thousand automobiles a year. … Jews and Arabs fought in Jerusalem; Chinese and Russians battled along the Manchurian border.

These passages resemble Clarence's encyclopedias, compendiums of fact denied the animating grace of narrative or thematic meaning. A failure as a salesman, Clarence takes to his bed and dies. Tuberculosis is the medical cause, but metaphorically he succumbs, like Hurstwood in Sister Carrie, to a terminal atrophy of the will. The America represented by Paterson in the teens and twenties, with its expanding capital base, its political ferment and its polyglot energies, seems designed to crush a “weak reed” like Clarence Wilmot. He leaves behind Stella and three children. The older boy and girl, Jared and Esther, grow up hard-boiled and thick-skinned in the wake of their family's fall from spiritual grace and material comfort. But it is the youngest, Teddy, who carries the narrative forward, and who inherits his father's lack of faith and absence of drive. What for the father had been a source of annihilating despair is in the son an abiding absence of ambition. “Does everybody have to do something all the time?” he protests to his family and the world; “Isn't it enough, sometimes, if you just don't make things any worse?” After Clarence's death, the family withdraws to Basingstoke, a town of 3,000 whose main industry is bottle caps. Here the passive, intelligent Teddy finds contentment as a soda jerk and a mail carrier, and, to the initial discomfort of his family, falls in love with Emily Sifford, the clubfooted daughter of a local greenhouse owner.

Their courtship and marriage, and the childhood of their daughter, Esther (nicknamed Essie), form the vital core of the novel. The happy marriage of two modest, decent people and the happy childhood of their perfect daughter seem unlikely to sustain much narrative interest, especially for a writer notoriously tireless in his passion for literary adultery. But from Teddy's arrival in Basingstoke to Essie's departure for New York and Hollywood, In the Beauty of the Lilies is a small masterpiece. The key is that Updike's portrait of Emily and Teddy—traced, I suspect, over the emotional likenesses of his own parents—is utterly without condescension or caricature. They read books, they garden, they are curious about modern art. However provincial their surroundings, they are not, to adopt this novel's favored term of abuse, “rubes.” Their lives, in their very ordinariness, are made interesting by Updike's exquisite sympathy.

Updike depicts small-town American life with Proustian lushness and Balzacian precision. The sounds and smells of Basingstoke, the layout of its streets—all this is vividly conveyed, especially through Essie's awakening consciousness. Equally vivid are the subtle and perpetually evolving gradations of social difference—the petty hierarchies of religion, occupation, regional background and (obliquely) race—against and through which individual characters take shape. The American town is too often the object, in literature, of facile satire or moony sentimentality. But Updike knows firsthand that towns like Basingstoke in the middle decades of this century were at once sustaining and stultifying, and that one of their great contributions to American culture was to have nurtured, in considerable numbers, young people eager to leave them. So if Essie absorbs from Basingstoke a sense of safety and wonder, she also, as she grows, overhears its bigotries and observes its narrowing effects on her contemporaries.

Essie, whom the alchemy of celebrity will transform into Alma DeMott, represents one of Updike's boldest self-characterizations. Updike's as readers of Self-Consciousness will note, has given Essie many of the characteristics of his childhood self. They share a tendency to stutter, a habit of connecting the corners of things with imaginary diagonal lines and an intuitive and exuberant, if unorthodox, religious sensibility. At 7, Essie is suffused with “this joy at being herself,” of being alive in the world: “Sometimes the world just made her wild, there was so much of it, and all so exciting.” What fuels her rise is the assumption that the world loves her back, that its bounty, intended by a maker, is intended for her. In Updike's version of the American Protestant creed, erotic desire, religious belief and worldly ambition are three aspects of the sacred drive to connect the self with the world. In her guiltless promiscuity (“she began to collect … boys. Each would have a slightly different taste, a different push”) and her relentless confidence (“In the midst of her tame family she felt her power, her irresistible fire”), Essie is one of the elect.

But as it tracks her ascent from beauty-contest runner-up to the shaky pinnacle of Hollywood stardom after the collapse of the studio system, In the Beauty of the Lilies begins to fray. After Basingstoke, New York and Los Angeles seem lifeless and thin, as Updike populates them with stock figures of pushy Jews and prissy gays. And whereas Essie Wilmot felt, with her acute sensations and buzzing energies, bracingly real, Alma DeMott comes to seem a cruel caricature of an aging star, addicted to face-lifts and meaningless sex. She is trapped in the tight skin of her own narcissism, indifferent to her son Clark, to whom the novel's last, and least compelling, section is devoted.

Clark, born in 1959, grows up in the decadence and anomie of countercultural Hollywood and drifts, in 1987, into the inner circle of Jesse Smith, self-proclaimed messiah and leader of a survivalist offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventists. Clark's deepening involvement with the cult and its slide toward fiery catastrophe are intercut with scenes from his childhood and adolescence. He remembers, for example, a T-shirt his mother's dissolute rock-star husband, Rex, once wore:

The front said VIVA LA V.C. and the back had a picture of that spaceman in a polar-bear suit saluting beside that funny stiff flag they had planted on the moon only it was the North Vietnamese flag with its single yellow star on red and Ho Chi Minh's face was smiling out of the astronaut's helmet. Mom, too, wanted North Vietnam to win, which seemed strange to Clark, since America had been pretty good to her.

In case we missed it, the point of this memory is hammered home by Alma's obnoxious brother Danny, who has grown up to be a good-hearted C.I.A. man and who speaks rather too transparently for his creator when he tells Clark, “I try to be dispassionate about it, but I love this crazy, wasteful, self-hating country in spite of itself.” Updike's non-opposition to the Vietnam War is old news, and his defense of it in Self-Consciousness, articulated through his own class resentments and aspirations, is more interesting than the Forrest Gump revisionism he gives us here.

The real problem is with Clark (or Esau, as his new savior christens him) as a character. Clark's adolescence, in its details, evokes the empty recklessness of the kids in Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero (which Updike lists among his sources). But Clark is too possessed of self-consciousness, too ironical and engaged, to be a convincing inhabitant of that world. What is most striking about the vision of life in postmodern L.A. presented by Ellis (or, even better, by Joan Didion) is the terrifying absence of affect, an absence conveyed in prose of corresponding coldness. But affect—sticky, palpable contact with the world beyond the self—is for Updike both an article of faith and an element of style. His story requires the concept of emptiness, but the effulgent plenitude of his prose is not equipped to convey the feeling of it.

