The Comforts of Home

April 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

It is weird and disconcerting to see Louis Menand, my favorite critic and New Yorker writer, review the new biography of John Updike, my favorite novelist (and former New Yorker writer). It is like when your teacher runs into your mother at the grocery store. I’m not sure I want them in the same room. Or walking the same planet. I don’t want one using my trust in our reader-writer relationship to influence how I perceive the other.

Ah: but here we are. And somehow it feels a bit of a relief that Menand’s review does not contain much that I didn’t already know. If anything, it lacks the devilish connections that make his writing most enjoyable. Menand’s excitements have mainly lain in post-war, Cold War-themed arts and letters; he writes best on subjects where art bleeds into history and the worldwide political zeitgeist informs culture. Compared to these subjects, Updike has always felt to me safe, white, provincial, reliably consistent, and not very interested in trying to damage neighborhoods or becoming part of the social conversation.

Even as well as the Rabbit books work around real-life news events as centers of metaphor—the moon landing as extraorbital rocketing into unknown heights, the Lockerbie bombing in the same novel the lead character’s heart explodes—they have never felt, to me, as though they were trying to redigest the world we were living in and give us back something new to be angry about. They were a view through the eyes of an adult male American character whose early success had left him slanted, entitled, anxious, and quickening to outrun something catching up to him. Couples and Rabbit Redux say a lot about the sixties, but do not try to leave us with any impression about the moral ambiguities of the sixties. Updike’s near-caricature of Skeeter in Rabbit Redux is not a comment about black nationalism; it is an example of how the comfortable white middle-class fits a frighteningly exotic and challenging segment of the world (justifiably angry minorities) safely into a nook than can be reconciled with the rest of its easy assumptions.

Hermione Lee, who reviewed Begley’s book for The New York Review of Books, has a literary biographer’s pedigree (her subjects include Woolf, Cather, and Wharton). She picks up on Begley’s key observation in the first chapter, that Updike’s authenticity comes from writing about things comfortably close to home: his family, his schoolboy crushes, and Berks County, Pennsylvania.

And it is the ordinary, banal things that Updike tenderly cherished and made fresh on the page. As he said of himself, and as Begley rightly emphasizes, he is the artist of middleness, ordinariness, in-betweenness, who famously wanted “to give the mundane its beautiful due.” For over half a century—even though his own life moved far away from “middleness”—he transformed everyday America into lavishly eloquent and observant language. This—even more than his virtuoso writing about sex, his close readings of adultery and husbandly guilt, his tracking of American social politics, his philosophizing on time and the universe—is his great signature tune.

Menand’s, on the other hand, finds counter-examples to the claim that Updike hewed to the ordinary:

From early in his career, Updike was accused of being a naïve, plain-vanilla realist, uninterested in the formal experimentation that was going on in the literary world around him. But “The Poorhouse Fair” is a futurist novel; the protagonist in “The Centaur” is a schoolteacher with the head of a man and the body of a horse; “Rabbit, Run” was written in the historical present, which, in 1959, the year he finished the novel, had rarely been used in fiction. Symbolism, allegory, and myth run through all his novels, even “Couples,” a novel that looks like a soap opera (or a parody of a soap opera).

Updike’s ambitious autobiographical poem, “Midpoint,” experiments with verse form, mixed media, and typography. He wrote novels about supernatural beings; he invented stories about Africa and Brazil and sixteenth-century Denmark. He was never just a chronicler of suburban mores.

Not mentioned, but in the same category: witches (twice), science fiction, Islamic fundamentalism, the New York ab-ex art scene.

I have only just started Begley’s book. It won’t be a dense read, but I have decided to re-read the Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy simultaneously, to see if there is anything new from the Brewer universe that jumps out at me while the muse that inspired it lies close at hand. This feels like a project meant to be exacted carefully. I’ll be taking my time.


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