Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Realist

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

I am a few days late in noting the passing of John Updike, but there is a good reason for it--as many have noted, it doesn't really seem possible that he's gone. As will be the case when Dylan passes into memory some day, it seemed that Updike--like the poor, with whom he had nothing else in common--would always be with us.

In recent years I have mostly encountered Updike through his New Yorker criticism, which always seemed very much at home in that urbane and perspicuous publication; his fiction, I confess, I generally found to be pleasant, but in a vague and uncompelling sort of way (he wrote prolifically, and I also confess I haven't read more than a small fraction of his output). He wasn't to my preferred literary taste, but that probably reflects more on my not unlimited reading range than upon his worth.

Frankly, I have trouble enjoying and really being moved by contemporary American realism, which for me is typified by Updike, Cheever, and to a lesser degree Raymond Carver. Its very ordinariness feels journalistic to me; in prose fiction I have always been drawn more to fabulism, broadly considered, than realism.

To my mind the prose writer's eye cannot merely be a contemporary camera; it must imbue its subject with an illuminating oddity, whether owing to temperamental exoticism (Hawthorne), metaphysical depth (Melville), a deranged but transfiguring style (Faulkner), an exquisite taste for absurdity (Nathanael West), a specific and powerful point of view (Flannery O'Connor), or sheer exuberance that carries all before it (Bellow and Roth).

To me Updike was none of these things. In the stories and novels upon which his reputation will rest, he casts a finely perceptive and appreciative eye upon the rituals of suburbia and American culture. Many have cited, with either admiration or contempt, his prettifying prose, and indeed, he could make a trip to Wal-Mart sound eternally glorious. But there seemed to be something facile and glib in this project.

I do not mean to speak ill of the dead, or to pick a fight with anyone who deeply loves his work. Again, my preferences have as much to do with my own particular needs in literature than with any serious foray into literary criticism. But Kafka wrote somewhere that literature must crack up the frozen sea within us; Updike's work felt less like an axe than like a massage. Some people love massages; I don't. (Axes I love only in a literary sort of way).


Anonymous said...

Alas, Updike didn't 'crack my frozen sea' either..haha. I haven't read him; and even less inclined to now, after what you said about his massages.

Literature like axes? I prefer mine to be like a relentless torture chamber that scars for life! -- To be cut, whipped, hung, strangled, chewed, drowned, sliced, burnt, shot...and then revived! Yes, torture - only in the literary sense of course.

Anonymous said...

How to respond after that comment above?! Whipped, hung, strangled etc. Is this an S&M convention? Sorry, but any comment such as "I really enjoyed this post" will seem incredibly tame. But this does make me want to read at least one of his novels so that I can make an informed opinion. I'll have a look out for his criticism too. Thanks.