Updike's style, predicated on a “tender exploration … of the apprehended real,” is the concrete expression of his faith not only that “the real” exists but that it is worthy of tenderness. And this faith extends to his “roughly rectangular” subject. Early in the novel, Updike describes the industrialist Harlan Dearholt's attitude as one of “vigorous complacence,” and this nicely oxymoronic phrase might describe Updike's vision of America. This vision may be unable to comprehend Clark's nihilism, or the fanatical rage that impels the novel to its explosive end. Clark turns on the false messiah, but for reasons no clearer to us than those that drove him to Jesse in the first place. How did the Wilmots end up here? We ask ourselves, and we have the feeling that Updike is asking the same question. If this novel exposes, at either end, the limits of Updike's historical imagination, it nonetheless, at its center, provides a new and valuable dimension to the historical romance of the American middle class that he has been tirelessly and cheerfully composing for nearly forty years.

Margaret Atwood (review date 12 October 1997)

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SOURCE: “Memento Mori—But First, Carpe Diem,” in New York Times Book Review, October 12, 1997, pp. 9–10.

[In the following review, Atwood offers praise for Toward the End of Time.]

Toward the End of Time is John Updike's 47th book, and it is deplorably good. If only he would write a flagrant bomb! That would be news. But another excellently written novel by an excellent novelist—what can be said? Surely no American writer has written so much, for so long, so consistently well. Such feats tend to be undervalued. They shouldn't be. Walking across Niagara Falls blindfolded on a tightrope for the 47th time is certainly as remarkable as having made it across the first time, more remarkable perhaps, but the viewer's response is all too likely to be not a delighted “How praiseworthy!” but a jaded “What else did you expect?” And at 65, Updike isn't even old enough to be told he's performed very well for his age.

Age is nevertheless the burden, this time, of his song. The title's “end of time” may be that of the United States of America—the book is set in the third decade of the 21st century, after a devastating war with China has disassembled the great Republic, which nobody seems to miss much. The almighty dollar has been replaced by a local scrip, economic refugees are now sneaking into Mexico instead of out of it, sci-fi creatures called metallobioforms roam loose in the shrubbery, devouring life like army ants, and the independent country of Texas is busily taking over adjacent states, but the book doesn't concern itself overmuch with such details. The important things are still in place: automobiles have roads to run on, the electric lights work, Fedex is operating and the mail and newspapers continue to be delivered, at least in semirural Massachusetts, where the book's protagonist, Ben Turnbull, can still thankfully play golf.

Or the “end of time” may be the end of the earth's time, as there are rumors of possible drastic cosmic events. Or it may be the end of the notion of linear time itself, as Ben Turnbull's consciousness takes startling sideways leaps into the ancient past and the possible future, into the land of what might have happened instead of what did. Or it may be the end of the personal time on earth of Ben himself, who becomes, in the course of the narrative, by no means a well person. His gradual disintegration is the novel's most compelling theme.

Turnbull, a 66-year-old retired investment adviser, is the book's single narrator, and like the earliest European inhabitants of Massachusetts, those voluminously self-searching Puritans, he keeps a spiritual journal—spiritual not because it's holier than thou, but because it's concerned with the state of what would once have been called his soul, a soul in muted torment, living from hand to mouth and from day to day. The book's underlying structure is linked to the changing seasons, and its method is that of a sinister “Year in Provence,” or, more accurately, of a “Walden” gone haywire. Indeed, if Nathaniel Hawthorne was the great-grandfather of The Witches of Eastwick, Thoreau is the great-grandfather of Toward the End of Time. Thoreau and Turnbull both live in their isolated and outwardly tranquil houses in the country while the world goes to ruin elsewhere, though Turnbull's well-kept bourgeois mansionette is not exactly a hut. They make similar meticulous and frequently breathtaking observations of nature, they share the tendency to combine the grubbily mundane with the airborne metaphysical, they both indulge in track-jumping digressions and in mordant philosophical observations; but the innocent gaze of the young Thoreau has been transmuted by the aging Turnbull into the gritty-eyed squint of a battle-hardened cameraman. Ben Turnbull is a Thoreau run through the meat grinder of the 20th century, world warfare, economic warfare, racial warfare, sexual warfare and all, and spat out the other end of it covered with blood.

And yet, within the stringent parentheses he's set for himself, Updike manages an amazing range of moods with his usual grace and dexterity. Turnbull's annus horribilis begins on a day in November—the month of Scorpio, sex, death, regeneration and Thanksgiving, which pretty much covers all the bases. It's the day of the first snow; he hopes for childhood exhilaration but gets none, only “an unfocused dread of time itself, time that churns the seasons and that had brought me this new offering, this heavy new radiant day like a fresh meal brightly served in a hospital to a patient with a dwindling appetite.” Yet within an hour he's happily clearing off the porch, delighted by his new orange plastic shovel and hymning the praises of the snow itself. “Does the appetite for new days ever really cease?” he asks. Not for Ben Turnbull it doesn't, and through all the tribulations that beset him it's this appetite—his ability to be surprised, his childlike curiosity in himself and in what may happen next—that keeps him going.

He was once married to a woman named, tellingly, Perdita, but his wife of the moment is a vigorous, practical, superficially optimistic woman called Gloria—surely a relative of Gloria Mundi, the medieval church's much distrusted “glory of this world.” Gloria too is aging, despite fresh wardrobes and trips to the hairdresser's for dye jobs, but the process seems only to invigorate her. As the book opens, she's obsessed with the deer that's eating her hedge, and wants Ben to shoot it. Ben secretly sides with the deer, and has become afraid of Gloria. “My wife is a killer,” he says. “She dreams at night of my death.” The unvoiced power struggle between Ben and Gloria, each civil and affectionate on the surface, each watching the other like a hawk to see which will display the telltale symptoms of croaking first, is one of the best things in the book. As Ben wanes, Gloria waxes; she's even got her natty widow's outfit together beforehand. Nevertheless she tends Ben, nagging him into shape and mothering him relentlessly. “To Gloria I am a kind of garden,” he muses, “where she must weed, clip, tie, deadhead and poison aphids.”

