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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Updike’s updetails

Posted by Adam Roberts on 01/31/09 at 07:35 AM

I follow Scott’s ironically titled post by noting that my liking for Updike was never a pretence.  I love what Updike, at his best, did with his writing.  I’m sad he is dead.  Below the fold I fumble my way towards what it is about his writing, maugre its various undeniable limitations, that I find so compelling.  It’s a rapid draft, a couple-of-hours-this-morning’s work, so I apologise in advance for its sketchiness and awkwardnesses.

Updike’s limitations as a writer are kind-of obvious and kind-of uninteresting.  He was limited in terms of social register, race and culture: very good at middle-class white East Coast Americans, of a certain kind; weak when it came to other classes, races (Bech looks like a reasonable approximation of a Jew to me, but then again I’m a wasp and don’t really know from Jews) and cultures.  For my money his weakest books are the ones where he attempts to step outside the Connecticut box (to Africa in The Coup, to South America in Brazil), where his ability to make the quotidian exotic and marvellous flounders upon the ideological rock whereby racial and cultural difference can only be comprehended as exotically other, that thing for which ‘orientalism’ is a critical shorthand.  Rabbit Angstrom, his most famous creation, is supposed to be a blue collar American worker, but even before he makes all that money from his car dealership in Rabbit is Rich he’s actually a middle class sensual aesthete slumming it amongst the proles.  He’s like all Updike’s main characters, actually.  They, in the words of David Foster Wallace (in a review which I quote at greater length below):

are basically all the same guy (see for example Rabbit Angstrom, Dick Maple, Piet Hanema, Henry Bech, Rev. Tom Marshfield, Roger’s Version‘s “Uncle Nunc") and who are all clearly stand-ins for the author himself. They always live in either Pennsylvania or New England, are unhappily married/divorced, are roughly Mr. Updike’s age. Always either the narrator or the point-of-view character, they all have the author’s astounding perceptual gifts; they all think and speak in the same effortlessly lush, synesthetic way Mr. Updike does. They are also always incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous, self-pitying and deeply alone, alone the way only a solipsist can be alone.

Updike’s characterisation is not entirely bad; in some respects, and in some instances, he does it well.  But I agree with Wallace that he is psychologically limited in the same ways, and for the same reasons, that he’s limited in terms of class, race and culture.  Of course, we could say the same thing of Henry James—another writer sometimes accused of hiding vacancy or worse behind a fine style—or Proust.  He’s better with dialogue than either of those; and bolder, willing to try stuff he must have known would as often fail as succeed. 

It’s in the detail.  That’s where his genius was—his extraordinary, fluent, particularised style; the way he evoked the specificity of detail.  But one of the things that follows from this is that his larger artistic project stands or falls on whether we consider the details adequate to the business of representing experience.  Updike’s whole corpus is a way of answering this question with: they are; indeed, there’s really nothing more than the details.  His stuff is overwritten, but in the way the Ode: to Autumn is overwritten.  Of course you may feel that a writer needs something more than the details; that s/he needs a panoramic ability, or at least a larger vision.  But I’m not so sure.  Which is to say; I wonder if, when we look back on the second half of the twentieth century, we won’t find ourselves saying: that was the age in which people became queerly obsessed with details and minutiae, and the larger patterns faded from public consciousness.  If so, then Updike captured the spirit of the age better than almost anyone.

