Wednesday, January 28, 2009
In Part III of our series, Boston-based writer Scott Votel remembers John Updike:
One gets the sense that Philip Roth is uniquely alone today. With the death of John Updike, Roth now exists as the sole student of a certain school of masculine fiction that produced Bellow, Cheever, Yates, Mailer, Kerouac, and Salinger. While Roth surpassed John Updike long ago as the inventor of necessary and ingenious fictions, Updike remains a vital figure in American literary history. For perhaps too many readers under the age of 40, John Updike was easily dismissible: a near unrepentant chauvinist, a "non-hawk" who supported the Vietnam War, a prolific chronicler of white middle-class suburbanites, a linguistic show-off. Despite his suspect ethos, Updike was, at the elemental level of the sentence, one of the best writers in English. His only real rival as a stylist was Nabokov.
Studiously reading his work, one is nagged with the idea that Updike had literally seen everything, remembering it all enough to pen volumes filled with dazzling descriptions and disquieting metaphors. There's the transcedently quiet moment between two strangers in "The Happiest I've Been." Updike describes their conversation by noting "the quick agreements, the slow nods, the weave of different memories; it was like one of those Panama baskets shaped underwater around a worthless stone." Or, there's the fire in "Wife-Wooing" (from the uniformly excellent Maple stories collected in Too Far to Go): "A green jet of flame spits out sideways from a pocket of resin in a log, crying, and the orange shadows on the ceiling sway with fresh life." Or, the cabbage from "Sublimating": "the pure sphericity, the shy cellar odor, the cannonball heft." These sentences, plucked quickly from a candidate pool of hundreds of other ravishers, are the foundation of a career that carefully examined the depths of suburban ennui. As a literature, we need these sentences not because they expose the internal collapses of a privileged class but because they show us what malleable toys we have in our collective dictionary.