Commentary Magazine

John Updike: Promises, Promises

In her memoir, A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton speaks of the advantages of not being considered promising. It was better, she thought, at least in her own case, “to fight my way to expression through a thick fog of indifference.” Fighting his way through “a thick fog of indifference” has not quite been John Updike’s problem in his career as a novelist. From his earliest novels Updike has had powerhouse critics behind him, among them Mary McCarthy, Arthur Mizener, Stanley Edgar Hyman, lauding him, cheering him on, acclaiming his promise.

Edith Wharton also speaks in her memoir of the disadvantages of being regarded as too promising, saying of those so considered that in middle age they often “sat in ineffectual ecstasy before the blank page or the empty canvas.” This, as we know, has scarcely been John Updike’s problem either, for now, twenty-four years after the publication of his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, he has published fully twenty-five more books. Yet in a curious way, just as John Updike remains boyish in personal appearance and manner, his reputation has remained oddly boyish, too; now at fifty years old he still seems to be considered promising.

There are two jokes about John Updike. One is that he is an underacheever. The other is that he is an overacheever. The confusion between Updike and John Cheever stems of course from the fact that both have been writers long associated with the New Yorker and both have written extensively about suburban upper-middle-class life. But the confusion cannot be real to anyone who has read the two of them. Updike, for one thing, has taken up many subjects aside from the suburban one; for another, he has been by far the more productive writer; and for a third, he has been the more determinedly literary, in the sense of having read widely in the work of his contemporaries and taken a serious interest in the more sheerly aesthetic aspects of prose fiction. If ambition, productivity, and absorption in the ideas of one’s day are to be counted, then John Updike is an overacheever.

But if we are to judge by greatness of theme, or seriousness of purpose, or largeness of spirit, is John Updike still an overacheever, or is he an underacheever or perhaps something else altogether? I fell away from John Updike’s fiction with Rabbit Redux (1971), the second of what is now a trilogy of novels about the character Harry Angstrom. Until then Updike was a novelist I had read without particularly esteeming. He was—and remains—so obviously, so ardently, so determinedly a stylist. He was also so clearly the coming man, so full of a promise that never quite seemed to come to fulfillment. Rabbit Run, for example, the first of the three Harry Angstrom books, was a novel with an interesting idea at its center, that of a young man whose greatest glory (as a high-school athlete) is behind him at eighteen, yet the book grew diffuse, chaotic, and finally failed in a wash of violence at its close. The Centaur, Updike’s attempt to stretch a contemporary novel upon a classical myth, à la James Joyce, seemed to me misfired, a bad idea taken all the way out. Of the Farm, a novel about a young man torn between the rivalrous claims of his wife and mother, was interesting but small. Between these novels Updike turned out an impressive flow of short stories, literary criticism, light verse. He became a large-public writer, in Wyndham Lewis’s phrase, with the publication of Couples, a novel about sexual customs in the suburbs. As I recall, I did not quite finish reading Couples. It wasn’t the sex that put me off—it was the conversation afterward.

Except for a hundred or so pages of Rabbit Redux, which I put down as improbable in its violence, I pretty much stopped reading the novels of John Updike. Promises, promises, of Updikean promises I had had, for the present, enough. Still, quite without my readership, John Updike’s reputation continued to grow. When Rabbit Is Rich (1981) won the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle prize, and the Pulitzer Prize, the last named, in its citation, praised the novel as “a fulfillment of Updike’s fabulous promise.” Time put Updike on the cover of its issue of October 18, 1982, and inside ran a story about him entitled “Perennial Promises Kept.” Had I decamped too soon?

“Updike,” Time noted, “is ubiquitous.” And so of late he has seemed. His books fill the mass paperback racks. A new book, Bech Is Back,1 is out, in which the hero, a Jewish writer named Henry Bech, has finally written his “long-awaited” novel. No one has ever had to wait very long for a John Updike novel. Yet it is a bit unclear if anyone, apart from his publishers, is waiting at all. Perhaps it is owing to his high, his almost excessive, productivity which eliminates the pleasure of awaiting a fresh Updike work, but I do not get the sense that people love John Updike’s work or that they bring certain hopeful expectations to it, as readers still do to the novels of, say, Saul Bellow or V. S. Naipaul—some hope that they will come away with fresh knowledge of the world or insight into themselves. Even John Updike seems to be a bit bored by the phenomenon of John Updike. “In novel after novel,” he recently told a New York Times reporter, “the amorous get together, there’s the romantic failure, the economic struggle—God, we’ve all done it so many times.”



