Updike at Rest

Peter Wood

John Updike died yesterday.  He was 76 and passed away in a hospice in Danvers, Massachusetts, a victim of lung cancer.

At the end of Rabbit at Rest, the 1990 novel in which Updike says goodbye to his most famous protagonist, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom lies in a hospital bed drifting in and out of consciousness. His wife Janice visits, “blubberingly like a waterfall and talking about forgiveness. ‘I forgive you,’ she keeps saying while he can’t remember for what.”   

For what? It doesn’t much matter. Rabbit has often been an inattentive spectator on his life and he goes out as we all do leaving loose ends and things unsaid.   But John Updike leaves less unsaid than perhaps any other writer in our history. He was possessed of a near miraculous ability to capture all in one go the minutia of life in modern America, its ambiance, and its hidden existential voids. Some of his many novels are extravagantly humorous. The Coup (1978) pictures the fictional African state of Kush through the eyes of its crazed Americanized anti-American dictator, Colonel Ellelloû, who revels in the purity of rejection of the West while his subordinates are cutting deals with oil companies and McDonalds.   Many of his novels depict the consequences of the sexual revolution as it burns its way through the lives of men and women in the leafy American suburbs.   They seem none the happier for their serial adulteries, and Updike’s introduction of luxuriant descriptions of sex to mainstream literature seems always set against the sundial of mortality. 

The New York Times today rightly puts the story of Updike’s death on the front page, and the jump page offers an obituary by Christopher Lehman-Haupt in addition to the main story. They are rich with details of Updike’s prolific writing, but don’t spare him a final dose of political correctness. The Times, for example, dismisses as “a crude attack on feminists” Updike’s hilarious novel S. (1988) about a wife who, yearning to overcome the imaginary oppression of her marriage, absconds to the Southwest where she joins a cult run by a phony Indian guru. 

In December, in Extra-Curricular Updike, I pondered the difficulty of including Updike’s work in the college curriculum.   The problem is that his characters so often revel in moral abandon. In an age all too crudely absorbed with itself, Updike’s satires on our self-destructive appetites and angst-ridden eroticism seem less likely to register with students than what Updike called “the programmed delirium.”  

Updike’s death adds to the long list of outstanding writers that the Nobel committee declined to honor: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Ibsen, James, Conrad, Hardy, Proust, Kafka, Wharton, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Orwell, Nabokov, and Calvino, among others.   (The sour anti-American playwright Harold Pinter, who also recently died, took the Prize in 2005.) In October, Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize jury, publicly sneered at American literature:

“There is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world ... not the United States," he told the Associated Press. "The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature ...That ignorance is restraining.”

Engdahl’s lavish display of ignorance made news, and started a lot of people wondering who is more “parochial” than whom. 

Updike I suppose could superficially be called a parochial writer in that he never strayed for very long from the anthracite world of eastern Pennsylvania where he grew up or the seaside New England villages where he spent most of his adult life. He did offer his imaginary Kush, a retelling of Tristan and Isolde set in modern Brazil (1994), and a prequel to Hamlet, Gertrude and Claudius (2000). But the real test of whether an author is “parochial” ought to be the spaciousness of his themes. The Coup (1978) may be the first major novel to depict globalization in full flower; The Terrorist (2006) attempts to locate the appeal of radical Islam to a bi-cultural American born teenager.   Updike’s four Rabbit novels interweave the life of the former small town high school basketball star with the changes in the social macrocosm. Rabbit confronts the civil rights era, black radicalism, the sexual revolution, the counterculture, the Vietnam War, and much more. And he ends up, of course, running a Toyota dealership. Rabbit’s own views are limited but the horizons of the novels he inhabits are large.

Updike’s books set in small American towns are as full a depiction of American culture in the last half century as is ever likely to be written, and because American culture was, for better or worse, spilling out across the world during this era, Updike needs to be taken seriously as one of a handful of writers who captured the impulses and the distress that drove both its outward expansion and its avid appropriation of other cultures. This is one reason why the Nobel committee lost an important opportunity yesterday.

Another is that Updike was simply a splendid writer, nearly every paragraph illuminated by his deft metaphors. When Rabbit revisits the neighborhood he grew up in, every other house “holds the ghost of someone he once knew and who now is gone. Empty to him as seashells in a collector’s cabinet…”   All too often after a writer dies, we discover his books become like those houses, those empty seashells.   Death robs of us our sense of the living mind behind the page and takes the books forever out of our own moment.   But some writers—those who speak more deeply into who and what we are—are only mildly inconvenienced by their mortal end.   They pause briefly and then continue the conversation. Updike was one of those.

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