Take Toward the End of Time (1997), Updike’s major excursus into science fiction, and one of his most maligned books.  Scott thinks it ‘deserved the slagging it received’.  Of course Scott, who knows from slang, surely knows that ‘slag’ in English is a derogatory term for a sexually promiscuous woman; and that touches on a major reason why Updike has taken a larger than fair share of criticism.  Updike’s novels are, according to many, precisely slags.  Toward the End of Time is as fascinated by shagging as any Updike work, and for some critics—the Foster Wallace review I mentioned earlier—that’s a bad thing.  Here’s Wallace’s account:

The year is A.D. 2020, and time has not been kind. A Sino-American missile war has killed millions and ended centralized government as Americans know it. The dollar’s gone; Massachusetts now uses scrip named for Bill Weld. No taxes—local toughs now get protection money to protect the upscale from other local toughs. AIDS has been cured, the Midwest is depopulated, and parts of Boston are bombed out and (presumably?) irradiated. An abandoned space station hangs in the night sky like a junior moon. There are tiny but rapacious “metallobioforms” that have mutated from toxic waste and go around eating electricity and the occasional human. Mexico has reappropriated the U.S. Southwest and is threatening wholesale invasion even as thousands of young Americans are sneaking across the Rio Grande in search of a better life. America, in short, is getting ready to die.  The book’s postmillennial elements are sometimes cool, and they truly would represent an interesting departure for Mr. Updike if they weren’t all so sketchy and tangential. What 95 percent of Toward the End of Time actually consists of is Turnbull describing the prenominate flora (over and over as each season passes) and his brittle, castrating wife Gloria, and remembering the ex-wife who divorced him for adultery, and rhapsodizing about a young prostitute he moves into the house when Gloria’s away on a trip. It’s also got a lot of pages of Turnbull brooding about decay and mortality and the tragedy of the human condition, and even more pages of Turnbull talking about sex and the imperiousness of the sexual urge and detailing how he lusts after assorted secretaries and neighbors and bridge partners and daughters-in-law and a little girl who’s part of the group of young toughs he pays protection to, a 13-year-old whose breasts—“shallow taut cones tipped with honeysuckle-berry nipples”—Turnbull finally gets to fondle in the woods behind his house when his wife’s not looking.

This is right; but I don’t take it to be the dispraise Wallace pitches it as.  That is, to invoke the old rhetor’s trick (we ought to think of a name for it: ‘you criticise my work? But the things you criticize it for are precisely what I was setting out to achieve!’) … this is indeed the whole point of Toward the End of Time.

Put it this way: there are, inter alia, two differing ways a writer might write a novel set in Updike’s future USA.  One, the usual Sf strategy, would be to concentrate on the worldbuilding; to give the reader a welter of details about the social and political and technological features of the world; to tell the story of individuals living in it in order to bring the cool future vision more clearly before the reader’s eyes. The emphasis, in this case, would be on the attempt at total vision.  Updike takes a different strategy.  He is saying, in effect: ‘even the people who live through interesting times are 95% more interested in the minutiae of their own lives than in global politics and gee-wizz-that’s-cool technological advances.  These other things do intrude, of course, but they’re not really what life is about.’ It’s more specific than that, actually: for the particularly Updikean fascination with sex skews this further, so that his novels are actually saying that people in the West nowadays are much more interested in their own sex lives than in, say, the suffering in Gaza.  Not that we’re uninterested in the sufferings in Gaza; it’s just that those things cannot loom as largely in our sensoria as own sex lives do.  Something like that is the larger project of Toward the End of Time.  It’s Joycean, in the way that Joyce understood that seeing the word ‘fetus’ carved into a schooldesk, or seeing a girl wading in a river with her skirts up, make deeper and more lasting impressions upon a consciousness—and should be given greater emphasis in fictional accounts of consciousness—than the conventional was born, got job, got married, ‘all that David Copperfield crap’.  Sex, for Updike, is existential, not recreational.  It doesn’t titillate so much as it titivates our being-in-the-world.

The major crisis of the book’s first half, described in a flashback, where we are supposed to empathize not only with the textbookish existential dread that hits Turnbull at 30 as he’s in his basement building a dollhouse for his daughter— “I would die, but also the little girl I was making this for would die. There was no God, each detail of the rusting, moldering cellar made clear, just Nature, which would consume my life as carelessly and relentlessly as it would a dung-beetle corpse in a compost pile”—but also with Turnbull’s relief at discovering a remedy for this dread—"an affair, my first. Its colorful weave of carnal revelation and intoxicating risk and craven guilt eclipsed the devouring gray sensation of time.”