Bored Updike may have grown, but fatigued never. Since I ceased to read him he had, it seems, written five novels—not to mention books of stories. I decided to pick him up with a novel of 1976 entitled Marry Me. This is a book in which Updike takes up his old suburban subject, which I understand to be yearning among the upper-middle class. In Marry Me, Jerry Conant, a commercial artist and a married man with three young children, has an affair with and struggles over the question of whether to marry a woman, also married with three young children, who is part of his and his wife’s social circle. Such drama as the novel has is about his waverings, his tugs of conscience. Much domestic detail is presented: many bedsheets are rumpled, a good deal of bread is toasted and buttered.

So is a good deal of the prose toasted and buttered. The hero of Marry Me cannot even urinate without Updike describing “his diminishing arc of relief.” Updike simply cannot pass up any opportunity to tap dance in prose. Toward the novel’s close, as it shambles to its denouement, one must still clamber over—as an adoring reviewer put it in the Boston Globe—“the famous style.” Thus, debarking from a plane in France, the novel’s hero Updikistically notes: “The air was soft, clean, and somehow fractionated, Cubistically portioned and dislocated by the diagonal rays of a tepid sun.” In Updike there is always time to type out a bit of tapestry.

Style is worth dwelling on a moment longer, for John Updike is perhaps above all considered a stylist, the primo don of contemporary American prose. “I notice as I write,” he has said, “it comes out as sort of Updike prose. . . . It’s always mine, and there’s no way I can seem to get around it. Isn’t it funny you only have one voice?” With that style Updike can make elaborate metaphors, strike resounding rhythms—“Skating, Ruth flew and, flying, she was free”—and chisel small but interesting observations, such as this upon a minor character in Marry Me: “His anxious face had forgotten the attempted suavity of its blurry little mustache.”

Can one write too well? I shouldn’t have thought so, and yet style, understood as sheer prettiness of phrasing, can cover up the absence of having anything very pressing to say—or even anything to say at all. With Updike it appears to be the case that the less he has to say the more he turns on the style—charm being intended to substitute for substance. Unfortunately, it is usually not an adequate substitute.

Finally nothing more improves style than actually having something to say, but in Marry Me it is far from clear that Updike has anything at all to say. Jerry Conant, the hero, is a great ditherer, but then, in working out this novel’s plot, so is its author. “Plot has always been a great worry to me,” Updike told an audience at Skid-more College, “because I don’t think that life falls into plots, it does not end quite the way books do.” Maybe, and maybe not. But then neither does life fall into such old-style ladies’-magazine dialogue (“ ‘But love must become fruitful, or it loses itself,’ ”), such sententious observations (“Ruth disliked, religiously, the satisfaction he took in being divided, confirming thereby the split between body and soul that alone can save men from extinction”), such hilariously unintentional comic lines (“ ‘I’m a Judaeo-Christian, just like you are,’ Ruth said”) as this extraordinarily flat novel provides. Of moral conflict there is none, of interesting characters there are none, of acute observations there are none. There is only prose, working on nothing, exhibiting itself, as if to say: “Look Ma, no thoughts.”



Why would a novelist write such a book? Perhaps because he had had an experience—Updike some years ago did go through a divorce—and felt, as contemporary novelists tend to do, that no experience, God for-fend, should be wasted. This same explanation might do for John Updike’s next novel, The Coup (1978). Updike was a Fulbright Fellow in Africa, and it must have seemed a shame to him not to attempt to turn the experience into literature. The Coup is set in an imaginary African nation called Kush, ruled by a Marxistical Islamic leader named Colonel Hakim Félix Ellelloû, a man who has four wives, goes about the streets of his country in disguise, and was educated in the United States. Do I give away the tone and tenor of The Coup if I note that Colonel Ellelloû attended McCarthy College in Franchise, Wisconsin?

