If Saul Bellow was the Jewish immigrant who could easily suggest East Coast wealth, Updike was Waspish and lucky: a writer who from an early age managed to get a staff job at the New Yorker after studying at Harvard and Oxford. Like Bellow he is known for his prose - perhaps less ambitious in its sweep but more forensic in its analysis. This doesn't seem like an atypical Updike sentence: "her arms, pale against the plush, showed a pink shadowing of sunburn." ('Here Come the Maples') The play on the p and the doubling of sh on plush and shadowing make for a sonorous sentence with applied acuity. Updike turns mundane minutiae into ecstatic elaboration. No detail is too irrelevant, and alliteration and sibilance on hand to give literary significance to the unimportant as Updike reveals the most intimate of details. People have private lives on the East Coast and Updike is precise in their delineation, and they have sex lives too of course, and Updike isn't shy in exploring them as he offers the intricacies and intimacies of anal sex in Rabbit is Rich. Yet while Updike's world is often interested in the private it is finally familially so rather than personally, for all the sexual specifics. Whether in the Maples stories or the Rabbit books, Updike is good on family environments and marital states. In Witches of Eastwick, Updike offers an exchange between mother and daughter that captures the cross-generational familial world Updike often explores. Alexandra is off visiting her mum and they discuss Alexandra and her husband sending the kids to camp. "Roger adored it. He went last year and next year will qualify for white-watering and rock-climbing. He could get killed! Howie Junior is a little timid still - he needs to have his big brother there." In Rabbit, Run, the narrator says, "though the apartment is empty, it is yet so full of Janice he begins to tremble; the sight of that easy hair turned to face the television attacks his knees. Nelson's broken toys on the floor derange his head." Domesticity is rarely far away in Updike's work and in Paris Review the interviewer asks him "How does Mrs. Updike react to your work? Time quotes you as having said she never entirely approves of your novels."
Updike doesn't only do domestic he is always running the risk of having one in the wake of the books. Yet he is also the American writer most prepared to take drudgery and turn it into art, finding in the everyday the description that will give literary purpose to the detail many wouldn't even notice. "In the kitchen he discovers an odd oversight: the pork chops never taken from the pan, cold as death, riding congealed grease. He dumps them out in the paper bag under the sink and with a spatula scrapes crumbs of the stiff speckled fat after them." (Rabbit, Run) Updike is undeniably an example of great noticing, a writer on whom nothing is lost and everything describable. Even Updike's interviews come across as a version of his prose. Replying to a question in the Paris Review, Updike says, "My time at Harvard, once I got by the compression bends of the freshman year, was idyllic enough, and as they say, successful; but I felt toward those years, while they were happening, the resentment a caterpillar must feel while his somatic cells are shifting all around to make him a butterfly. I remember the glow of the Fogg Museum windows, and my wife-to-be pushing her singing bicycle through the snowy Yard, and the smell of wet old magazines that arose from the cellar of the Lampoon and hit your nostrils when you entered the narthex."
Updike isn't just answering the question, he is dramatising his reply, with the interviewer noting "Updike is a fluent talker, but obviously not a man who expects talk to bridge the distance between others and his inner life. Therefore, the final stage of this interview was his revision of the spoken comments to bring them into line with the style of his written answers. The result is a fabricated interviewin its modest way, a work of art, and thus appropriate to a man who believes that only art can track the nuances of experience." There is in the interviewer's remark an echo of Eudora Welty's claim that "...in New York you may have the greatest and most congenial friends, but it's extraordinary if you ever know anything about them except that little wedge of their life that you meet with the little wedge of your life." (Paris Review) Updike is the northern writer creating a space between what we know about him and what he wants us to know. Though a lot of Updike's work takes place in fictional Pennsylvanian towns, he seems as much upstate and beyond as out of state: a writer familiar with Massachusetts and Connecticut, and who lived for many years in Ipswich, Mass. Yet if we propose that geography is always at the service of the imagination in literature, so that even if Updike were to write about the Midwest or LA, we would nevertheless not be surprised to hear Updike claim that "the true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding." He might not have always lived in the city, but the city has always lived in him; evident in his close relationship for his entire adult life with the New Yorker magazine. He may insist that "when I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas." (Life) But can we believe him? Talking about acquiring a word processor in the essay collection Odd Jobs, Updike says "an element of technological suavity is introduced into one's hitherto clumsy literary labors, with their bleary carbons and slow-drying whiteout and anxious marginalia." Here is the central character looking into someone's coffin in Updike's first novel, The Poorhouse Fair. "From what Conner had seen in the coffin -- the ponderous balding head, the traces of Jewishness in the vital nostrils and the smile the embalmers had been unable to erase from the lips like the lips of a gash long healed, the faint eyebrows, the unctuously, painfully lowered lids -- Mendelssohn had in part thought of himself as God." We would struggle to put a Kansas twang into that elaborate sentence.
Yet if Updike will be remembered it will neither be for the polish of his prose nor for the urbane east coast writer he so obviously happened to be. It is as though there is the writer and then there are his characters, and his lesser-known figures are closer to Updike than his best-known ones. We might see three potential alter egos in Updike's work. Richard Maple from the Maple stories, Bech, from the Bech books, and Harry rabbit Angstrom from the Rabbit tetralogy. Maple is an upper middle-class East Coast Protestant much like Updike himself, while Bech, though Jewish, is a writer. Rabbit would seem the furthest away from Updike's sensibility: a person from working-class roots who struggles through the early years of his marriage in a small city in Pennsylvania and starts to make good as the times get better. This is a series of novels where social currents impact on a character's capacity to surf the times, with the Opec oil crisis not just a news report but impacting on a character's existence. While we might feel that Bech and Maple are ensconced in a social class that makes history happen to other people, in the Rabbit books it happens to Harry. Whether it is finding himself on the fringes of black politics in Rabbit Redux, or discovering that the price of oil is affecting his business in Rabbit is Rich, Updike shows he is one of the great chroniclers of post-war America.
Yet this doesn't reside in the most autobiographical works but the most socio-historical. What seems to work best for Updike is the affiliative rather than the personal. Too close to the material and it lacks consequence; too far away and it lacks plausibility. Few reckoned Updike managed to get into the head of his central character in The Terrorist; others might feel he rarely got out of his own writing books about infidelity in New England. Perhaps. What seems unequivocal is that the Rabbit books are the ones that have impacted on the culture just as they have absorbed it. On Updike's death, Julian Barnes wondered: I have only ever met one person - a distinguished arts journalist - who has read all Updike's 60-plus books; most of us, even long-term fans, probably score between 30 and 40. Should you choose one of those previously unopened? Or go for one you suspect you misread, or undervalued, at the time?" Barnes opted for the Rabbit books.
© Tony McKibbin