When the op-ed page of The New York Times ran John Updike’s “Requiem” this week, the poem from his forthcoming collection gave us a last glimpse of the insight into contemporary American life his writing has provided for the last fifty-odd years. In this case the topic was his own demise, and for once he misread the national zeitgeist. The poem imagines that his death won’t spark any widespread regret. “Instead a shrug and tearless eyes / Will greet my overdue demise,” Updike says. “The wide response will be, I know, / ‘I thought he died a while ago.’”
In the actual event, his death feels both sudden and, if not tragic (of all writers Updike gave the strongest impression of having led a happy life), then certainly momentous. As we dive toward what are likely to be the leanest years since the Great Depression that gripped the country when Updike was born, losing our most prominent writer seems a measure of the impoverishment we’re facing. It was reasonable to expect he’d be around to help sort through the rubble.
While it’s impossible to take in Updike’s accomplishments in a retrospective glance, one passage from a short story called “Problems,” which he published in the New Yorker in 1975, comes as close as anything I know to catching the spirit of his particular art. The story takes the form of a series of word problems of the sort you’d find in a middle-school math book. “During the night,” the first problem runs, “A, though sleeping with B, dreams of C. C stands at the furthest extremity or (if the image is considered two-dimensionally) the apogee of a curved driveway, perhaps a dream-refraction of the driveway of the house that had once been their shared home.” The vital feminine image of his former wife, the story goes on to say, arouses A. “He awakes troubled. The sleep of B beside him is not disturbed; she rests in the certainty that A loves her. Indeed, he has left C for her, to prove it.” And then comes the final beat, which hits with the forceful economy of a punch line. “Problem: Which has he more profoundly betrayed, B or C?”
In a single paragraph, this story lays out a schematic of Updike’s constant subject: the intricate geometry of our ordinary and often painful lives. He was, as Updike himself once said of novelist Henry Green, “a saint of the mundane, embracing it with all his being.”
The big subjects--sex, art, religion--were always in the background, and frequently took center stage, but Updike gauged their tectonic shifts in the tremors of everyday affairs. The characters in his fiction are as likely to be moved by the patterning of feathers on the wings of a dead pigeon as by the “exhilarating” typography of an edition of Kierkegaard. And it was hard to say which, in Updike’s hands, was more likely to lead to theological edification.
He also wrote books of art criticism, but his special gift was the ability to find the artistry in the forms of ordinary things. The Armory Show he covered in his early days at The New Yorker was the Third National Electrical Industries Show, rather than a descendent of the famous art exhibition of 1913. But that didn’t prevent him from describing a forerunner of the machines on display as if it were a Renaissance sculpture: “a sulphur ball mounted on an axle, turned by a crank, and excited by the friction of the hand, by which means electrical light first shone forth into an obfuscated world.”
The job in reporting on such apparently inconsequential subjects, he once said, was to “try to make a kind of poem out of what you’ve seen.” He followed the same lyrical imperative in describing a hardscrabble golf range or a used car lot. The account of Boston’s baseball field he published in the New Yorker in 1960 reads like a poem: “Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg.” And the best of his poems work with the same kind of concentrated precision. “That line is the horizon line,” he wrote in a poem called “Shipbored” in 1954, “The blue above it is divine, / The blue below it is marine. / Sometimes the blue below is green.”
But while Updike’s specialty was meticulous observation on a small scale, he was famous for producing it in fire-hose quantities. For The New Yorker alone he wrote more than 800 pieces in genres that ranged across fiction, poetry, reviews of various kinds and, early on, shorts for Talk of the Town. It may be that the voluminous productivity he combined with effortless proficiency worked to undermine his literary reputation, monumental as it is. For the Nobel committee as for the ordinary reader, perhaps it was just too easy to take for granted his enormous presence in the literary world. (Updike’s predecessor in this regard is less Henry Green than Arnold Bennett, the English writer who died the year before Updike was born and rivals him in range and prolificness.)
For all the ground his novels covered (the territory stretched from New England villages and Pennsylvania towns that resemble his boyhood home to such unlikely places as an imaginary African nation, a desert ashram, and a northeastern terrorist cell), his real bailiwick was language itself, and his legacy is his characteristic prose style. Any number of writers can hit the sweet spot on occasion, but few can land there as comfortably or consistently as Updike did. Without his ongoing example I wonder if the level of writing in this country will sag a little.
When I mentioned that concern in an e-mail this week to Ben Yagoda, who wrote about Updike’s prose in The Sound on the Page, he wasn’t worried. “Look at it this way,” he wrote back. “When Willie Mays or Michael Jordan stopped playing, or when Joe DiMaggio died, their excellence and their deeds remained as a model to anyone who picks up a bat and ball. Same with JU.” I suppose that’s especially true for writers, who perform their feints and nothing-but-net three pointers in print. In any case, the basketball analogy, in particular, is appropriate.
Reading Updike’s lambent prose as it appeared year after year, it was hard not to feel like the kid who winds up paired with Rabbit in the pick-up basketball game that opens Rabbit, Run. Rabbit, at 26, is both too big and too skillful to play comfortably with boys just learning the game, but he insinuates himself into their improvised match because he can’t pass up the opportunity to play, anymore than Updike, by his own admission, could pass up the opportunity to get himself into print. In the course of the lopsided contest, the boys on the other team drop into morose silence, resentful of the older man’s looming figure and the absolute ease with which he pulls off remarkable shots. Only his accidental teammate, the one most captivated by the craft of the game, “continued to watch him with disinterested admiration after the others grew sullen, and ... cheered him on with exclamations.” Now that Updike’s career is over, there’s really no better epitaph than those exclamations, which echo the ones we’ve uttered under our breath as sentence after sinewy sentence unfolded: “God. Great. Gee.”
Wes Davis, editor of the forthcoming Harvard University Press Anthology of Contemporary Irish Poetry, taught seminars on John Updike while an English professor at Yale.