Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Updike

I’m going to be brief as there are going to be a lot of people far more qualified than Slimbo to praise and dissect John Updike over the next spell of time. He's perhaps the easiest answer one can give when asked, “who is the greatest American writer of the 20th Century?” So now that he's passed at the untimely age of 76, let's get ready for the tidal wave.

For me, American suburbia can be a bewildering landscape of limitations and contradictions. It’s hard for me to write about it without levying judgments and slights. Yet Updike could eloquently portray suburban existence and use it to elegantly demonstrate our most primal aspects and our most complex dreams. I know you might be bombarded with similar Updike analysis, but there's Slimbo's two cents.

Anyway, here are two recommendations, one from The Master himself, another from an arguably demented admirer of the master. In the spirit of Slimbo’s Shelf, these are works which I’m thinking won’t get mentioned this week as Updikeapalooza gets underway.

Marry Me – Meet Sally, Richard, Jerry and Rita. Jerry's married to Rita and has an affair with Sally, who's married to Richard. Hilarity ensures! (not really). Only a book about infidelity from the 70’s can bring a line like this one from Jerry after Ruth tells him she too has been having an affair: “You did? Ruth, that’s wonderful!”

People slight this as a lesser work of Updike’s but I really took to it. Marriage is the anchor of the American Dream. Updike likes to see how elastic it is while digging into the real aspirations of his characters. These two couples seem to be suspended in a clueless cocoon, their bad behavior buoyed by their middle class comfort. Yet, perhaps because Updike portrays this story so lushly, I found myself feeling sympathetic to each.

U and I - Nicholson Baker likes Updike. No, I mean he really, really likes him. This is essentially a 180 page essay on just how enormous Updike is to Baker. But Baker doesn't make it simply a gush-piece. He circumnavigates a number of contemporary authors, his own works, and the writing life. Eventually all these topics course from some singular Updike vein in his consciousness. At times he seems a little unhinged but these times come off as humorous rather than creepy. This was a fun quick read. You don't even have to be an Updike expert - God knows Baker isn't. Early in the work, he rattles off the pillars of Updike's work and makes the astonishing admission of how few he's actually read.


  1. I just finished Baker's "Human Smoke," which is another hit and run discussion of a subject, although a convincing one about man's inhumanity to man, etc. "Updikeapalooza." Awesome. I remember how freaked out I was even as a child of the long passed sexual revolution to first read "Couples." He may have gotten two Time covers in his career, but Updike never got the Nobel, and I'm still pissed about that. Their committee better start opening its minds to Oates and Pynchon and (God help me) Roth.

  2. Our authors getting snubbed by Stockholm is just one of the many unfortunate after-effects of King George the 43rd.