John Updike filled his 50 years of writing with probably seven or eight normal writing careers. He did so by fusing two artistic virtues that rarely meet in the same person: a frisky, easy, improvisational energy and a rigorous, workaday discipline. He was both the ant and the grasshopper, accountant and poet, Trollope and Rimbaud. His solution to the daily crisis of inspiration was simply not to have it: He wrote steadily, with very little angst, three pages a day, five days a week. Along the way, he mastered pretty much every genre humans have seen fit to invent, including such comparatively rare forms as the self-interview via a fictional alter ego, the book review in the style of the book under review, and the sonnet about one’s own feces (“a flawless coil, / unbroken, in the bowl”). The resulting body of work is so large and thoroughly lauded, the achievements by now so familiar—the casual erudition, the freakish powers of micro-observation, the pioneering description of once-neglected middle-class hobbies such as adultery and divorce—that it can be hard, today, to see any of it fresh. His productivity itself was intimidating: that never-ending series of series (Bech, Rabbit, Eastwick) and collection of collections. The prospect of dipping into his work sometimes feels like going for a day hike on Mount Everest.
In fact, Updike is the perfect author to dip into. Although he showed, with the Rabbit quartet, that he could go big, his talent was, at root, gloriously small. I always return, first, to his essays, which strike me as the purest expression of his personality: funny, sociable, curious, smart, generous, and almost pathologically cheerful. He was one of the greatest belletrists of all time—a master of the short, casual, elegant, whimsical, roving piece about absolutely anything. (It’s a skill that sometimes gets undervalued in a culture that fetishizes giant novels, political crises, and the news cycle.) Updike could take the fruits of high culture—art history, obscure philosophy, foreign literature—and translate them, for a wide audience, into little miracles of focused thought; he could also, conversely, turn trivia into art. And it was all written in the same elegant verbal music. Here he is getting excited about a pencil: “What a quiet, nimble, slender and then stubby wonder-worker he is! At his touch, worlds leap into being; a tiger with no danger, a steamroller with no weight, a palace at no cost.” Here he is noticing fellow spectators at a baseball game: “Two girls, one of them with pert buckteeth and eyes as black as vest buttons, the other with white skin and flesh-colored hair, like an underdeveloped photograph of a redhead, came and sat on my right.” He was always, as Keats once told Shelley to do, loading his rifts with ore.
Updike inherited the belletristic tone from E. B. White and other golden-era New Yorker writers, and he mastered it so thoroughly, so young, that the magazine hired him right out of college. (In the same way Susan Sontag made critical theory hip, Updike refreshed dusty urbanity.) He had the prose equivalent of a perfect baseball swing: effortless, smooth, and with a very high rate of success. In his first “Talk of the Town” pieces, written when he was in his twenties, Updike attacked the city like an anthropologist. (“It was perfectly obvious,” Brendan Gill later said, “that he was writing better ‘Talk’ stories than anyone who had ever written them.”) Once, as an urban thought experiment, he set himself the ridiculous goal of walking from the Empire State Building all the way to Rockefeller Center without ever setting foot on Fifth or Sixth Avenue (he wanted to avoid crowds), which meant he had to go directly up the middle of the blocks—he ended up sneaking through parking lots, crawling under fences, climbing through a basement window. Another time he wrote a mock-scholarly analysis of pedestrians’ faces, the “one feature of the Manhattan landscape that we have never analytically described”:
They occur, with rare exceptions, in a narrow belt of space between four and six feet above the pavement. … One’s first impression, in scanning the faces, is of a sameness as striking as that of pigeons, wavelets, or bricks. Attentive examination, however, yields a multitude of distinctions. Not only do the faces of Manhattan vary in color and size but they differ even in individual expression. Some float with eyelids lowered; some stare straight ahead while the lips move rhythmically, producing a small snapping noise, possibly of chewing-gum or sassafras bark, deep in the molars; some glance now and then nervously sidewise at a second face while the lips move spasmodically, forming words.
“Prolific,” the adjective most often attached to Updike’s career, comes from the Latin “to make offspring”—which neatly brings up the other major talking point that has always clung to his books: sex. Updike was, as Nicholson Baker put it, “the first to take the penile sensorium under the wing of elaborate metaphorical prose.” (“Once the sensation of the interior of a vagina has been compared to a ballet slipper,” Baker added, “the sexual revolution is complete.”) Martin Amis, another Updike admirer, once wrote: “The textural contrast between your first and second wife’s pubic hair … is something that most writers feel their readers can get along without. The novelists of yesteryear would gallantly take leave of their creations at the bedroom door. Updike tags along, not only into the bedroom but into the bathroom. Indeed, he sends a little Japanese camera crew in there after them.” This instinct was not salaciousness or exhibitionism so much as a logical extension of Updike’s writing ethic—his urge to patiently cover the entire world with prose. His attention worked on an industrial scale. The mentionable world wasn’t enough to occupy it.
The great weakness of belletrism—and something Updike was criticized for throughout his career—is that it tends to be apolitical, detached, comfortably rooted in its own exquisite self-consciousness. It floats free of events. When it’s done well, however, this is also its strength: It aspires to a kind of timelessness—to fix the writer’s personality forever on the page. Updike’s best sentences are as funny, as stylistically bulletproof, and as present as any sentences have ever been. They’re so consistently springy and alive, in fact, that, while you’re reading them, it’s impossible to accept that he’s gone. They seem to have been written, just a few seconds ago, by the young man whose picture is on the back of the book.
His Best Works
(A highly abbreviated selection.)
The Early Stories (1953–1975).
Updike’s melancholic, lyrical, and cutting short fiction is some of his best writing, and this comprehensive anthology is a solid introduction. Flip first to the brilliant and autobiographical Maple stories, which trace the rise, fall, reinvention, and final dissolution of a seventeen-year marriage.
The Witches of Eastwick (1984).
A chef d’oeuvre of misogyny, this sly satire about three wicked divorcées was Updike’s best shot across the bow at his female critics—and it holds up today as a masterfully nasty comic novel, an allegory for female power gone wrong grounded in unsettling emotional insight.
The Centaur (1963).
Updike’s third novel, which playfully—if too blatantly—grafts the story of Chiron and Prometheus onto a small Pennsylvania town, polarized critics when it won the National Book Award. But decades later it remains one of his most successful experiments outside the universe of Rabbit and Bech, and the one that delves most deeply into his relationship with his father.
The Rabbit books (1960–1990).
A brilliant quartet of male angst, not to mention a half-century of American culture as seen through the eyes of Updike’s most iconic creation: ex-jock, sexual adventurer, helplessly vivid depressive observer.
Picked-Up Pieces (1975).
The typically wide-ranging Updikean nonfiction hodgepodge: speeches, book reviews, travelogues, thoughts on golf. Of all the essay collections, this one manages best to blend the verbal energy of his early years with the quieter wisdom of his late.