Gloria isn't the only female threat around. There's also Deirdre, who may be the deer of the book's first section metamorphosed into the paid working class slut of the second, or may on the other hand be a superheated fantasy of Ben's. A rollick of complicated sex ensues—Updike is funny and brutally observant on this subject—as the two bend each other's bodies and heads into ever more twisted positions. If Gloria inspires fear, Deirdre inspires lust, contempt, hatred, guilt and a mournful longing for lost youth. After Deirdre departs, having cleaned out the valuables in the house—or perhaps not—Gloria returns, having either been dead or, on the other hand, merely at a conference.

The third in Updike's Gravesian trio of crone, Venus and maiden is Doreen, the barely nubile sidekick of a gaggle of juvenile extortionists who have moved into the woods on Ben's property and are running a small-time protection racket, targeting him and his neighbors. (This is the future, and the police are useless.) Ben gets a perverse kick out of turning himself into their fatherly business counselor, advising the killing of pet cats and the burning down of beach houses in return for a percentage—retirement hasn't suited him, after all—while exchanging cash for touching-only privileges with Doreen. He's afraid of Doreen too, but she arouses mostly wistfulness. Through her he has access to the lost prepubertal inexperienced self he once was, for whom he feels a tense nostalgia.

Disaster strikes the young racketeers. Then disaster strikes Ben, in the form of an illness that cripples the part of himself that has meant the most to him. Like many late-20th-century writers, Updike is fascinated with bodily goo, and by things that go yuck in the night. The verbal pleasure he takes in describing the exact nature and texture of Ben's searing and dribbly symptoms rivals Cormac McCarthy on exploding skulls or Patricia Cornwell on decaying corpses. As a commentator, Ben is nothing if not ruthless; but he's as ruthless with himself and his own body as he is with everyone else, and with everyone else's body. Alongside the ruthlessness he does manage, from time to time, a sort of wry tenderness. “To be human,” he says, “is still to be humbled by the flesh, to suffer and to die.”

It's finally Ben's evenhandedness that confers on Toward the End of Time its eerie ambiance, its ultrarealism, its air of a little corner of hell as meticulously painted as a Dutch domestic interior. The light of his intelligence falls alike on everything on flowers, animals, grandchildren, corpses, copulations, on ancient Egypt and plastic peanuts, on memory, disgust, dread, just and spiritual rapture. The brilliant metaphors—and they are almost always brilliant—are applied, like Whitman's, to everything from the cosmic to the scatological. As a writer, Updike can do anything he wants, and what he's wanted this time is quintessence of mortality. As memento mori and its obverse, carpe diem, Toward the End of Time could scarcely be bettered.

Tom LeClair (review date 3 November 1997)

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SOURCE: “Deer John,” in Nation, November 3, 1997, pp. 62–3.

[In the following review, LeClair offers a positive assessment of Toward the End of Time.]

After putting Rabbit to rest, John Updike ranged far abroad in Brazil and drilled deep into history in Memories of the Ford Administration and In the Beauty of the Lilies. While these were adventurous novels, I think Updike missed his long-running index to the American present and decided that Rabbit's end was untimely. In Toward the End of Time, Updike replaces the once poor, finally rich and always sex-obsessed Rabbit with a similar character, Ben Turnbull. At 67, Turnbull has outlived Rabbit by eleven years but in that extra time has lost emotional contact with his numerous progeny, developed prostate cancer, been deprived of golf and come to suspect that his wife wants him dead.

About once a decade some well-intentioned editor sends me a novel with a timed-release futility that depresses me for the next ten years. In 1974, when I still had children to nurture, it was Joseph Heller's Something Happened and its self-loathing, child-killing Bob Slocum. In 1979, when my parents were going over the hill, it was Max Frisch's Man in the Holocene with its eroding mountain and failing old man. Now that I've just started playing golf, I'm beset by Toward the End of Time. If you're a man, you should consider skipping this Updike unless you believe in homeopathy or mistakenly think that only an athletic injury can make your testicles and heart ache. If you're a woman, then Toward the End of Time just might enlarge your sympathies for those humans driven nutty and then hemlocked by that acorn-sized gland within.

In the Sisyphus Sweepstakes, it's how you lose that matters. Ben Turnbull reads National Geographic and Scientific American, “avoiding the emotional stresses of fiction—that clacking, crudely carpentered old roller coaster” that proves “that we are of all animals the most miserable.” His account of 2020, a few years after the Sino-American nuclear war, combines the objectivity of a naturalist's field notes with the radical subjectivity of a quantum consciousness that allows Ben to fantasize himself as an ancient Egyptian grave-robber, the evangelist Mark, a murdered ninth-century monk and a concentration-camp inmate. A retired securities manager whose Massachusetts seashore home is officiously managed by his wife, Gloria, Ben hopes his journal will give him a kind of immortality that the genes of his ten grandchildren, his barely remembered Christian faith and a hovering spacecraft cannot. Unlike “that twentieth-century master, John Grisham,” who is “awful macho and preachy,” Ben eschews plot and writes a diurnal, winter-to-winter narrative, male but not macho, meditative rather than didactic.

Near his end, Ben finds time passing quickly. His pages do not. To give the reader a longer life, Updike practices Orr's strategy in Catch-22: Slow down time by spending it painfully, preferably in a dentist's chair. Nothing cheers up Ben for very long. He spots a deer in his backyard and wishes it will survive, but it's killed by Gloria's hired bow hunter. Although his seven-fireplace home is comfortable and his investments are solid, the prostitute Ben brings in during Gloria's trip to Singapore deserts him. Some teens camping on the edge of his eleven acres do interest Ben, but they're either killed by “metallobioforms,” a dangerous new pseudo-life form, or chased off by FedEx, which polices the post-apocalyptic Commonwealth. When Ben has his prostate operation and starts wearing adult diapers, his pages are like a root canal performed by Frank Norris's McTeague.

And yet, and still—Updike manages to keep the reader willingly in the chair. Largely confined to his property, Ben tracks flora and fauna like a Thoreau. Like Updike, Ben can write elegant sentences. Although his temporal excursions (and Updike's researched inventions) at first seem random, they fit together into a paranoid structure by novel's end. Ben's reports from the body front and reflections on his failures—the tragedies of a flubbed golf shot, a bad bridge play and a muffed first marriage—are simultaneously sad and comic, often worthy of that old endgamer Beckett.

