John Updike: The Champion of the Mundane

John Updike is dead. This is not a new play by Tom Stoppard, or a clever twist on an old joke. It’s a sad fact: the most prolific American writer of the second half of the twentieth century passed away, aged 76, on Tuesday, January 27, 2009, from lung cancer.

Updike’s humbling career began in the 1950’s with The New Yorker. A quick search of his articles on their webpage returns a list of over 900 items. This is just an instance of the overwhelming rate of production that he was able to achieve on a regular basis over the past six decades. The colossal thousand-odd-page compilation of The Early Stories: 1953 – 1975, published in 2003, is but another.

Nevertheless, Updike’s extraordinary legacy in the world of letters is less closely related to the monumental size of his oeuvre than to the distinctive style of his prose. A passionate aesthete, Updike was not only a great observer of everyday life – he also was a meticulous artist who painstakingly sought to find the perfect equivalent in words for facts and feelings. His unmistakable delivery falls somewhere between forced and natural: too sensitive in its craftsmanship to be the former; too elaborate – too beautiful – to pass for spontaneous.

Life and literature were seldom far apart in Updike. Thus, in his intricately woven memoirs, Self-Consciousness (1989), he traces his lifelong obsession with the written word to a strong and recurrent stammer that affected his speech from early childhood, depriving him from the gift of eloquence. Like an exiled writer adopting a foreign language, Updike sought to upset the damage he caused on English with his elocutionary defects by taking special care of the words he put on paper. The embarrassment, the nakedness, he claims to have felt all his life when speaking in public are the extraordinary gains of the literary establishment and of every one of his readers.

Updike is likely to be remembered for his ‘Rabbit’ collection, a tetralogy written after the end of each of the first four decades of his active career. Through the eyes of Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, Updike provides a sublime portrayal of the tensions that shape the lives of the average small-town American man, elevating the status of the mundane to quasi-heroic proportions, while displaying an acute sensibility to discern the factors that influence the behavior of society in general. Rabbit Run (1960) and Rabbit Is Rich (1981) twice merited him the Pulitzer Prize.

However, his successes, both financial and artistic, went much farther than this. His collection of short stories, Olinger Stories (1963), loosely follows the development of a local child through self-contained and unrelated tales. In them, the internal struggles of a character in the making face the unsettling realities of an outside world that is neither tragic nor charitable. The result is a fascinating study of the quotidian, Updike’s own American pastoral, with the ups and downs that turn each of us into unsung heroes of life.

The Witches of Eastkick. Source: moviehole.com

Meanwhile, The Witches of Eastwick (1984) might be more readily associated with Cher and Jack Nicholson but both the original novel and the explorations into the sexual (mis)behaviour of suburban America are vintage Updike. As is the much earlier Couples (1968), which deals with the increasingly permissive sexual fantasies of a community of married friends amid the (sexual, social, political, you name it…) transformation of the 60’s. Along with these, The Coup (1978) counts among Updike’s most notable commercial accomplishments. In it, he penetrates the exotic arena of African politics with striking ease through the narration of the story of a fictional country, Kush, and its deposed ruler, Colonel Hakim Félix Ellelloû. Set apart by the beauty of its language, The Coup is an engaging account of the intimations of a philosophical man caught in the spider web of Cold War alliances, which manages to avoid the pitfalls of dilettantism and condescension through Updike’s masterful handling of the narrative devices at his disposal.

It is precisely through Updike’s sharp ability to identify and point out the intrinsic contradictions that govern human interaction and individual decision-making that he manages to charge the ordinary with the rich complexity necessary to make it the subject matter of his work. Nowhere does he do this more expertly, more consciously, than in his memoirs, where issues ranging from literary genres to race relations are entwined beyond discernment in the multifarious construction of his own persona. Shame and guilt are two constants imprinted in Updike’s character from an early age by the distinguishing markings of psoriasis. Recognizing himself to be ‘a radically defective person’, he developed ‘a certain idealization’ of the normal. For the rest of his life he would seek that normalcy above anything else: it was this quest that led him to marry at an early age; it too made him punish his skin periodically by basking in the sun until the time when his psoriasis would recoil or be disguised by his tan; similarly, he, like most other conventionalists of his time, harbored ‘absolutely no doubts about my country’s need, from time to time, to fight, and its right to call me to service.’ Except, he wasn’t drafted due to health considerations.