This, I think, is the only moment in a characteristically smart and entertaining review (not so much a review, more a cremation) where Wallace’s aim slips below the belt—what I mean is, I disagree with his assessment of the novel, but I take the force of his case, and it’s well stated.  But I don’t think ‘textbookish existential dread’ is very fair; and it strikes a particularly bum note, I think, coming from a man who himself went on to commit suicide.  Because on the one hand, yes: the sort of existential dread Updike describes is textbook; but it is also monstrously and corrosively individual.  You might as well describe raging toothache, or a gunshot wound, as ‘textbook’; the generality of it provides no solace when you yourself experience the pain.  Pain is simultaneously universal and the most particularised of particular things.  It’s one of the very few things everybody has in common, and its one of the things that most thoroughly separates us from commonality, seals us away in our own thick-walled transparent plastic bubble of misery.  Wallace could just as validly describe Pierre’s or Prince Andrei’s existential dread in the first half of War and Peace as ‘textbook’; that’s sort-of right, but also it sort-of misses the point.

Now Updike’s solution’ to his existential dread—it’s one of the recurring themes of his fiction, of course; one of the constants that connects his male characters—may well strike us as deplorable, ethically speaking.  But I think Updike’s fascination with sex makes at least aesthetic sense.  Sex is governed, for us, by the details.  On the one hand when we have sex we’re doing something that billions of people have done before.  There’s nothing we can do that hasn’t been done countless times before.  But that’s not what it feels like, for us.  More so than other endlessly replicated human activities, sex feels particularly personal and specific.  Updike’s descriptions of sex do fail, from time to time; which is to say, they sometimes become weirdly florid, specific in a deracinating, alienating, even disgusting manner.  But they fail heroically, as it were, in the effort to capture the way sex actually impinges on consciousness.  It is the specificity that redeems the disgustingness; and the two things are, actually, related.  (The old Woody Allen gag: ‘is sex dirty? Only if you’re doing it right’).  And when Updike is at his best he puts this across brilliantly.

Specifics, from a late Updike.  Villages (2004) is about the quintessentially Updikean Owen Mackenzie shagging lots of women outwith his marriage in a prosperous Pennsylvania town.  He grows up, starts a computer company, does various things; but the sex is where the story is focalised.  Now when I first read Villages I thought it one of the most structurally unbalanced in Updike’s canon.  The early sections, covering Mackenzie’s childhood and early youth, are detailed and lengthy and superbly evoked; the later sections seem horribly abbreviated by comparison, rattling through some plot points and wrapping things up too hurriedly: another four hundred pages, spreading the life story butter more evenly over the structural bread, and this could have been a masterpiece; or so I thought.  But thinking about it again I now wonder if that misses Updike’s point.  Youth looms large because sex just seems a bigger deal to us when we’re young.  It’s all romanticised because ‘people must be romantic or fail to lift themselves above the deadpan copulation of sheep and squrrels’.  Here’s Mackenzie as an old man asking himself his own version of Freud’s what-do-women-want question:

As Alissa pointed out, why do men fuck? is never asked.  The question why do women? perhaps arose in Owen’s mind from a childish overestimation of the distance between women and men.  He had no sisters; his mother’s heat frightened him; the macadam playground surrounding the Willow Elementary School had been gender-segregated by a broad central sidewalk.  Decades later, Owen read that, in an experiment on white mice gender-segregated by an electric fence, the males back off at the first severe shock, whereas the females continue to charge the fence until all are electrocuted. [319]

See, the detail about the school playground (I especially love the oxymoronic ‘central sidewalk’) is much more telling than the rather overplayed, and indeed essentialised implications of the mouse experiment.  Owen and Phyllis (his put upon wife) have four children.  ‘Were letting them grow up like weeds,’ Phyllis objects.  Owen demurs.