Updike does retirement so well he invites speculation about what he had in mind beyond extending a Rabbit-like life. It can't be the futurism because 2020 is thinly detailed, more hindsight than foresight. Except for some factual asides—massive destruction on the West Coast, America balkanized and underpopulated, hourlong lines at the supermarket—most of Ben's social observations, such as skateboarders in baggy pants or tattooed and pierced teenagers, are from the mid-nineties. The novel's sci-fi is only a gesture. The giant spaceship that hovers and withdraws in different historical periods may be only the product of mass desire, the other side of Independence Day's mass fear.

Updike puts more energy into synthesizing his recent reading, drawing connections between external and internal universes, cosmological and neurological theories. He refers to Julian Jaynes's book on the origin of consciousness and alludes to Stephen Hawking, string theory, gravitational collapse and Teilhard de Chardin's Omega Point. Like characters in the earlier Roger's Version, Turnbull searches science for consoling possibility. He enjoys physicists who quarrel with the one-way arrow of time, who say “its direction is reversible in quantum situations,” but sees a problem: “how does time's arrow know this, in our trifling immediate vicinity?” On his property, the hunter's arrow flies straight to the deer's death. Like the spaceship, scientific speculation may be only invention.

Since I like to think novelists are affected by reviewers, Toward the End of Time could be the 65-year-old Updike's grumpy response to critiques of exoticism in Brazil and dulling research in his historical novels: You want me to work close to home, here's a North Shore, writing WASP for you. Ben Turnbull seems created for readers of The Nation to hate. He calls “equal opportunity” one of old government's “mad schemes.” He believes, “The genius of capitalism dictates that wealth … survives wars, idiocy, and high personal unworthiness,” so he lives off and retires on the money of other WASPs.

Politically Neanderthal, Ben is socially inconsistent: Although Gloria is thoroughly white and militantly Anglo-Saxon, he dislikes her proprieties and economies. “One advantage of the collapse of civilization,” he says, “is that the quality of young women who are becoming whores has gone way up.” Ben pleasures in the “primitive” physicality of his “Egyptian”-looking (actually African-American) call girl. He condescends to the racially mixed (“dusky”) kids on his property, until he slurps the 13-year-old girl's breasts. Ben's only political sensitivity is trying to protect the deer, and he does that because it's his free-ranging, unthinking double.

How did Ben become so loathsome? He often remembers childhood poverty and thinks he may have been clinically depressed his whole life. Updike implies a cultural answer: Ben is sunk in himself because he, along with his friends, is not really a WASP. The thermostat in his house, says Ben, “was more of a friend to me in the endless night than almighty eternal God.” Lacking the Protestant faith that may have once meliorated (if it didn't encourage) WASPs' selfishness, Updike's characters are WASs, relics trapped in a past. Although WASs in 2020—called “welders,” after that late-twentieth-century Republican governor—still have the money, wealth doesn't protect Ben from himself or nature.

Excise some realistic details and Toward the End of Time could have been composed near the front end of time, the beginning of writing. Psyche flies backward and forward, but who has seen the archer's arrow return to his bow? Trees are dumb but live longer than man. Sisyphus will never wear down his rock. Death is sure as the sea makes sand. But there is time left for Ben. He's doing exercises that may let him recover sexual function. His golf partners encourage him to rent a cart. The deer is gone, but high-stress Gloria might also drop dead, like Rabbit, of a heart attack. Ben remembers that the roots of her flowering dahlia have been dug up and preserved for replanting in the spring. Without faith, Ben can hope only for the success of a tuber.

Charity, that third Christian virtue, the author doesn't allow to cross Ben's mind. I hope I'm not being charitable in believing that Updike's mind is larger, considerably larger, than his narrator's and that Toward the End of Time, sad and painful as it may be, is a profound cautionary tale about failing imagination, both personal and cultural. Instead of trying to get inside the heads of contemporary others, Ben fantasizes historical victims and pursues crank theories of the future. Given the chance to help the inner-city kids on his land, Ben teaches them his own parasite capitalism. Yes, his body and the universe are both collapsing, but it's Ben's black-hole mind that makes him as needy as Faulkner's idiot. Ben's last projective and futile sentences are these: “The weather is so warm a multitude of small pale moths have mistakenly hatched. In the early dark they flip and flutter a foot or two above the asphalt, as if trapped in a narrow wedge of space-time beneath the obliterating imminence of winter.”

The happy ending is that a man almost Ben's age could imagine his “narrow wedge”—and did.

Robert Boyers (review date 17 November 1997)

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SOURCE: “Bullets of Milk,” in New Republic, November 17, 1997, pp. 38–42.

[In the following review, Boyers gives an unfavorable assessment of Toward the End of Time.]

John Updike's new novel [, Toward the End of Time,] is set in the year 2020, not long after a brief but devastating war in which millions of American and Chinese citizens were killed. We see none of this killing, and we are told nothing of the causes that led to the war or that brought it to a close. Occasional references are made to the resultant aftermath to a collapsed national economy and deteriorating office buildings, to a “depopulated” Midwest and abandoned neighborhoods; but we do not tour those neighborhoods or feel in any way the effects of the reported disaster. A passing reference to Chinese missiles, or to Mexico as a golden land of opportunity, will remind us that something consequential has happened, that the world out there is a place different in many ways from the world of 1997. But in virtually every respect the local world in which Updike immerses us is our—or rather, his—familiar world. It is not at all surprising to the reader of this novel that for Updike's eloquent alter ego, Ben Turnbull, “the collapse of civilization” amounts to little more than an inspiring rise in “the quality of young women who are becoming whores.”

A retired investment counsellor with a large extended family living nearby in the Boston area, Turnbull is neither an idiot nor a monster. He is 66, and his depravities are practiced on a modest scale. He is as susceptible as the next man to twinges of remorse and pity; or so we are to believe. If the collapse of civilization seems to him remote, it is in part because his routine preoccupations and his immediate prospects have been little affected by the conflagration. When he speaks, casually, of “rapacity, competition, desperation, death to other living things” as “the forces that make the world go around,” he is repeating a settled conviction that took root in him long before the recent disastrous events. He did not need reports of “the plains [as] a radioactive dust bowl” to instruct him on “the forces that make the world go around.”

