John Updike has died at seventy-six.
In the last decade or two, his work had increasingly grappled with issues of aging and death, so perhaps his actual death should come as no surprise. But somehow it does—as it may have to him, if a passage from one of his early stories, “Pigeon Feathers, ” is any guide:
The story is about a boy, David, who is forced to shoot some pigeons in a barn and then watches, fascinated, as their feathers float to the ground. “He was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.”
“Prolific” is a term often used to describe Updike. The man spewed forth words at an almost alarming clip, churning out approximately one book of fiction or short stories a year throughout his long literary life, not to mention a simultaneous outpouring of book reviews and other essays. It would be surprising if all of them were very good, and of course they’re not. But an astonishing number are.
Updike’s fictional oeuvre wasn’t really my cup of tea. The trials and adulterous liaisons of hard-drinking suburban men of the 1950s and 1960s, or the similar doings of former basketball stars in small-town Pennsylvania, aren’t my favored reading topics. But even though I’m not much of a novel-reader in general, I managed to voluntarily get through quite a sampler of Updike’s fictional output, mostly because of his amazing ability to write.
In this he reminds me of another (and less prolific) literary stylist of very different background and subject matter: Vladimir Nabokov. But where Updike celebrates the ordinary and accessible, Nabokov delves into the arcane and mysteriously complex. Where Updike is somewhat warm (although at times repellent), Nabokov is very cold (and at times repellent). But both are almost unsurpassed in their ability to string words together beautifully in what are often very long sentences that nevertheless retain their clarity of meaning.
These are virtuoso performances, meant to inspire awe. And they do. Updike also writes from a stance of awe (even religious awe; he was a very religious man) at the entire physical world and especially its amazing human denizens. And although he is often accused of being a misogynist because of the way he draws many of his female characters, I have always perceived a sort of grudging respect (and perhaps even awe) for women’s emotional depth and tenaciousness behind his portraits of a sex that always fascinated him.
My favorite works of Updike are his short stories and his personal essays. I happen to like the short story genre in general better than the novel, and in Updike’s case the shorter form focuses his mind and pen (or typewriter, or computer). Many of his short stories are far more openly biographical than his more wide-ranging novels; and this suits me, as well. I have always found truth stranger—and far more fascinating—than fiction, even if it is a shaped and slightly altered, more literary, truth.
You may laugh at the word “truth” in the context of fiction writing. But my sense of Updike is that in his writing he was almost ruthless with himself. The heroes fashioned in his image are often flawed men, bent on their own pleasure even at the expense of others, as they struggle with their competing desire to be decent and with their need to reconcile themselves with God. Nothing is simple; even Updike’s serially philandering husbands often experience a poignant and bitter regret when interacting with the divorced wives they left behind—and the regret is not only for the havoc they wreaked on the ex-spouse or the children, but that which they unwittingly inflicted on themselves.
One of my favorite Updike short stories is called “Guilt Gems.” It describes three incidents in the middle-aged male protagonist’s life that have left him with a terrible residue of guilt. These episodes are not what you might think; there is no sex involved, for instance. If I recall correctly (and forgive me if this in in error, because I am doing this from memory) they consist of the following: the narrator banishing the beloved family cat to the basement because he is allergic to it, and seeing the resultant stricken and angry look on his son’s face; the narrator allowing his elderly mother to drive home alone from the airport; and the narrator tagging out his daughter in a neighborhood baseball game.
The subject matter may sound trite, but in Updike’s hands it is not. Both in the descriptive and in the psychological sense, the writing is lusciously beautiful, as Updike’s writing nearly always is.
But perhaps my favorite Updike work is his “memoir,” entitled Self-Consciousness. Eschewing the conventional narrative trajectory of most autobiographies (as does Nabokov’s somewhat similar work, Speak, Memory), it deals with just a few aspects of Updike’s life.
Typically, two of them (his stuttering, his psoriasis) are previously hidden personal flaws that Updike chooses to expose and explore. If that sounds disgusting or vaguely Oprah-ish, Updike manages to avoid that trap. But best of all, the book contains the tour-de-force essay “On Being a Self Forever.” The subject is nothing less than individual human existence.
Now that Updike’s life is over, we will have no more yearly offerings from that singular voice. But the celebration of the ordinary by this extraordinary writer lives on.
[ADDENDUM: For other photos of Updike in varied stages of life, please see this.
The title of this post is a reference to the final book in Updike's famous "Rabbit" series, entitled Rabbit at Rest, in which hero Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom dies.]