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Spotlight on: John Updike
It's safe to say that John Updike is one of my favorite authors. I've only been reading him for a few years now, but in that time he has impressed me with his amazing use of the English language. His work can be uneven, sometimes sacrificing plot and character in favor of this magnificent way with words, but reading him is always interesting.
I originally started with the Rabbit series (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich; Rabbit at Rest; and the novella "Rabbit Remembered" contained in Licks of Love) when I learned that Rabbit, Run was on a list of the 100 greatest novels of the twentieth century, and have been slowly working my way through his oeuvre. The next book I read was Too Far to Go: the Maples Stories, which I found to be as enjoyable in a smaller way, given that it is a series, too.
While reading Too Far to Go, I discovered that Updike was more well-known for his short stories than for his novels (even given that his novel The Witches of Eastwick was made into a movie). This made me more curious about his short stories and his writing in general. It's always a wonderful experience to find a new author and discover that there is a whole collection of works just waiting to be devoured. Below are some reviews of Updike books that I have found particularly noteworthy for one reason or another.
John Updike, Seek My Face
One problem I have with John Updike's novels is that I can't tell right away if I'm going to enjoy it. His phenomenal way with words sometimes hides the fact that he doesn't seem to always know where he's going with a story. I can be enjoying the language and not until the end do I realize that I didn't care a whit about the characters.
I thought Seek My Face was going to be one of those novels. From the beginning, Updike eschews plot in favor of description, which, if I'm not in the mindset for concentration, often enables my mind to wander until I realize as I'm turning the page that I have no idea what I just "read."
The story takes place in one day during an interview between a journalist named Kathryn and painter (and, more importantly to this book, painter's wife) Hope Chafetz. Kathryn is ostensibly writing an article on Hope's work, but the talk begins to steer to Hope's first husband, Zack McCoy (an unapologetically fictionalized Jackson Pollack, according to the acknowledgments page) and their relationship.
This is Updike's twentieth novel in a career of fifty books, and in that time an author becomes confident in his style. Enough so, apparently, to feel comfortable jettisoning what most people would consider to be the rules. As a part-time copy editor, there were entire passages that I would have cut out and Updike feels no compunctions about stopping a piece of dialogue mid-sentence to launch into a paragraph-long reminiscence. This is particularly upsetting at the beginning of Seek My Face, when a reader just getting into a new novel needs to be coddled a bit, led in gently to the narrative, held by the hand, so to speak. Updike, however, feels no such duty.
This is not to say that the book is not a great read. Once I got into his rhythms (and his books do often take that original effort), I was sped along by the flitting nature of the conversation. It feels almost voyeuristic to be let in on Hope's thoughts in this way. And, just in case she doesn't feel like telling Kathryn something private, Updike lets us in on it in the form of a memory, thus allowing us to experience this woman's life fully. Such a move requires an inordinately compelling character and Hope is such, as is Kathryn in her own way (we are allowed to a lesser extent into Kathryn's mind), a character that we want to know more about and therefore keep turning the pages.
Of the modern novelists I have read, Updike would be the only one whom I would trust with writing about art. He has published a book of art criticism (Just Looking: Essays on Art) and is well known for his vast knowledge of the subject. This is very important as Hope is not only an artist in her own right, but her life in some ways represents the entire period of post-WWII art's evolution. Husbands Zack and Guy were both artists and third husband Jerry was a gallery owner, so Hope has been in touch with every aspect of art throughout this period of her life and Updike is familiar enough with the history and language to let us know this in subtle, intriguing ways.
On the whole I found Seek My Face an immensely satisfying read. It suffers from what some have come to call "the New Yorker ending"--meaning that the story doesn't end but merely fades out. But how can you end the story of a life that doesn't end with a death. And it's really only one day in that continuing life. Interestingly enough, Updike chooses to end his story with a memory that precedes anything that came before it narratively, as I visualize cinematically a camera pulling out slowly to leave Hope to her discoveries.
Seek My Face is a moving portrait of a woman and her place in history (or lack of it) and an educational look into the history of recent art. It's also one of his better books (certainly better than The Centaur) and it makes me want to read another one soon.
John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick
Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie are three former wives living in the late sixties in a small Rhode Island town. They are also witches. For example, if Alexandra wants the beach to herself, a simple whipped-up thunderstorm does the trick nicely, and tennis games are made more challenging by balls that transform into frogs.
Having, with considerable overlap, worked their way sexually through all the eligible--and ineligible, which they actually prefer--men in the area, the three become very intrigued at the appearance of the man who just moved into the old Lenox mansion down the street: one Darryl Van Horne from Manhattan. (For the sake of clarity and titillation, this triple interest soon becomes a menage a quatre in Van Horne's humongous teak bathtub.)
A major subject in John Updike's novels is the fallout of sex (usually adultery) and how it causes friction in otherwise smooth relationships. The Witches of Eastwick is not far along before Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie are vying individually for further attention from Van Horne, to the detriment of their longterm friendship. And after a murder/suicide brings a fourth--and younger--female into the equation, tensions rise even further, especially when the new girl moves in with Van Horne.
Updike is not well-known for his sympathetic portrayals of women. His female characters are either jealous and vindictive, naive and unconditional, or are the sex objects causing those emotions in the other women. The three title characters are easily separable from one another--fully developed characters, even in short stories, are an Updike strong point--but they are scarily similar in their combined response to this conflict, using their magic for their own petty gain. To them, this girl, despite their initial instinct to mother her, is a pest equivalent to a squirrel filching from a bird feeder. As such, the reader has difficulty feeling any sympathy towards them, or towards their subsequent guilt. These are not nice women.