It matters to Ben very little, so far as we can tell, that the dollar is worthless, for in its place he spends a “scrip” issued by “corporations, states and hotel chains,” and he can apparently buy whatever he wants, from private security guards to gardening supplies, from gasoline to Federal Express service. When he is ill, he drives to Boston from his suburban home to see a doctor, and he receives first-rate treatment at a hospital. He visits his grandchildren, attends parties, and carves turkeys precisely as he would have done if no apocalypse had occurred. For such a person, war and change are things that happen to other people. None of his children are said to have been lost or threatened by the nuclear exchange, and his eleven grandchildren would seem to face only the garden varieties of rapacity and desperation that fall to each of us.

Updike betrays no anxiety about the glaring inadequacy of his novel as an account of drastic political and social upheaval. He places his narrative in the hands, in the voice, of a man who sees what Updike usually sees. Turnbull is a bright man who can be counted on to say bright things in a language so precise and so fluent that he often reminds us of his creator. And he, too, has the habit of lingering for a time in the ample forests of his own prose. He reads books, entertains theories, and argues with himself about the status of virtue and the Nietzschean notion of ressentiment. He has little patience for actual politics, and he likes to retreat efficiently from troubling questions to manageable problems. These are tendencies of his temperament that Updike has no wish to condemn.

Ben Turnbull is a guide to nothing but the vagaries of his own frequently compelling intelligence. He acknowledges the facts of political reality much in the way that he examines more proximate facts, with a cool empathy, an almost aesthetic detachment. He is more than a little dreamy, eager to lose himself in “cosmic feeling” and to ride the surfaces of life for their “transcendent sparkle.” He is more comfortable speaking about entropy than about hope or action. When he recites the facts—this happened, then that, then that—he is already pulling back from the thicknesses of history, drawing around himself a circle of certainty within which existence proceeds as it must, without the possibility that events in the great world will drastically disrupt his security and his routine.

He knows, of course, that events do sometimes disrupt, and that lives have been destroyed, or ended, as a result of particular conflicts. He registers changes in society; but for all his acute powers of observation, he has little sense of society as a contention of forces in which individual will and intelligence may often play a significant role. He knows how to hurt and to flatter, how to give and to resist, how to get on in the world; but he feels that he can no more control the local, small-scale forces impinging on his life than he can control the forces governing the nuclear exchange between China and the United States. He is a very observant quietist, whose passivity is the condition of his acuity. Amused that anyone would presume to learn or to grow by studying the world, he swells with a cruel satisfaction when he tells his young hooker-mistress “that I don't much care what happens in the world. … What Spin and Phil and the kids from Lynn do with the world is up to them. I just want to buy a little peace, day by day.”

In the course of his retirement on a small but comfortable property not far from Boston, Turnbull is visited by a bunch of sleazy racketeers offering to sell him protection. Collectors for “local crime overlords,” they are likened to “old-style” movie actors; and Updike is so in thrall to their banal cinematic features—one “rolls around in his mouth” a trademark toothpick, another issues sick threats “with a quick hitch in his shoulders”—that he is unable to invest them with even a trace of genuine malice or menace. The federal government can no longer protect its citizens, and the local police are without the resources to do much. How this can have happened we are not permitted to ask. It just happened. And in the same way we must accept that the predators can be kept more or less out of one's way, so long as they are paid. They may fight among themselves, but they represent no direct threat to Turnbull's well-being. Suspicious and a little put out at first, he learns quickly to accept what is a necessary evil, and becomes increasingly curious about his protectors. Ben accepts that people do what they must do to get along, extortionists no less than homeowners. What we call social order is an arrangement we do well not to look at too closely. Curiosity about this element of that is perfectly acceptable, so long as it is not underwritten by a nagging interest in social justice.

Ben's relations with these thugs resemble his relations with most other persons. He never gets too close to anyone, though he is curious about selected aspects of wives, children, lovers, clients. His present wife Gloria seems to him now and then a killer, eager for his death or his disappearance, though she sometimes ministers to him with a puzzling ardor. A former wife, Perdita, “loyal if unenraptured,” with her “thick and rounded” soles and “little toes,” sometimes seems less a person than a pretext for recalling odd potencies and transgressions. His prostitute mistress Deirdre, a thief and a preternaturally avid sex toy with “silken rivers of dark body hair,” betrays, now and again, “as in every woman,” “the hormones of nest-building.” In all, Ben doubts most things, including his own unstable view of them. He wants from life nothing more than the same old paltry satisfactions that he derides. Now and then he wonders at “the mysteries of overplenteous life,” or (somewhat less sublimely) at “the miraculous knit of the jockey underpants stretched across [his] knees” as he sits on the toilet; but these epiphanies rarely prevent him from feeling “dull” and unresponsive.

The action of the novel is very limited. Ben stays close to home, only occasionally venturing out to the office to do a bit of work, finding few colleagues who miss him. He golfs, reads, visits his grandchildren. When his wife is away, he shares his bed with Deirdre, who stirs him up and eventually leaves him for a more exciting criminal companion. He reaches out, at first reluctantly, then more eagerly, to the band of adolescent racketeers living in a makeshift shed on the outskirts of his modest property, offering them advice on extortion and, in the end, mildly mourning their demise. His thoughts range from “the vibrant magenta of crabapple” to marriage as “a mental game of thrust and parry played on the edge of the grave.” He remembers his many failures and his frequent derelictions, but consigns almost everything in his experience to “Sisyphean repetitiveness” and “triviality.” By far the most important event in his account of himself is his bout with prostate cancer, his struggle “in a narrow wedge of space-time beneath the obliterating imminence of winter.” He issues resonant utterances about meaning and meaninglessness, about change and entropy, but he barely moves from the place he has settled in, and his special gift is to avoid “any thought that will tip [him] into depression.”

What action there is in the novel is provided by Ben's rarely sluggish imagination. His journal entries move from one sensation to another, from the smell of a crotch to the dread of humiliation, from the springy hair on the head of a half-black grandchild to the “muffled thrumming” sounding through an open storm window. Often the impressions of the visible world are mild, picturesque, reassuring: “sunlight reflected from the granite outcropping warms the earth.” A robin startled into flight, “a stuffy bird, faintly pompous in its portly movements, spoiled by the too many songs and poems unaccountably devoted to him,” is a quaint emblem, familiar, comforting, literary. Calmly attentive to every little thing, Updike's narrator is especially alert to “repositories”—“in garages and basements and closets and attics”—that “pledge our faith in eternal return,” though he is all too aware of an encroaching entropy, “when there is not a whisper, a subatomic stir, of surge.”

