Jan 30th 2009

The Centre of the Universe: The passing of John Updike

by Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge and history lecturer at the University of Queensland

According to James Wolcott in last month's London Review of Books, Norman Mailer exerted telepathic powers over the future, while the Beats hot-wired 'the American psyche (at the risk of frying their own circuits). John Updike, on the other hand, 'wrote as if he were doing fine draftsmanship under a cone of light, honouring creation and the American plenty.' He was, to quote Gore Vidal, American literature's 'perennial apostle to the middlebrows', writing with a distinct suppleness and industry that won him a vast following.

Updike lacked the novelist's customary inner demons, the shadows of brooding angst that did infuriate some critics. And he was seemingly eternal, indestructible. He refused to go away, lingering, some argued, without just cause and claiming such awards as Britain's Bad Sex in Fiction Prize. Even keen followers of that fine wordsmith would admit that Updike could churn out a few howlers when writing about sex. Such was the enduring quality of that Great Male Narcissist, an honour he shared in part with that other great confessional figure Philip Roth.

Death did eventually claim Updike from the field of American letters - on Tuesday, aged 76, a victim of lung cancer. He leaves behind a prodigious output: over 60 books of novels, memoirs, poems, short stories and criticism, two which won him Pulitzers - Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest. Of his vast oeuvre, he is most remembered for his Rabbit quartet, starring ex-high school basketball figure and middleclass icon, Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom.

For Updike, the throbbing American suburb, those white-picket fenced enclaves of middle class tensions and sexual neuroses was what mattered. In this environment, Angstrom was the aspiring, somewhat bored king, that (in Updike's words) 'American citizen who shares the national passion for youth, freedom, and sex, the national openness and willingness to learn, the national habit of improvisation.'

The target of this habitual improvisation was Angstrom's wife, that medium of tedium who is forever facing the prospect of her husband's extra-marital proclivities. Such a figure is not enviable, even according to Updike, seen as defender of American plenty. As he would claim in an interview with the British Daily Telegraph in October last year, the central idea of Rabbit, Run is destructive: 'if everybody follows their dreams there'd be a lot of damage - damaged children and spouses, wrecked cars, and who knows what else.' When not warmed by the extra-marital bed, Angstrom was politically transforming, like much of Updike's America - initially, a follower of the Lyndon B. Johnson's Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, he veered right to become, in time, a 'Reagan Democrat.'

In documenting post-Depression America (Updike was born near the Pennsylvanian town of Reading in 1932), with its faults, and its incessant drive for status and wealth, criticisms were bound to be leveled at its chronicler. David Foster Wallace exclaimed that Updike's characters were egocentric beyond belief, having no passion but for themselves. 'Though usually family men,' wrote Wallace in 1997, 'they never really love anybody - and, though always heterosexual to the point of satyriasis, they especially don't love women.'

His politics did not appeal to the Liberal establishment. His burden as writer, as the British Guardian pointed out, was that of not being black, gay or Jewish. He backed the US military intervention in Vietnam, shunned the emerging body of gay literature, and was decidedly against government assistance for the arts. But some of his causes were popular - his belief in the sacred space provided by the printed word (as opposed to a digital future he found ghastly) was something he believed to the last. Booksellers were, for Updike, the last bastions of this ideal.

His eloquence on that score, as with much else, could never be doubted. The America he did so much to interpret will miss him. To the last, he remained true to those, in his own words, 'inner imperatives', that 'sense of yourself as the centre of the universe' with an inkling of not wanting to 'botch the assignment'. It is fair to say that, in the assignment of living the literary life, Updike proved a resounding success.


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