That would be over the course of a lifetime, accompanied by countless cups of coffee, by a man exactly his own age and with the same long clowning lines and flared nostrils of a Quentin Blake drawing, smiles and cigarillos in a well-defended study, a thatch of white hair.
I am not such a man. The plainness of his biography offers the consolations of the lumberyard: all that neatly stacked blond wood, a testament not just to his soundness and his industry, but to some rich green complacency in the valley that grew him. Linda, who possessed literary aspirations for both of them, and who published her own stories in the New Yorker after her son became a fixture there, had believed it would, and she was right, but he never really forgave her.
In a fine late interview Barbara Probst Solomon asked him about his habit of painting women in his fiction, rather than inhabiting them.
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My mother was a very eloquent woman who was constantly offering to share her thoughts with me, and maybe I got an overdose of female thought early. If I linger here, it is because this is the ground that gives us some of his best stories and most unusual perceptions. Here he was tormented by a sense of immensity that sometimes leaned down to peer at him through its microscope, or descended from a screaming height to chase him through the streets.
He felt his smallness, a single squirm in an unbearable swarm. The slow-ticking clock on the wall took little bites of him, his eyes were bright with hayfever, his asthmatic lungs gasped for air. The halo of selfhood had descended: one minute it was wide enough to circle the globe, and the next minute it was tight enough to squeeze the breath out of him. What must he do — how must he underline and lift himself — to ensure that God did not ever let him die?
The sudden telescoping shift from the personal to the geological to the spheres that is so typical of his writing is born from this black adolescent panic.
He becomes capable of expanding like a gas, flying us in an instant from an aching molar to the great groaning mantle of earth to a crater on a moon of Mars. Here too, presumably, he experienced the turbo-puberty that would first exhilarate and later exhaust his reading public. But after these adolescent years a smoothness sets in, as if he is living the dream of a life of a writer instead of an actual one.
There is a departure for Harvard in , and a marriage while still at school to Mary Pennington, a fine arts major from Radcliffe. There are a few years as a staff writer at the New Yorker , where he produces Talk of the Town pieces with the same facility that he produced cartoons and poems for the Harvard Lampoon. Nothing much happens, and what does happen is reliably transcribed into the work.
He stutters and has psoriasis; his characters stutter and have psoriasis. While he is married to Mary, the wives in his fiction march forth as his conception of her: self-serious, clutching tight to the progressive politics she inherited from her Unitarian minister father.
I want to pledge allegiance. Like, at all? Had we forgotten, as a society, that the sequel to Rabbit, Run contains a scene of Rabbit reading The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass out loud while a black man rapes a hippy girl who, earlier, spent several pages speaking entirely in rhyme? Rabbit Redux finds Rabbit working as a printer alongside his father, the lobotomised Janice so invigorated by an affair with a car salesman that she seems washed of all memory of drowning her own daughter, as the year gathers to a blaze in the background.
Janice moves out in a cloud of pink self-actualisation, and Rabbit, understandably, invites a barely legal flower child called Jill and a self-appointed black Messiah called Skeeter to live with him. Rabbit Redux was once heralded as a masterpiece and the fulfilment of his promise — most complexly by Anatole Broyard, who at the time was passing for white. In a chronological reading, the serious lapse in form comes earlier — with Couples , the novel that chronicled the adulterous whirlwind of the early Ipswich years and notoriously made Updike a million dollars.
Perhaps I am more puritanical than I realised, because the mere thought of wife-swapping in New England against the backdrop of the Vietnam War sinks my heart like a stone to the riverbed of my body; even so, I can say with reasonable assurance that the book is bad. Sodden somehow, as if the sad Old Fashioned that Janice was drinking at the beginning of Rabbit, Run had spilled and seeped into the text. Dim, carpeted, brown, pressing our faces perpetually into the plaid of some couch.
It is also the book in which Updike becomes 25 per cent more interested in feet, which is not something the world needed. As I read I actually felt my teeth getting stronger, like a teenage dinosaur.
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I wanted to grab at the waist, wrench and kill — what? Some part of my own history, the story of my grandparents crawling home drunk after bridge games in the new suburban paradises my grandfather helped build, dressed in the loudest of loud checks.
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Some cruelty in him moves to the forefront, as well as a burgeoning distaste for the politics of the counterculture whose sexual advances made it possible for him to write in extended milky detail about swingers breastfeeding one another in the bathroom. Either way, some absolute angel lifts and moves on in the late s. His biographer assigns it to the assassination of JFK — sure, why not?
He grows up, in short, but not into a real adult, just into a country club member.
One of the men who run the world. There are still delights to be had — the Bech books, the Maple stories, Hugging the Shore , The Witches of Eastwick and Self-Consciousness — but by and large something has flashed and is gone. Is Updike still Updike? Rabbit, Run. I think one tends to spoil not only the thing at hand, but the whole artform, by taking too much thought, by trying to assert too much control.
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Back and forth he goes on a court of pages, doing the drills, making the long liquid stubborn muscles that will support him up to the end, that will automate certain movements that began as holy gestures. Proprioceptive, bouncing his eyes around corners, writing criss-crossing possibilities on the space.
A span like an orangutan. This is what Rabbit is: a carnal pleasure, something Updike has more than allowed himself. In the end he will not deny his character anything.
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When she has peeled off the stockings and tucked them, tidily rolled, into the crevice by the footboard of the bed, she lies flat and arches her back to push off the garter belt and pants. As swiftly, he bends his face into a small forest smelling of spice, where he is out of all dimension, and where a tender entire woman seems an inch away, around a kind of corner. But for now — for now — he has written this. The whole interlude with Ruth has a sunlit stillness.
When he is in flight you are glad to be alive. When he comes down wrong — which is often — you feel the sickening turn of an ankle, a real nausea. All the flaws that will become fatal later are present at the beginning. And yes, there are his women. Janice is a grotesquerie with a watery drink in one hand and a face full of television static; her emotional needs are presented as a gaping, hungry and above all unseemly hole, surrounded by well-described hair.
He paints and paints them, but the proportions are wrong. The Centaur. An ungainly hybrid that takes on strange beauty in motion. The senses move through the scenes in full galloping integration, along with the tick and weight of actual time. Here is Wesley Updike, cast simultaneously as the gracious centaur Chiron and the gloomy, hilarious, hypochondriacal high-school teacher George Caldwell, half-myth and half-man like any father. Because Peter wishes to be an artist, and is experiencing the same awakening Updike experienced, the book is seen through surreal endless eyes, like mythological cups into which the world is poured and poured.
Updike is the little synaesthete of American literature, with a tab of acid on his tongue. Close to the beginning, as Caldwell lectures a class on the Big Bang while the principal listens in, we feel ourselves in the hot red centre of his image-maker: roiling chaos, free association of matter into fantastic form.
Updike is a master of that moment when the elements of the physical world arrange themselves around you and suddenly: click! Peter, more than any of his other characters, is a bursting scrapbook of these Polaroids. There is an abyss that opens in the chest of the reader who believes the bowl has cracked that is not entirely healed by the news that it is whole.
Old age and frailty and death are in that chasm, and huge yawning pity for the end of ourselves. The Centaur , too, takes place in that blackness, that tenderness that Peter cherishes for his father, who allows the expensive leather gloves Peter gave him for Christmas to be stolen by a hitchhiker, who on the final page may die.
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