Still, Ben is subject to powerful surges, to panics and to nostalgias and to seizures of fervor. He lurches uncontrollably from one time plane to another, trying on identities with a promiscuous, relaxed abandon. His journal entries allow for several varieties of free association: a narrative of Egyptian grave robbers, a fragment from the life of Saint Mark, the reverie of an early Christian monk, the brutal churnings of a uniformed Nazi, a so-called “good German recruited to guard an extermination camp.” What the primary narrative lacks in tension and variety, these fragmentary narratives, with their air of peremptoriness and incompletion, of bluff yet authoritative improvisation, would seem to provide.

Yet it is Updike's sureness of touch that is generally sacrificed in these interpolations. The music of the prose remains intact, the full voice of a confident and exacting speaker recognizable even where, as in the musings of the early Christian monk, the language becomes slightly arch, the sentence structures noticeably more symmetrical, the perspective strained to accommodate “our Lord's birth of a meek virgin” and a “Providence in its miraculous patience [lending] scope so as to accumulate ungainsavable proofs toward the eternal damnation of their souls.” It is exhilarating to move, without transition, from “one busy summer day” on which “it fell to [Ben] to fuck three women” to the reflections of a monk in sackcloth about to be put to the sword; but though we are disposed to applaud the sackcloth theater, we must wonder what purpose is served by these showy fragments.

We do not require conventional transitions, which in any case Updike occasionally provides, as when the sight of a Jewish doctor, naked in a locker room, suddenly stirs Ben to contrive the sequence in the Third Reich. But the fragments do not exfoliate. They tell us nothing about Ben except that, like any literate person, he can identify briefly with people about whom he has read in books. The sequences have no urgency in the design of the novel. Updike sticks with each of them just long enough to satisfy a modest aesthetic imperative. These fragments are shapely, clever, deftly edged, and intermittently poignant, but they amount, in the end, to discrete triumphs of superfluity.

Of course, the fragments belong to Ben Turnbull, and their telling us so little about him leads us to ask what instead they may reveal about the novelist. Is “antiquity” a key to Updike's vision in a way we had not previously suspected? Probably not. No more do the words “early Christian church” or “Holocaust” provide a critical lead. If the interpolations tell us little about Ben, they tell us little about the novelist; or little that we did not know before. It is hard not to see in Ben many of the standard views and obsessions that the novelist has expressed in many other writings. Ben is by turns wise and foolish, refined and coarse, playful and tendentious. He has an eye for color, line, and form, and also a predilection for philosophical or scientific speculation. Occasionally guilty or dissatisfied, he mostly gets on with his instincts and his appetites; and he is rarely restrained by the higher moralities. He displays a sometimes disarming affection for small things, for mannerisms and foibles. Like other Updike narrators, he is good at taxonomy and elegy, and though he finds little cause for optimism, he is frequently consoled by the comely surfaces of simple things. Saddened by the theft of a fine living room rug, he brightens when “its absence exposed a maple parquet whose beauty had been long obscured.”

But Ben is most recognizably a standard Updike male in his sexual obsessions. He rightly describes himself as “like some horn-brained buck.” Ben's erotic fantasies include a decidedly sadistic component; he is turned on by thoughts of desecration and enslavement. He is regularly aroused by the exposed shoulders of a step-daughter or a glimpse of a daughter-in-law's thigh. He cannot comprehend his married son's “patently monogamous affection” for his wife: fidelity seems to him peculiar, an atavism associated with a time before the disappearance of the gods. He is perpetually in search of erotic intoxication, of inflammation and submission. The “flesh-knot” of the anus is to him a recurrent temptation, and he likes the thought that the woman who “serves [him] with a cold, slick expertise” is also a teasing, “money-grubbing cunt” who can be screwed “until she squealed for mercy.”

All of this, as Ben knows, is cast in the language of standard sexual fare, “constructed mainly of images from popular culture.” Now, for a certain kind of writer—Don DeLillo, or Robert Coover—these susceptibilities and influences would be an irresistible opportunity to probe the inner consequences of mass culture, to consider its pernicious invasion of our dreams and our desires. But Updike, who no doubt sees as clearly as anyone else what has become of us, has no wish whatever to explore this aspect of American fate. The brief observation about “popular culture” has no significant relation to anything else in the novel, and in effect serves merely to indicate that Updike himself is too clever to be entirely taken in by the language that he has given to his character. To allow Ben to follow up on his observation would be to violate an essential complacency.

To note, in passing, the origin of erotically charged language is to be smart; but to ask further questions about it might suggest that something ought to be done to liberate us from, or to make us critical of, an unfortunate susceptibility. But that would be the sort of wishful thinking in which no self-respecting realist can indulge. This satisfied sense of the dominant reality is nicely revealed in the following passage:

There is a warmth in the proximity of a man who has fucked the same woman you have. It is as if she took off her clothes as a piece of electric news she wished him to bring to you. He has heard the same soft cries, smelled the same stirred-up scent, felt the same compliant slickness, seen the same moonlit swellings and crevices and tufts—it was all in Phil's circuitry, if I could but unload it. … My sexual memories had become epics of a lost heroic age, when I was not impotent and could shoot semen into a woman's wincing face like bullets of milk. Deirdre's flanks in memory had acquired the golden immensity of temple walls rising to a cloudless sky and warmed by an Egyptian sun. Whore though he thought her, a nimbus of her holy heat clung to Phil—his oily black pubic curls had tangled with hers. …

We learn from this passage much of what is real to Updike's character. Potency is real, and the loss of potency. Scent and touch and soft cries are real, and an intimacy based upon shared physical sensation. The young man whose “public curls had tangled with [Deirdre's]” feels “indignant” when he realizes that “he mattered to [Ben] only as an emanation of our shared cunt,” but Ben has no recourse to indignation. For all his thinking, for all his reading, he is only appetite and tropism. Words such as “sacred” and “holy” and “nimbus” are to him an oil to lubricate the passage of sexual energy. His post-operative impotence is affecting because we feel that he is lost without the faculties that are most real and important to him, but Updike does not permit us to forget who and what this man is. A dark, voluptuous, obscene electric charge is carried by the erotically loaded sentences that Ben constructs. We are stirred, but also repelled, by his efforts “to drag with [his] tongue the sweet secret of [a woman's] name out of the granular dark of [his] memory cells.” And we wonder at Updike's reluctance to build into the novel any figure who might offer some resistance to Ben, who might be repelled by him as we are repelled.