It is not quite so simple as that, though very nearly so. The Coup is intended, I suspect, as a satire, of the a-plague-on-both-your-condominiums sort, with plenty of contumely to go round for both East and West as they meddle in and destroy the cultures of the Third World. I say “I suspect” because it isn’t always clear quite what Updike intends. Not only does he lash out more savagely at the West—which, naturally enough, he knows better than he does the East—but his prose once more gets in the way. Colonel Ellelloû, through whom much of the story is told, sounds curiously like a recent Time cover subject—and I don’t mean Yasir Arafat. Be they African leaders or Toyota dealers, John Updike heroes all sound very Updikean (“Isn’t it funny you only have one voice?”), and Updikean, ventriloquated through Colonel Ellelloû, sounds like this: “I even knew how she would make love: with abashed aggression, tense in her alleged equality of body, primed like a jammed bazooka on the pornographic plastic fetishes and sexual cookbooks of her white tribe and yet, when all cultural discounts are entered, with something of graciousness, of helpless feeling, of an authentic twist at the end. . . .”



It is no accident (as the old Marxist polemicists used to say) that this quotation happens to concern sex. Sex has come more and more to fill the pages of John Updike’s novels. It is rather surprising, really, that the feminist thought-control police haven’t paid these books a visit. When they do so they will find that the women in an Updike novel turn out to be most notable for their legs, breasts, lips, and—as our tender-hearted author himself might put it, in one of his soggier metaphors—damp shady places. In The Coup, for example, Colonel Ellelloû is given four wives chiefly because, as near as I can make out, this allows Updike to illustrate four styles of fornication.

What is all the sex doing in John Updike’s novels? Is it screwing merely? I would say that it is screwing mostly but not merely. Without its descriptions of sex a novel like The Coup, thin enough as it is, would scarcely exist. Although Updike has read a bit of West African history and looked into the Koran and even been to Africa, none of this seems to go very far in moving his novel along. Satire doesn’t take him much farther: “ ‘America is downright loveable,’ ” an American diplomat in the novel says, “ ‘America loves all peoples and wants them to be happy, because America loves happiness.’ ” Heavy thinking—“It may be, Ellelloû reflected . . . that in the attenuation, desiccation, and death of religions the world over, a new religion is being formed in the hearts of men . . . a religion whose antipodes are motion and stasis . . . whose ultimate purpose is entropy”—no, heavy thinking isn’t much help either. That would appear to leave only overwriting and sex, and overwriting about sex.

Is it permitted to complain about sex in novels as late as 1983? One would have thought all this was settled decades ago. In “On the Treatment of Sexual Detail in Literature,” an essay of 1912, the English philosopher F. H. Bradley allowed that stunted natures, to whom it is not given “to take and enjoy art and literature for what they really are,” might be wrongly stimulated by sexual description in books and paintings. But, Bradley concluded with great passion, “What is not tolerable is that stunted natures set up their defects as a standard. It is an outrage, it is sheer blasphemy, when they bring the divine creations of literature and art to the touchstone of their own impotence, their own animalism, and their own immorality.” Bradley later had second thoughts and, in a note appended to his essay, he wrote: “And it must be admitted against the novel that, retaining to a greater or lesser extent the aspect of a tale of adventure, it, to speak in general, is prone to exalt the adventurous aspect of sexual love, which is not really the aspect which in life possesses most moral importance.” Still, Bradley’s general point stands: literature must not be restricted in its freedom because of the effect this freedom might have on brutish readers.



F. H. Bradley acknowledged that sexual detail “may tend to exalt one-sidely one side of human nature, and possibly depress others.” But what he overlooked is what the freedom to write about sex in detail might do to novels and novelists. Aesthetically it has had, I think it fair to say, a generally poor effect on the novel. Among other things, it allows writers, whenever they feel their plots slowing down, to drop their characters into bed. For many contemporary novelists these bedtime moments are the great moments in their books. William Gass, in On Being Blue, remarks that as readers we want “the penetration of privacy. We want to see under the skirt. . . .” Is this so? Difficult to say, but what is not difficult to say, what Gass in fact says in his essay, is that “writers remain unduly responsive to it.”