Naturally, the frustration of knowing himself not to be completely normal, no matter how hard he tried, became an equally constant recurrence that marred his very efforts not to stand out. Or at least this is what he wishes to make us believe in his sympathetic breakdown of his own history, itself influenced by ‘mottled memories’ of the past, and by a ‘selective recollection’ that deliberately unsettles the reader and places Self-Consciousness on a grey area between fiction and autobiography.

However distorted Updike’s recollection might be, we can be certain that he frequented the Caribbean on a yearly basis from 1960, when he first visited Anguilla, to 1974, when ‘at forty-two, I had worn out the sun.’ He devotes six full pages in Self-Consciousness to his time in ‘remote and seldom visited’ Anguilla, where he had planned to spend three months, but only stayed for five weeks. He rented Sir Emile Gumbs’ house in Sandy Ground and seems to have developed some kind of relationship with the Martineaus. But Updike had never before had any ‘dealings with blacks either as equals or as servants’ and, although elsewhere he describes Anguilla as ‘one of the most color-blind places left in an increasingly racist world’, it seems like he and his family were not comfortable being ‘unlikely white visitors on an almost entirely black, undeveloped island.’

His literary production in Anguilla was confined to the short stories ‘Home’, ‘Archangel’, ‘The Sea’s Green Sameness’ and ‘Pigeon Feathers’, which provided the name for a collection published in 1963. Further Caribbean escapades included visits to St. Thomas, Antigua, Aruba, Sint Maarten/St. Martin, St. Croix, Puerto Rico and Tortola, with the creation of trademark stories such as ‘At a Bar in Charlotte Amalie’ becoming fairly common. In 1968 Updike returned to Anguilla, after the turmoil of the previous year’s upheaval and amidst the relative calm provided by the British interim administration under Tony Lee. Updike had first been to Anguilla when it was still part of the West Indies Federation. Eight years later, the Federation no longer existed, and Anguilla had been hit successively by hurricane Donna, associated Statehood with St. Kitts and Nevis, and a revolution to reverse it. In an article entitled ‘Letter from Anguilla’, published in The New Yorker on June 22, 1968, he reports that ‘the homes destroyed by Donna have been replaced, but the telephone line has not been reactivated.’ He was referring to the line that until September 1960 provided the benefits of progress to fourteen users, mostly government officials.

Like so many visitors before and after him, Updike cherished Anguilla’s retrograde simplicity and unblemished natural state. He was delighted to experience ‘the aboriginal luxury of walking barefoot along miles of soft white coral sand and encountering no footprints but one’s own of the day before.’ However, his creative flow seems never to have been allowed to peak during his extended visits to the Caribbean. Perhaps he was right, after all, when he pointed out that writing ‘is a thoroughly shady affair.’

Shady or not, Updike’s prose stands out against the background of the literary production in the USA after WWII. It is quite possible that during his lifetime, he never achieved his ambition to be completely ‘normal’. After all, normality is not something obtained by trying. Ironically, after his death he will not get lost in the vast numbers of the average, either. His enduring appreciation of the ordinary led him in life to create its most compelling apology. Now that he is gone, the absence of his yearly output is certain to highlight the quality of his considerable production and to guarantee him a place high up in the cannon of Western literature. A place among the great ones.

 

 

 

ABRIDGED VERSION PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF THE DAILY HERALD, SINT MAARTEN, JANUARY 31, 2009.

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