But the character is most fully revealed in the way he confuses realms, swings wildly between celestial and obscene, worships “the little flesh-knot between the glassy-smooth buttocks visible in moonlight … at just the right celestial angle.” All the intermittent talk of celestial angles and tempting white church collars and “the risen Jesus” serves mainly to reveal the speaker's baffled desire for something other than what he knows and has. His is a rhetoric of disappointed love, of an obscuring, unsubstantiated ambivalence. Ben desires epiphany but he subsists on shame. He cultivates a barren, hopelessly repetitive eroticism. (“She was a choice cut of meat and I hoped she held out for a fair price.”) Absorbed by the glamours and the corrosions of the flesh, he has not the strength to think through his confusion. Like everything else, it is a given fact of his condition. And Updike has no wish to think it through, either.

What excites Ben Turnbull is not, apparently, a subject fit for moral or psychological criticism. Updike is content to give us creatureliness without ethical dimension. His character refers now and again to transgression or trespass, but he is fundamentally a complacent man, forgiving himself everything, pitying his frailty and his fate, extracting a sensual enjoyment even from his occasional self-lacerations. He counsels the thugs on his property on the ways of the world, advising them to “mention casually” to prospective clients “that [they] would hate to see any of their children kidnapped,” and that “if they don't pay up [protection money]” the boys “might think about killing one of their cats.” Nor does he beat himself up about his relations with the 14-year-old girl of the gang, whom he visits when the others are away. There are traces of tenderness in their carefully delimited transactions. “She was cool to the touch, surprisingly, and clean-smelling,” Ben notes. “Her breasts smelled powdery, like a baby's skull, and her nipples were spherical, like paler, smokier versions of honeysuckle berries.” There is nothing in this of Nabokovian decadence or play. The man is merely not a bad guy, and he has no reason not to be tender to a young girl who allows him to place his tongue where he likes.

“She graciously offered to touch me, where I jutted,” he goes on, but he had earlier promised the boys “no penetration,” and the “hand-job” offered by the sweet young thing “would penetrate my soul.” This is as close as we come, in this novel, to “renunciation.” But the lapse into soul-fear is without conviction. Ben fears only exposure by his wife, the possible loss of “the island of repetitive safety [he] had carved from the world.” His little intoxications are pathetic things, as he well known about for him a full-fledged Dionysian rebellion, any more than a crisis of conscience. In the suburbs this homme moyen sensuel can savor the acid taste of teenage honeysuckle on his tongue while daydreaming through the sumptuously appointed living room, “a breezy, translucent person, a debonair proprietor.”

Toward the End of Time will call to mind earlier novels by Updike, especially Rabbit at Rest, with its self-destructive, relentlessly unappetizing protagonist Harry Angstrom. Like Ben Turnbull, Rabbit regards few things as “his problem” and accepts that he “never was that great” as father or husband. Both characters are unapologetic womanizers. In part an emblem of his society, Rabbit sees that in his America—as in the America of 2020—“everything [is] falling apart,” and though—like Ben Turnbull—he is at least mildly interested in many things, from science to history, he is resolutely unamenable to improvement or edification. Rabbit—like Ben—wins a modest claim on our sympathy principally by controlling premonitions of death, by acknowledging “something more ominous and intimately his: his own death. …” Ben is a more articulate person than Rabbit, less of a slob, but Updike grants him no greater portion of grace and discovers in his failings fewer occasions for satire of merriment.

Toward the End of Time is a simpler and less attractive book than Rabbit at Rest. For it is defiantly not a book about anything remediable, or about the way we live now. For all of its technical beauties, its proficiencies of diction and syntax, Updike's new novel is especially disheartening in its specious and half-hearted attempt to situate its private malaise in the aftermath of a terrible historical catastrophe. The book is not only indifferent to history, it exploits history. It uses the moral and historical grandeur of a world war to promote its cranky local obsessions to a level of universality and interest that they do not deserve. The near-destruction of the world notwithstanding, Toward the End of Time is just the familiar Updikean dystopia. The war in this book is an empty device, and spiritual exhaustion is written all over its pages.

There is in Ben Turnbull, as also in Updike's other characters here, no possibility of growth, and what passes for redemption is at most an activity of consciousness for which genuine advance is reducible to mechanical invention. The novel's easy acceptance of a long cosmic view—the “silently clamorous, imperiously silver and pure” rotation of the stars—merely flattens every prospect of judgment, penance, reconciliation, and change, and reduces it to triviality and illusion. In Updike, the words “transcendent” and “trust” and “virtue” have never before seemed so frivolous. The book seems a reflex of frustration and bitterness. To mistake one's own spiritual condition for the final measure of reality, to confuse one's own aggrieved, attenuated shadow on the wall with being itself in all its variety, is to offer a terribly impoverished version of experience. The wonder of it is that Updike, brilliant as ever in evoking the profusion of surface life, in making palpable what he once called “the skin of a living present,” seeks here only to distract us from the essential demoralization, the sense of nullity that holds even the novel's most vivid particulars firmly in its grip.

James Shapiro (review date 25 October 1998)

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SOURCE: “Settling Old Scores,” in New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1998, p. 7.

[In the following review, Shapiro offers a positive assessment of Bech at Bay.]

One's spirits, however initially well disposed toward one of America's more carefully tended reputations, begin severely to sag under the repeated empathetic effort of watching Mr. Bech, page after page, strain to make something of very little.

I didn't write that. An English critic named Raymond Featherwaite, who appears in “Bech Noir,” the wildest story in this volume [Bech at Bay], did. And John Updike sees to it that in revenge for this cursory dismissal of his alter ego, the novelist Henry Bech, Featherwaite is crushed to death under the wheels of a New York subway car. Featherwaite, whose end is swift, is luckier than other reviewers who had nasty things to say about Bech's fiction: one is poisoned, another driven to suicide, a third has his oxygen supply cut off. I began to have doubts about taking this assignment when I discovered that next on the hit list was “a guy who teaches at Columbia … an English professor, or whatever they call it now, who really got my goat in the Book Review.”