Some writers more than others; but enough, I think, to formulate one of those grand dichotomies, like Philip Rahv’s division of American writers into Palefaces and Redskins. Today, I believe, the real division is between novelists who are grownups and novelists who despite chronological age have managed to remain boys and girls. The way you can tell the boys and girls is in their interest in purveying sex in the greatest possible detail. Not that grownup novelists are uninterested in sexual relations—Isaac Bashevis Singer, a grownup, has said that he considers nothing quite so interesting to him as a novelist—but rather that they view the actual details as a private matter. Boy and girl novelists, by contrast, are always lifting skirts, dropping trousers, adjusting ropes and pulleys, hooking up dry-cell batteries, bringing in zebras, passing out towels, what have you.

By this standard Norman Mailer is an excellent boy novelist, and so is Philip Roth; Erica Jong and Francine du Plessix Gray are two good girl novelists; one could make a lengthy list of others. The chief way you can tell the boys and girls from the grownups is that in the novels of the former, sex—plain and fancy fornication—is not merely an ornament but absolutely crucial. Without the heavy dosage of sexual detail, their novels wouldn’t quite exist.

John Updike is certainly a boy novelist in the sense that many of his novels are unthinkable without their elaborate sexual detail, but he is a boy novelist in other senses, too. In The Coup, Colonel Ellelloû, recalling his education in America, notes: “I perceived that a man, in America, is a failed boy.” If there is a preponderant emotion running through Updike’s novels it is that of boyish yearning, or more precisely the yearning once more to be a boy. In Rabbit Is Rich, Harry Angstrom, at his son’s wedding, thinks: “Life, just as we first thought, is playing grownup.” But the playing, the pretense, is thin, and in John Updike novels men do tend to be boys. Other boys seem either not to notice or to mind; in fact, they greatly approve. The boys who do the book-reviewing in this country widely, even wildly, praised Rabbit Is Rich, the third of Updike’s novels about Harry Angstrom, the book that won the Pulitzer and other prizes.



Rabbit Is Rich might as easily have been entitled Rabbit Is Babbitt (X-rated). In the novel Harry Angstrom, now in his late forties, runs his deceased father-in-law’s Toyota agency in the town of Brewer, Pennsylvania. He has been married to Janice Springer now for twenty-three years; they live in his mother-in-law’s house; their only son, Nelson, is a student at Kent State. Harry is a careful reader of Consumer Reports. He has a 42″ waist and is a Rotarian. He is financially well-off; in a middle-aged sort of way, relatively content. The novel is set in 1979: the gas shortages have begun in earnest, American hostages are locked away in Iran. Through the 400-odd pages of the novel Rabbit ruminates on the decline of America, on the bittersweet goodness of the old days, but mainly on—in the old locker-room phrase—getting laid. “The trouble with you, champ,” says one of Rabbit’s car salesmen, “is you have screwing on the brain.”

Even though the lengthiest of Updike’s recent books, Rabbit Is Rich is easily the most readable. The reason, I suspect, is that in Harry Angstrom Updike is in real touch with his subject. He isn’t in complete touch with it: Rabbit’s days at the Toyota agency aren’t very convincing in their detail, but then it is difficult to recall an American novelist who has been convincing on the work his characters do since Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. Still, the yearning that Rabbit feels as he drives through the town in which he grew up, noting changes and desecrations, calling up boyhood memories, can be very moving. So, too, are the sad exchanges between Rabbit and his hopeless son, and the desolation Rabbit feels at being unable to find any meaning in life. All sorts of interesting bits, lovely touches, aptly captured minor characters—a hip clergyman, a sleek home-improvements salesman, Rabbit’s sour mother-in-law—are in Rabbit Is Rich. Somehow, one feels, this ought to be a better book than it is.

John Updike knows all about Harry Angstrom, even down to his teeth, which now, in middle age, are jacketed in gold inlays. But it is hard to believe that Updike finally cares for Rabbit, just as it is hard to believe that he cares very much about the decline of American power that he continually alludes to in this novel. They seem merely things to write about. Why, for example, does he deal so perversely with Rabbit, who he more than once hints might be homosexual? (“ ‘I think he’s queer,’ ” his son Nelson says, and in Rabbit’s sex fantasies, Updike writes, “The woman’s sensations seem nearer to him than the man’s”). Why does he make Rabbit so irreducibly sexual a being, whose every thought, every action, every motive begins and ends in sex? “The aim of my fiction,” John Updike has said, is to “let literature concern itself, as the Gospels do, with the inner life of hidden man.” But the inner life, in Updike’s fiction, seems increasingly to be located in the scrotum.



