February 1, 2009


I’ve written a lot about Richard Ford’s three Frank Bascombe novels here, partly as a leadup to John Updike’s Rabbit series, Ford’s other major influence and competition. Meanwhile, Updike has unexpectedly died. I was deeply shocked by our loss of Updike, who I (like others) hoped and assumed would be around forever. Updike was not finished, as Lorrie Moore's splendid review of his first volume of short stories reminds us, and I can only hope that before he slipped away Updike put together a plan for the arrangement of the other volumes, of which I’d expected at least two more: Middle and Late. As Moore points out, he didn’t present the early stories in chronological order but in an arrangement that makes them into a kind of novel themselves. No question that Knopf will publish the rest, in similar physical format. If they are not published in an arrangement planned by their author, his death has deprived us of something really wonderful.

I have long felt that the Rabbit books are the most achieved total work of fiction produced by any of the brilliant generation of American postwar novelists. I don't understand why critics persist in minimizing his accomplishment, but even some of his admirers point to Updike’s “modesty,” which is a way of saying that his wonderful, but facile, style is somehow wasted on the its subject matter. It seems that there remain many who think that in embracing a whole sector of American mid-century life Updike failed to connect with what was really important during those years. What could have been more important for a fiction writer? I am firm in my belief that Updike will have the last laugh, for in a hundred years, his books will be the main fictional record of what American life was life in the cold war era. Updike took it in and made permanent art of it. And more, because he captured more striking details and gestures and moments than anyone else was able to capture.

Updike, throughout his career, was faulted for his talent, as if it was an excessive endowment. Well, it was a huge talent, and the effect of death is to make its abundance only more apparent. But in addition, his curiosity, generosity, and inclusiveness. No other fiction writer after the Second World War was as intelligent, nor in any other writer was intelligence so fused with novelistic skill and inclination. He himself understood the value of his prose as an instrument, confident that it was not self-consciously preening or show-offy but simply geared, with all the precision he could command, to exact and telling observation. If Updike was modest, it was not in his artistic ambition but about himself. He did not consider himself to be his own subject. His subject was the rest of us.

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