Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Updike



I bought the Rabbit Angstrom a few years back but still haven't gotten around to reading it.  I have mixed feelings about Updike after reading In the Beauty of the Lilies and Gertrude and Claudius.  I liked his prequel to Hamlet better.  Rich in language and story telling, it was what enticed me to buy Rabbit omnibus, which he is best known for.

Adam Begley is the latest to tackle Updike.  There are few writers who have left such an indelible print on American literature, but reviews have been mixed.  Harold Bloom called him "a minor writer with a major style," and other critics have bemoaned Updike's obsession with sex and its consequences.   Begley apparently steers away from literary criticism and focuses on the writer himself, giving us a lavish biography replete with many anecdotes like a dinner conversation with Philip Roth that went sour over the Vietnam War.

Updike tended to shun politics but found himself a tool of the US State department, which sent him off on a 6-week tour of the USSR to promote American culture in 1964.  Johnson also had a soft spot for Updike, inviting him to the White House in 1965.  Mary Updike dragged him along on a March on Boston, where Martin Luther King, Jr. made a speech later that year.  Like it or not, Updike soon found himself part of the events swirling around him, and became a target for critics who felt his books didn't reflect these events in any meaningful way.

According to Begley, Updike was most at home when he was writing about himself.  His books appeared to be more about technique than substance, which I guess was what infuriated critics who were expecting something more from American literature.  But, in an odd way Updike probably best summed up the contemporary American experience with his narcissistic characters who often seemed oblivious to the world around them until it was too late.

That isn't to say that Updike didn't delve into politics.  Christopher Hitchens offers this review of Terrorist (2006), with references back to the earlier The Coup (1978).  Hitch was none too pleased with the later effort, hurling the book across the room at one point.  He was disgusted with the numerous cliches and wrong notes that in his mind made this book a real clunker.  It seems that Updike never escaped his Puritan roots, struggling desperately to make sense of an alien culture.

However, Updike has a rich bibliography that amply overcomes such misguided efforts.  He ended with a return to Eastwick in a much better praised novel that seemed the appropriate note on which to sign off.


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