In Updike’s most recent novel, Bech Is Back, sex looms less large, and this for a not very complicated reason: it is about a writer, and the writing life is something that John Updike knows well, better even then he knows the life of Harry Angstrom. The writer as a public figure, as celebrity and grist for academic mills, is in fact the subject of two brief Updike novels, written more than a decade apart. Both are about Henry Bech, a blocked New York Jewish writer whose reputation has continued to rise even as his literary output has remained exactly the same.

Reading Bech: A Book (1970) and Bech Is Back (1982) one after the other, one senses something interesting at work. When Bech: A Book was published, American Jewish novelists were riding high; Jewish and novelist seemed almost linked words; and consequently there was more than a touch of acid in Updike’s portrait of Henry Bech, who seemed a character created out of the idiosyncrasies of a number of Jewish novelists. Bech: A Book was an extended parody, but from time to time an edge of real nastiness cut through, as when an aristocratic English woman says to Bech, “ ‘You American Jews are so romantic. . . . I hate the “pity me” in all your books’ ”; or when, mocking Bech’s sterility as a writer (as opposed to his own fecundity?), Updike refers to those honorable literary failures who “rather endear a writer to the race of critics, who would rather be reassured of art’s noble difficulty than cope with a potent creative verve.” Much mockery of the New York intellectual milieu was tossed in—Bech wrote for COMMENTARY, which “let him use a desk”—and another character refers to the New York intellectuals’ “heady mixture of art for art’s sake and Depression funk.”

In Bech Is Back, though, the abscess of nastiness has largely drained. As the novel begins, thirteen years have passed, and Bech has maintained his silence; indeed he has won the Melville Medal “awarded every five years to that American author who has maintained the most meaningful silence.” In the seven loosely joined stories that comprise Bech Is Back, Henry Bech marries, is goaded by his Gentile and suburban wife into writing Think Big, a sloppy blockbuster bestseller, and loses such privacy as he had remaining to him. Jabs are made from time to time at critics and reviewers (and, obligatorily, at COMMENTARY). Some of the bits are finely done. Updike is very funny on the changing of the guard in American publishing, where old-style line editors have been replaced by new-style marketing impresarios. Many a nice throwaway line pops up: Bech “had the true New Yorker’s secret belief that people being anywhere else had to be, in some sense, kidding.”



But something rather more interesting has happened between Bech: A Book and Bech Is Back, and this is that Updike has gone from mockery of Henry Bech to affection for him. In the process Bech, one of America’s leading Jewish novelists, has come to seem decidedly less Jewish, and more a member of another minority group: writers on whom society makes endless demands. “The writer’s duty to society, Bech had said, was simply to tell the truth, however strange, small, or private his truth appeared.” Yet society wants more than truth, to hear Bech Is Back tell it; it wants interviews, autographs, photographs, television talk-show appearances, all of which, in this novel, Henry Bech supplies. Not the least ironic touch in Bech Is Back is in the line: “Bech was photographed by Jill Krementz, caricatured by David Levine, and interviewed by Michiko Kakutani.” For the jacket photograph of John Updike in this book is by Jill Krementz, a fresh caricature of him by David Levine accompanies the favorable review of the book in the New York Review of Books, and around the time of the book’s publication Updike was interviewed for the New York Times by Michiko Kakutani. Ah, me, there goes life imitating art imitating life imitating art imitating life again.

The chief point of both Bech books is the tragicomic one that, as novels have become less important in the United States, novelists have come into greater public demand. Updike may speak of the writer’s only duty being to tell his own “strange, small, or private” truth, but this truth has itself become stranger, smaller, and more private all the time. Such, for all his own early promise, have John Updike’s own truths become, dealing as they for the most part do with ornate sex and social clichés got up in velvet metaphors. In his heart Updike may even know that his own high reputation and success are part of the general swindle, and Bech Is Back may be his form of admitting it. If so, that would constitute a strange, small truth that it is nonetheless well to have made public.


1 Knopf, 195 pp., $13.95.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.