I don’t like short sentences. Plain and informative. Ones that have to be straightforward, lest any reader get lost. The nature of my professional life means I am constantly directed to use simple English in easily digestible chunks. Apparently in writing, plain is beautiful. Long sentences and paragraphs don't hold people’s interest. Well, not always. Good writing can be complex, beautiful, long-winded, fluctuating, metaphor-drenched, meandering journeys of impressions.
Why I love John Updike
At home I want beautifully crafted sentences that shine. I don’t care if they are more than six words long. Not everything can be reduced to six words. Not everything needs to be. I think good writing is text that you can’t even conceive of putting to paper yourself. It is new territory. It is startling, shimmering combinations of sound, image and meaning that create indelible impressions. At its best, it is completely removed from the abundant received thought and phrasing we recycle in our daily discourse. It is perhaps this personal prejudice that inevitably led me to discovering the prolific works of Mr John Updike.
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Updike’s passing in 2009 brought me a far higher bout of melancholy and introspection than the much-lauded passings of Diana, Steve Irwin or the Moonwalker. He was 78 and, with no warning, his prolific pen was suddenly put down for good.
I first heard the name back in my college days in the late '80s. A period where I was preciously obsessing over the brief catalogue of JD Salinger and, in particular, his Franny and Zooey masterpiece. The only book in my life that made me stay in bed all day until it was finished.
In this period, whichever room a particular housemate landed in, (we were rotating each semester for equality) one of his anchors was three dog-eared novels, forever precariously balanced on his mantelpiece. I forget everything about the first two and the name of the third, but distinctly remember its spine and thinking that John Updike was a curious name, especially for an American writer. It was not for another 20 years that I would learn how the Dutch family ancestry intertwined to create his idiosyncratic title.
It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s that Updike came into my sphere again. I was devouring the quirky novels of Nicholson Baker and found out that he had written a book about his obsession with Updike. Baker delved deeply into prose that left him in awe. He highlighted Updike’s metaphors such as “the cool margins of the bed” (1 ) and “flowers…the first advertisements” (2). He was particular enamoured with a sentence Updike crafted on a sleeping character named Peggy, “Her shoes, lying beside her feet as if dislodged by a shift of momentum” (3).
My favourite bit was when Baker recalled seeing Updike on TV at his mother's house fi storm windows. "He tossed down to us some startlingly lucid felicity," said Baker, "something about 'these small yearly duties which blah blah blah,' and I was stunned to recognise that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder.” (4)
Before I completed Baker’s oblique homage entitled ‘U & I’, I thought I best check his subject out. Hence, I came to my opening literary meal from the Pennsylvanian master. And what a start… Couples. The 1968 novel that detailed the suburban lives of an educated American clique in a New England town.
There were so many partnerships introduced in the first few chapters that I paused and drew up a ‘couples character map’. Without it, I would have soon lost my way among the bed-hopping antics of the hard-drinking hedonists. This addition was ridiculed years later by a friend who borrowed the now-collapsing book, before a quick grasp of its necessity transformed her scorn to gratitude. When it returned, I noticed her librarian mother had kindly extended its life through a great repair job on the cover.
Within 50 pages of Couples, I knew I had made a great discovery. One of the moments when you know you have unearthed one of your personal diamonds from the world of the arts. It was one that would nourish my obsession for stories that were plausible and dealt with nothing more than lifting the lid on human behaviour. Crime, science fiction and fantasy leave me cold and despite the odd detour, the Updike catalogue has been a gloriously comprehensive essay on the fundamental things that we do. He is the master of putting suburbia under the microscope. All our joys and losses, fumblings and aspirations, quirks and weaknesses, and it’s all done with a painter’s touch.
John Updike writes magnificently. Even the most mundane activity gets expressed with dense, lyrical, poetic brilliance. Style triumphs, but the content does not lag behind. His sentences are a treat. I’ve not come across anyone who better maps out our stumbling, hazardous journey to maturity and our desperate attempts to foster happiness and bring meaning and significance to our lives. He scrutinises the zone where we are all hopeless addicts – relationships.
Updike locks a comprehensive focus on all our acting, role playing, chest beating, pining, tenderness, spite, guilt and passion. I am sure his arena is too confronting and too stark for some, especially those who don’t want the romantic veil lifted too high and those who would rather look anywhere than at themselves. Anyone seeking pure escapism in literature would probably jump ship very rapidly on reading the unflinching way he describes us all, mind, body and action.
I still have so much of his work to get through. I’ve barely scratched the surface with his short stories – the medium for which he is most praised. He is most well known for his ‘Rabbit’ collection of books, charting the life of a Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, from school basketball star to the grave. A gloriously ordinary character full of nobility and flaws, strong opinion and confusion, like we all are. Harry can be an oaf and yet touchingly tender. He gives into his impulses and sleeps with people he shouldn’t. He has fitness campaigns that fade and always ploughs into a second slice.
You cannot help but love Rabbit, for he is the everyman. The language and phrasing Updike uses to weave the fabric of his life linger long in the memory.
For me, it’s not so much the images Updike’s use of words creates in your mind, but more the sheer accuracy of his observations. In a YouTube interview I saw, he responds to criticism that he is overly stylistic by stating that he aims to “write with precision about what his mind’s eye conjures up”. A job he nails. Though the results can sometimes be searing - “Her thighs fill the front of her dress so that even standing up she has a lap” (5) - their essential frankness and truth echo strongly. They feel like an exoneration of Homo sapiens.
In ‘U & I’, Nicholson Baker’s wife dares label him as being obsessed with Updike, though he deflects with “For though I think about Updike a lot I seldom read him: surely a true obsessive would read all the available works” (6). If this holds up as a defence, you must forgive this long, fawning gush, for evidently I am as innocent as the man who penned the 179-page dedication that dwarfs this one.
I don’t think I have ever read better writing than the closing few pages of his memoir Self-Consciousness, a window in which he attempts to review his life and advancing years. One in which his wisdom, elegance and eloquence are free to soar…
“Also like my late Unitarian father-in-law am I now in my amazed, insistent appreciation of the physical world, of this planet with its scenery and weather – that pathetic discovery which the old make that every day and season has its beauty and its uses, that even a walk to the mailbox is a precious experience, that all species of tree and weed have their signature and style and the sky is a pageant of clouds.
Aging calls us outdoors, after the adult indoors of work and love-life and keeping stylish, into the lowly simplicities that we thought we had outgrown as children. We come again to love the plain world, its stone and wood, its air and water. “What a glorious view!” my father-in-law would announce as we smirked in the back seat of the car he was inattentively driving. But in truth all views have something glorious about them. The act of seeing is itself glorious, and of hearing, and feeling, and tasting. One of my dead golf partners, Ted Lucas, said once within my hearing to another dear departed fellow golfer, John Conley, “Life is bliss.” (7)
1-4& 6 Nicholson Baker, 1991, U&I, Granta Publications
5 John Updike, 1960, Rabbit Run, Penguin Books
7 John Updike 1989, Self-Consciousness, Random House