There was truth in this, but against it he could have set their myriad usual gestures of parenting: the help with homework, the tucking in at night, the rote prayer to get their anxious small souls through to morning, the family trips to Nantucket and Disney World and Expo 67 in Montreal, the summer rentals in Maine, the countless lessons paid for, the countless evening meals shared in something like hilarity. [259]

What makes this so good is the sense, hovering behind the words, that of course just accumulating details like this doesn’t add up to ‘good parenting’ (that, in fact, Owen and Phyllis have been rather bad parents, too caught up in themselves).  But at the same time there is such precision and vividness in the details themselves—‘ the tucking in at night, the rote prayer to get their anxious small souls through to morning.’ That’s beautifully written.  Similarly, attempting to answer the why do women fuck? question late in his life, Owen is finds himself torn between windy generalisation and the much more specific actuality of his own circumstances.

Women fuck, his provisional conclusion was, because, like men, they are trapped in a biological universe where the species that do not propagate disappear; the traits the survivors harbour—lustiness, speed, canniness, camouflage—are soaked in these disappearances, these multitudinous deaths.  Sex is a programmed delirium that rolls back death with death’s own substance; it is the black spaces between the stars given sweet substance in our veins and crevices.  The parts of ourselves conventional decency calls shameful are exalted.  We are told that we shine, that we are splendid, and the naked bodies we were given in the bloody moment of birth hold all the answers that another, the other, desires, now and forever. [319]

This passage starts to lose it when it quits the specific for the vatic (the black spaces between the stars and so on); not quite pulling itself back with the deliberate blurring of ‘now’ and ‘forever’ at the end.  Because one thing Updike’s fiction is always aware of, his most Keatsian feature (more Keatsian than his ripe descriptive style) is that the fleetingness of these moments of existential validation are precisely bound-in with their ecstasy.  So the above passage is immediately followed by a description of a seventy year old man trying, and failing, to wank—something few writers, now, would have the courage to go for, I’d say.

Picturing himself in Middle Falls, he cannot imagine what drove him into so many hazardous passes and contorted positions; he was a puppet whose strings old age has snipped.  Even his attempts at masturbation now fizzle; in his mind’s eye he runs the images of those moist, knowing engulfments, those grotesque postures of submission, but, just when he almost has it, has it in hand, the temperature or the edge or whatever it is unexpectedly slithers away.  The triggering mix of brute mechanics and sentimental illusion dissipates.  The secret flees.  The system crashes.[320]

Writers nowadays are free to write about anything they like, of course; but I’d guess most would stumble on their own inner sense of ick! before they could lay something like this out on the page.  ‘The system crashes’ is a nod to the fact that Owen has made his money in computing; but ‘the secret flees’ is closer to Updike’s vision—that sex is secret not only in the sense that it is a private business, hidden discretely away; but that it encompasses, somehow, something more, deeper and truer, than the dead-eyed copulatory pleasure it sometimes seems to be.  In itself evanescent and trifling, it taps reserves that are hidden and vital and important.  Maybe Updike’s iteration and reiteration of this theme strayed into monomania; but as he himself said:  ‘the refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all.’ That’s right, I think.


"Updike’s limitations as a writer are kind-of obvious and kind-of uninteresting.”

When you say Updike’s limitations as a writer are “uninteresting” do you intend to be as dismissive of concerns about misogyny and racism as you sound? 

Since you love Updike, I’m sure you would prefer to discuss your love of his writing rather than defending him from these criticisms, but I can’t help wondering whether you could so easily dismiss these concerns if you were non-white and/or female. It is possible to acknowledge the failings of an author you love.

By on 01/31/09 at 01:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t believe I buy your premises, Evie, which seem to be that a white male hetrosexual writer who is good at delineating the white male hetrosexual perspective and limited when he tries other p.o.vs must necessarily be misogynist and racist.  It’s possible he will be, but I don’t believe Updike was, actually.