Bech at Bay is the third, and probably the last in the Bech series. Sixteen years have passed since Bech Is Back (1982) and over 30 since Updike started publishing the stories that were first gathered in Bech: A Book (1970). Henry Bech is getting on in years (he reaches his mid-70's here), and much has changed in the literary culture that Updike has been gently satirizing through this picaresque and resilient hero. When Updike began writing about Bech, he tried, he had said, to make Bech as unlike himself as possible. Where Updike was suburban, married and Christian, Bech was a New Yorker, single and Jewish. Where Updike was prolific, Bech was the classic blocked writer; and where Bech could undertake a novel with the presumptuous title “Think Big,” Updike's literary output was more in line with the view defended by Virginia Woolf in “The Common Reader”: “Let us not take a for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.”

The early Bech served several ends As Updike has acknowledged, it allowed him to work off various grudges, to purge his system of slights. Writing about Bech also allowed Updike to channel his anxieties about being overwhelmed by the Jewish American writers whose work he clearly admired but who also dominated the literary scene at a time when he himself was (unfairly) written off as a representative WASP. Bech began as a sort of golem, fabricated out of pieces of Updike's rivals. As he himself notes in a tongue-in-cheek foreword (addressed to Updike) in Bech: A Book: “My childhood seems out of Alex Portnoy and my ancestral past out of I. B. Singer. I get a whiff of Malamud in your city breezes, and am I paranoid to feel my ‘block’ an ignoble version of the more or less noble renunciations of H. Roth, D. Fuchs and J. Salinger?”

The heyday of the Jewish American novelist is long past, and Bech and Updike now have more in common with that cohort than with the literary crowd that followed. Updike makes much of this intergenerational gulf in the trenchant and often hilarious story “Bech Presides.” Here the aged members of a distinguished society of writers, painters and musicians over which Bech presides refuse to nominate any younger members. When Bech is asked, “Can you read any of these kids? I mean, the ones under 60?” he confesses: “New fiction makes me tired. All that life that isn't mine. All that clamoring ‘look at me!’” Another member makes the exasperation with minimalists and memoirists even more explicit: “There are these facts, this happened and then that happened, all told in this killingly clean prose. They have advanced degrees in creative writing, they go to these workshops and criticize each other, there is nothing left to criticize, but something is missing. I don't know what it is—a love of the world, some hope beyond the world.” The story succeeds in part because of the fun Updike has at the expense of the old and lost too; the joke, it turns out, is on Bech as well.

One of the best things about the earlier Bech books was Updike's skill in puncturing the excesses of corporate publishing. If he is less successful at it this time around it's probably because Bech's gentle satire is too blunt an instrument to inflict much damage on publishing today, which, as these stories make clear, totters dangerously on the verge of self-parody. All Bech can do is imagine writing acceptance speeches that he might give but in the end rejects for they sound too much like cranky jeremiads: “The printed word? The book trade, that old carcass tossed here and there by its ravenous jackals? Greedy authors, greedy agents, brainless book chains with their Vivaldi-riddled espresso bars, publishers owned by metallurgy conglomerates operated by glacially cold bean counters in Geneva.”

Bech's Jewishness is also not the lightning rod it once was. Cynthia Ozick, in an essay called “Bech, Passing,” famously chided Updike for portraying a Jew lacking any historical consciousness of his Jewishness, lacking, too, the religious introspection with which Updike so richly endowed so many of his gentle characters. For Ozick, “Bech-as-Jew” was a failure, an “Appropriate Reference Machine,” in which Updike simply fleshed out Bech's Jewishness with little more than stereotypic words (shiksa, zaftig), or physical characteristics (dark curly hair, big nose).

While Updike doesn't go so far as fulfilling Ozick's wish (she hoped that we might next meet Bech working his way through Rashi's commentary and Graetz's multivolume history of the Jews), in “Bech in Czech,” the first story in Bech at Bay, he goes a long way toward answering her criticism. Visiting the cemetery where Kafka is buried in Prague, Bech is let in by two young workers who recognize him and are fans of his novels. When Bech points to Kafka's grave and says, “Very great Czech,” one of the two smiles and corrects him: “Not Czech. Zid. Jude.” The narrative continues: “It was a simple clarification, nothing unpleasant. ‘Like me,’ Bech said.” No, the other Czech admirer quickly reassures him in broken English, “You … wonderful.”

It is one thing to confront issues of Jewishness in a European context, another to deal with them in an American setting, and here—as elsewhere in these pages—Updike pulls his punches. There's a fraught moment in “Bech Noir” when Orlando Cohen, a noted Jewish American critic (who according to Bech “sucks up to WASPs” and whose name hints at the uneasy conjunction of Western culture and Jewishness), attacks Bech on the ground that “you were Jewish and tried to pretend you were American.” When Bech asks, “Can't you be both?” Cohen replies: “Bellow can, Salinger could, once, Mailer, alternately … never both at once. Malamud … I don't know.” Cohen is a familiar figure in 20th-century letters—the first-generation Jewish American critic who sees himself as the “ultimate adjudicator” of American literature and, by extension of what it means to be American. Updike is clearly on to something here, but having raised the issue of the cultural authority of these critics he backs away from questioning it, uneasy, perhaps, about probing too deeply into this taboo subject.

The best moments in the five stories in this “quasi-novel” are ones in which Updike chooses not to hold back. Too often a powerful sense of nostalgia (at times sincere, at times with a hint of irony) displaces confrontation, and Updike, all too gently, pulls up short (most disappointingly in “Bech Noir”). It's telling that when Updike writes elsewhere about Philip Roth's edgy alter ego, the writer Nathan Zuckerman, he concludes that “Zuckerman is definitely not a nice boy.” Updike's Bech is.

Reading Bech at Bay, watching the distance between character and creator gradually collapse, you get a sense that Updike has become a bit too fond of Bech: indeed, in the closing two stories he is finally rewarded with the personal and professional blessings that have long eluded him. Like the earlier Bech books, Bech at Bay also leaves the strong impression that Updike has written it for himself as much as for his readers. Updike hints at this in the epigraph he takes from Wallace Stevens's 1934 preface to William Carlos Williams's Collected Poems 1921-1931. “Something of the unreal is necessary to fecundate the real.” Stevens's sentence actually goes on to say that “something of the sentimental is necessary to fecundate the anti-poetic.” I take this opaque epigraph to mean that the sentimental, unreal universe of Bech is as vital to Updike's literary sensibility as the real, anti-poetic universe of Rabbit Angstrom. Without Bech there can be no Rabbit. I'm grateful for both.


Updike, John (Vol. 13)


Updike, John (Vol. 15)