Updike's prose is masterful as usual. Never plot-heavy (or, some could say, even plot-oriented), his novels are most famous for their easy pacing and their tendencies to stop in the middle of a scene and lovingly describe thoughts or surroundings. A single exchange can take pages to complete, with lines of dialogue separated by entire paragraphs. If steady attention is not paid, it is easy to lose the point of a conversation. Fortunately, however, attention is rewarded with a deeper understanding of the characters and the sense that one could walk through one of his fictional towns and know the surroundings by sight.
In the end, The Witches of Eastwick is a good novel. It is not a great novel; it is not even a great witch novel. The research is, at best, minimal and often seems negligible. Nor does it compare favorably with the rest of the Updike canon, certainly not his tetralogy of everyman Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, whose libido gets him in enough trouble to fill four novels and a novella. The book is not a waste of time, as long as the reader appreciates the abovementioned prose and description style, I'm just not sure who the target audience is.
Certainly not fans of the movie, which took the basic shoestring plot of the novel and ran in a totally separate direction that focused on the supernatural elements (a look at the Stepford Wives remake cited its "Witches of Eastwick-style effects") and the actors' personalities, Jack Nicholson's especially. As any practitioners of the magickal arts could only be offended by Updike's portrayal of their beliefs, it seems to remain that the only people who would get satisfaction from The Witches of Eastwick are fans of the author, though even they may be turned off by the unconventional subject matter from an author whose characters usually remain rooted firmly in reality--however subjective that reality may be.
This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.
John Updike, Trust Me: Short Stories
With Trust Me, I used the stories as breaks between novels--otherwise they all tend to run together in my mind--and they are as consistently good as any others I've read. I find that Updike's use of language and his characterizations are perfect examples of the terrific state of literary fiction today. No one else seems to have the same effect on me that he does. It's a familiar, yet exciting sense of knowing who these people are that he is writing about--of identifying with them in strange yet comforting ways. And Trust Me is a perfect introduction to that world.
In his short stories, he generally writes about married people who are dissatisfied with their place in life and who look for mundane ways to make it better: money, adultery, social status. A good example is in "Getting into the Set" from Trust Me. Katie spends the majority of the her time trying to enter this seemingly "exclusive" clique in her new neighborhood. Her husband succeeds by playing football with the men and consequently injures himself. The act of bringing him home turns into a party which ruins the house, what with windows getting broken, cigarettes burning shelves, and muddy cleats tracking over the carpet. Updike describes all this with detachment, but it's minutiae lead the reader to believe that Katie is horrified when, in fact, she is blissful because she is now "in."
But the best story in the collection is by far "The Other Woman" where the protagonist uses his wife newly discovered affair with a friend as an excuse to leave her, but stays by and remains friends with the group until the other man's wife learns of the interlude. All the characters are full and, even though I couldn't relate to them, I enjoyed reading their little connivances and foibles.
Silly people, their silly problems, and their silly attempts to make things better somehow manage to make great reading. Perhaps because we all know (or are) these people. That is Updike's gift: taking daily life and finding the drama in it.
John Updike, Too Far to Go: The Maples Stories
So there I was, having just finished the latest of the Rabbit series, sad to be leaving a group of people with whom I had spent many entertaining hours, when I came upon this book in the store. Terrific, I thought, another series in which to immerse myself, even if for much less time. I was not disappointed. Too Far to Go: The Maples Stories is excellent.
In addition to the storytelling, it is interesting in that it gives one a picture of an John Updike as a writer in development. As with the Rabbit series, the writing improves with each story, as the writer matures over a period of years. (Updike is our premier prose stylist. The simple beauty of his words on the page is, admittedly, like admiring a painter for his brush strokes, but his ability in undeniable.)
In addition, as the stories progress, we learn more and more about the inner workings of a long-term marriage. One quote in particular holds resonance. Regarding marriage, he states that just because a marriage ends, it does not mean that it was a failure. I think this is a wonderfully optimistic way of looking at it, meaning that there is something we can learn from everything and the end of a marriage may be the necessary step towards more personal growth for both parties.
Also of interest: this contains "Gesturing," selected by Updike himself for inclusion in "The Best American Short Stories of the Century." I highly recommend this collection.
John Updike, The Centaur
This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.
I usually like John Updike. I think it would be safe to say that he is one of my favorite authors. He makes the adulterous proclivities of the middle-aged middle class into great reading. The Centaur is a perfect example of what sometimes happens when a writer strays from his niche.
An allegory, it concerns George Caldwell, a teacher, and his relationship with his son, Peter. The story parallels that of Chiron the centaur and Prometheus, the story of which is interlaced with that of Caldwell. It is a clever piece of writing--too clever, in fact to be readable--and while it is obvious that Updike has done his homework, The Centaur feels almost like a mythology textbook, and that takes away any enjoyment. Updike has written a novel with a good idea and left out any sense of story.
It is admirable and thorough, however. Every character has an alliterative counterpart, mirroring his or her place in the myth. Caldwell, as I said, is Chiron, and Peter, Prometheus. Others are Hummel the mechanic (Hephaestus), principal Zimmerman (Zeus), the hitchhiker (Hermes), and Pop Kramer (Kronos).
Now personally, I would think it a bad sign if, after reading my novel, my wife asked me to compile an index to keep all the characters straight. According to said index, this is what Mrs. Updike requested. Unfortunately, it doesn't really help. It's hard to get involved in a novel that requires you to refer to a list every other page in order to be sure who is dealing with whom. I found The Centaur to be an ordeal. From about page 20, I knew I was in for a struggle through the next 300, and I like Updike. The only audience that I can see for this book would be scholars of Greek mythology, and even they might have trouble with it.
(Email me and let me know what you think.)