By Adam Roberts on 02/01/09 at 07:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Updike’s writing is like a raisin muffin made entirely of raisins. He can’t write anything straight because if he did, people would realize that his topic and theme are of no interest. It’s like a version of the realist dogma: write about things the way they really are. But usually realist and naturalist writers had the sense to search for the vivid exceptional (criminals, madmen, Okies, etc.) rather than the boring typical, anyway.

One of the reasons why Plato objected to art is that good stories require trouble of some kind. Happy families are boring to write about. But small annoying people with small annoying problems are also hard to write about. (I suppose that means that I should give Updike virtuoso points for difficulty: “Best book written with no help at all from the material”.)

By John Emerson on 02/01/09 at 11:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Whenas in silks my Julia goes
Then, then methinks how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration, each way free;
O how that glittering taketh me!”

Or, as John no doubt would prefer:

“Man, I love the way her nightie pools at her feet and reveals those bouncing breasts!”

But on second thought, lust is common, so. ...

By on 02/01/09 at 09:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Julia, however, is of interest in a way that Rabbit is not. Baudelaire succeeded in making beauty out of nastiness, but Updike’s job was much more difficult than that.

By John Emerson on 02/02/09 at 12:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment


It’s perfectly acceptable not to like Updike or any other writer. What I’m objecting to is your blanket condemnation of fiction concerning material you consider uninteresting. Rather than saying that readers are fooled by a writer’s style into reading material of no interest, why not just say _you_ don’t like fiction based on material you find uninteresting. You’re elevating your personal preferences into some sort of universal Truths.

At any rate, I don’t think we have any objective reason to consider Herrick’s Julia as anything exceptional. (In fact, Herrick typically focuses not on her person but on her outward appearance.) The _sole_ reason his poem is of interest is because of style, because of how Herrick employs sibilance, alliteration, word choice, and variations in rhythm. You like to separate style from content (the tenor from vehicle) but in many cases, in the case of Herrick’s poem, doing so destroys the poem. The style IS the content. Without it, there is no poem—there’s simply Herrick’s fascination with sexy clothing.

By on 02/02/09 at 01:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A parody poem of that type written to Rabbit Angstrom, even in a woman’s voice, would be so heavy-handed that no one would even laugh. Rabbit Angstrom is who he is. Dolling him up with exquisite Writing is just silly, like an unacknowledged Oulipo stunt.

I don’t make my living in the lit biz, so I don’t have to argue or justify my judgments. Anytime anyone says Rabbit is a worthy subject, I’ll say he isn’t, and we can go in various directions from there.

Julia is, of course, n, indexed to Herrick, in [Laura, Beatrice.....n]. I get sort of tired of that series too, but after all Eros is a really big deal, etc., etc., whereas trying to take Rabbit seriously is perverse and abominable.

By John Emerson on 02/02/09 at 07:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Well, ok then. I’ll categorize your method under “argument by forceful assertion.”

By on 02/02/09 at 11:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John: “...trying to take Rabbit seriously is perverse and abominable.”

I can sort of see abominable; but ‘perverse’?  Unless you mean the word in the Zizekian sense, the ‘perversity the necessary ground of all normality’ thang.  How are sexual relations (the main focus, I guess, of Updike’s account of Rabbit’s life) ever going to be other than perverse?

By Adam Roberts on 02/03/09 at 03:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not a relativist about everything, but I do think that literature is a matter of taste and that criticism past some basic descriptive-analytic level is not truth-functional.

The perversity is trying to find anything related to Rabbit of non-satirical interest.

To me it was a little like Genet’s “Our Lady of Flowers”, which dressed up prison life in an elegant, pure classical style. The joke got old quickly.

Note that my criticism is the opposite of Goldberg’s. Poor Updike can’t catch a break. Goldberg should at least have known that Updike was a Vietnam hawk, or non-dove as he called it.

By John Emerson on 02/03/09 at 10:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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