John Updike: The Final Ornament

by Michael Antman

21 Jul 2009


In an aptly titled collection of essays called Picked-up Pieces, published more than 40 years ago, the late John Updike wrote of a childhood habit:

“...whose pleasure returns to me whenever I assemble a collection of prose or poetry or whenever, indeed, I work several disparate incidents or impressions into the shape of a single story…I would draw on one sheet of paper an assortment of objects – flowers, animals, stars, toaster, chairs, comic-strip creatures, ghosts, noses – and connect them with lines, a path of two lines, so that they all became the fruit of a single impossible tree. The exact age when this creative act so powerfully pleased me I cannot recall; the wish to make collections, to assemble sets, is surely a deep urge of the human mind in its playful, artistic aspect.”

In a later interview alluding to this essay, Updike added that “(a) kindred human urge, I suppose, is toward the exhaustive. We like a feeling of mopping up, of complete fullness.”

Connecting, and completing, were indeed the life project of Updike. A kind of psychic recycler, he never let anything go to waste – no view of the passing landscape, no theological rumination, no illicit sexual experience, it seemed, failed to be composted into one of his journals, and from there to blossom in his novels, essays, short stories, or poems.

The observations were invariably acute and the manner in which they were integrated into his plots were rarely awkward or forced. He was John Updike, after all; his least observation or image surpassed the best of almost any of his contemporaries not named Nabokov.

cover art

My Father’s Tears and Other Stories

John Updike

(Knopf Doubleday)
US: Jun 2009

But the overall effect of this productive neurosis could be wearying. It wasn’t so much that Updike was self-centered; as a critic, he was tremendously sympathetic to his fellow writers, and as a fiction writer, he was not incapable of creating fairly well-drawn portraits of characters other than his invented alter-egos.

But the anxiety that lurked behind every one of his short stories and novels, that compulsion to cram in everything that had ever happened to him, was all too evident, and eventually shuffled him into the second rank of novelists.  It had something to do, I think, with his failure to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

As a younger writer, he often wrote about sex as if he were a gangly kid terribly proud and surprised to have actually lost his virginity.  The way he went on about his own experiences, and/or those of his male protagonists, made him sound like an acne-scarred sophomore in the locker room, albeit the smartest sophomore of all. 

Well into middle age, his fictionalized accounts of his real-life infidelities were exhaustive in their psychological and physical ornamentation, and the braggadocio was often inadvertently undercut by his metaphoric use of a magnifying glass to examine in the minutest detail the women he or his characters had slept with. (A female friend of mine grumpily noted that although she admired Updike’s evident genius, she had finally stopped reading him because she was “tired of reading detailed descriptions of women’s nipples.”)

In his later years, Updike seemed to focus upon the wrinkles of old age just as eagerly as he’d once embraced sex; in a weird parallel with his earlier preoccupations, he seemed almost to take pride in his various infirmities and detumescences. Put it this way: As a loyal reader of Updike, I became weary of reading about his encroaching decrepitude years before his actual death, and so his passing came as a particular shock to me precisely because his forebodings had seemed to me so put-on and exaggerated.

But he did die, and rather too young, and now his posthumous volume, My Father’s Tears, serves as something like the tombstone that the hypochondriac arranged to have engraved upon his passing:  “See, I told you I was sick.”

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