John Updike on almost everything: Brilliant, but passion isn't there

Review Essays

October 28, 2007|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,[Special to The Sun]

Due Considerations

By John Updike

Knopf / 736 pages / $32

Some writers are acquired tastes - the literary versions of anchovies and smelly cheeses. Others are staples - the bread and milk of the literary larder.

John Updike is somehow both: so prolific as to be a staple, so frequently arcane as to be an acquired taste. His latest collection of essays and criticism, Due Considerations, is well over 700 pages and contains literary musings on everything but the kitchen sink (although the piece on the longevity of Coco Chanel or the one on coins vs. paper money might qualify as a metaphoric kitchen sink).

One either likes Updike or one doesn't. There's no, "Um, Updike - I'm just not sure" equivocating about the author of a gazillion stories, poems and non-fiction pieces and half a gazillion books. Updike's literary crest is synonymous with a certain style of 20th century, post-World War II, neo-suburban writing. He is Rabbit, he is Bech and he is also the heir apparent to Mencken and as such is often supercilious, frequently precious and occasionally brilliant. Which makes him daunting for reviewers. How to critique the erstwhile critic? Go at it, man! There's a little something for everyone in Due Considerations, which is "merely" a collection of the past eight years of Updike's work - ah, prolificity! A little something for everyone who is a man, a white man, a straight man and a man over the age of 50, preferably. If one is younger, female, gay or of color, well - not so much for you.

This may seem a quotidian and even querulous complaint about one of America's most lauded and industrious writers, but there it is. If one wants to go back in literary time, Updike's way-back machine awaits. Forgotten Edmund Wilson, have you? The poems of Karl Shapiro? Never heard of Wright Morris? Well - Updike will refresh or restore your memory. Twain and Hemingway, Thoreau and Hawthorne, Thornton Wilder and Max Beerbohm - yes! But should you want some insights in women writers who are not Pearl Buck or Eudora Welty (not that they are not magnificent, of course), or writers of color who are not Asian, you might look elsewhere. And Updike really does not get gay people. As he notes in a critique of the British gay writer and Booker Prize winner Allan Hollinghurst, "After a while you begin to long for the chirp and swing and civilizing animation of a female character." Well, actually, not if you are a gay man, you don't. But well put, well put.

So it's a quibble. A large quibble, but a quibble nonetheless. In the face of such a welter of essays and reviews, how can one not be left in awe? And here's the thing about Updike: It's all good. Updike can't write bad, it's just not in him, not that he's ever let an unpolished sentence leave his gaze, of that I'm certain.

I teach his 1960 short story "A&P" in my deconstructing-the-short-story class every semester. It's perfect. It would actually still be perfect if written exactly as it is, today. Time has not eroded its perfection. The essays, lectures, vignettes and book reviews in Due Considerations are all written with that same precision and attention to language and idiom and moment. The turn of phrase is deft, the thought process clear and achingly concise.

It's just that often Updike, despite his sureness of craft and clarity of subject, isn't all that interesting. The writing is robust, but almost never passionate. Only when Updike hates something really intensely does one see the blood beat behind his words. He's harder on the Americans than the foreigners (Hollinghurst being an exception). He's tough on himself vis-a-vis religion, in an early essay in the book, "The Future of Faith." But almost to a page, bloodlessness trumps emotion every time.

Save nostalgia: In these accomplished, erudite pieces there is always a yearning, most often for the 1950s when Updike was in his 20s, but also for a time before that, the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, when Fitzgerald and Hemingway were literary stars and their characters were writ larger than any life we can imagine onto the page today.

But aside from this recurrent ache, Updike's non-fiction prose is acutely clinical. Precision bests feeling every time, even when it seems so utterly necessary, as in his short piece on Sept. 11, or a remembrance of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. One feels for a pulse of pathos, but finds none.

Journalists are taught to keep ourselves out of the story. This almost never happens, of course, and it doesn't happen in Updike's essays and critiques, either. He's there - omnipresent, actually - but he's not really telling us anything except the facts.

And the facts are these: Updike knows more about literature than almost anyone breathing today, he can situate 30 books or authors in an essay and have them fit together like a Turkish puzzle box, he can spin a literary argument the way Scheherazade spun her 1001 tales. He's beyond knowledgeable - he makes Google look wanting.

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