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John Updike has died.
January 27, 2009 10:34 AM   Subscribe

John Updike has died.
posted by OmieWise (150 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by Hands of Manos at 10:35 AM on January 27, 2009


*Takes off apron and tie, walks out*
posted by Science! at 10:37 AM on January 27, 2009 [9 favorites]


Rabbit at rest, indeed.

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posted by scrump at 10:38 AM on January 27, 2009


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posted by Tesseractive at 10:39 AM on January 27, 2009


God, I was just reading an Augusten Burroughs story yesterday where he talks about a friend convincing him to buy Updike first editions as an investment, because Updike was sure to die any day now, and how they tried to wish him dead to boost their books' value. I thought it was a funny little story.

Now I feel kind of like it might be my fault.
posted by padraigin at 10:40 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


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posted by honest knave at 10:41 AM on January 27, 2009


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John Updike @ NYRB
John Updike @ NYer
His two largest collections.
posted by jckll at 10:42 AM on January 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


He was one of those icons that I thought -- somehow -- would never die. I remember reading his fiction as a teenager and wishing I could write with even a fraction of his command of the language and the art of the metaphor. I still think that "Pigeon Feathers" and some of his others are some of the best short stories around, and there's always something, a flight of description or some other tangent, that captures the attention in even his "worst" writing. A major loss.
posted by blucevalo at 10:44 AM on January 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh no.

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posted by WPW at 10:49 AM on January 27, 2009


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posted by ameliajayne at 10:49 AM on January 27, 2009


Shocked. Didn't see this coming at all.

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posted by painquale at 10:51 AM on January 27, 2009


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posted by painquale at 10:51 AM on January 27, 2009


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posted by longdaysjourney at 10:52 AM on January 27, 2009


What painquale said. I don't think a celebrity death has hit me this hard since Orson Welles.

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posted by Joe Beese at 10:53 AM on January 27, 2009


I'm really sad, he was my favorite writer for a long time. Even when I discovered knew writers I enjoyed going back to his early stories. DFW, my literary hero, just 6 months ago. . . . I know it doesn't seem like someone who loves David Foster Wallace's writing could also love Updike's writing, but I did. I didn't even know he was sick. He always seemed so spry and sharp in interviews. I met him once at an event at Colorado College. He was terribly polite and courteous, a good listener. I am sure Nicholson Baker will be asked to write something in retrospect.

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posted by mattbucher at 10:55 AM on January 27, 2009


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posted by ms.jones at 10:56 AM on January 27, 2009


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posted by Faint of Butt at 10:56 AM on January 27, 2009


i was forced to read a&p over and over in various classes. never liked it. only thing i've read of his. not sure what i'm missing. i'm sure this thread will tell me.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 10:58 AM on January 27, 2009


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posted by felix betachat at 10:58 AM on January 27, 2009


Shit. This one hit hard.

When I was a kid, people talked to me about what it was like to get older and have to deal with friends and family-members dying. But no one mentioned how hard it is to see the icons of your youth go. And that tends to happen much earlier, because the people you discover when you're a teenager are generally much older than you. Stanley Kubrick, Raymond Carver, John Mortimer... John Updike. Each time one goes, I feel more and more untethered with my past.

I've been aware of living in a world with John Updike in it for over 20 years. I can't imagine a world without him.

The only silver lining is that there are so many books of his I've not yet read.
posted by grumblebee at 10:59 AM on January 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


Could have been worse. Could have been Kurt Vonnegut.

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posted by humannaire at 11:02 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


The scion of artless writing has died, deep into old age.

Let's take down the Norman Rockwells and burn them in effigy.
posted by plexi at 11:03 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, fuck. His article about Ted Williams made me love baseball when I was a teenager. Fuck.

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posted by bewilderbeast at 11:03 AM on January 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


Vonnegut's already up in heaven now.

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posted by The White Hat at 11:03 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


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I read Witches of Eastwick in 8th grade without quite knowing what I was getting into. Loved it.
posted by hopeless romantique at 11:05 AM on January 27, 2009


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posted by DaddyNewt at 11:05 AM on January 27, 2009


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posted by kaseijin at 11:06 AM on January 27, 2009


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"Human is the music,
Nature was the static."
posted by ageispolis at 11:07 AM on January 27, 2009


I knew I should have stayed in bed today, but I really wasn't expecting this. While I didn't like A & P, I read Self-Consciousness, his memoir, in high school and fell in love with it. His voice, in which he wrote about his illness (psorasis) and difficulties (stuttering), touched me because despite the fact he was a famous writer, he was still painfully vulnerable to what others thought of him. That honesty inspired me, happily, to read many of his other works including the Bech series. I'm truly saddened by this.

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posted by miss-lapin at 11:08 AM on January 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


"We do survive every moment, after all, except the last one," as he said.

Tonight I'm going to have to re-read his Bech books, since they never failed to cheer me up.
posted by Doktor Zed at 11:08 AM on January 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


His writin' is so good that he is one of those rare writers that I sometimes stop reading and think about how awesome is what I am reading is.
posted by zzazazz at 11:10 AM on January 27, 2009


i was forced to read a&p over and over in various classes. never liked it.

"A&P" is a great story, but it's hard to like anything you're made to read in school (I've never been able to enjoy the novels of Dickens or Hardy for that reason). Find a collection and read some other stories. What the hell, you may not like him anyway, but give it a shot; he's worth the extra effort.

Also, RIP.
posted by languagehat at 11:10 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


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His fiction only occasionally reached me, although I admire it formally.

What I have really loved, these past few years, was his critical writing. He read, and wrote of, his review subjects with great sympathy, clarity, and acuity. His critical interest was always to indentify and explicate what he took to be the writer's aim. It was like listening to a good and brilliant friend tell you about a book he'd just read. I love those essays.
posted by mwhybark at 11:11 AM on January 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


An opportunity to roll out one of my favourite pieces of Martin Amis' writing, on the subject of Updike:

"We often think in terms of literary pairs: Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and so on. But what about literary opposites? ... John Updke has no obvious soulmate or near equivalent (though Anthony Burgess harbours a similarly hyperactive cortex). But he does have an opposite, and a diametrical one: Samuel Beckett.

"Beckett was headmaster of the Writing as Agony school. On a good day, he would stare at the wall for eighteen hours or so, feeling entirely terrible: and, if he was lucky, a few words like NEVER or END or NOTHING or NO WAY might brand themselves on his bleeding eyes. Whereas Updike, of course, is a psychotic Santa of volubility, emerging from one or another of his studies (he is said to have four of them) with his morning sackful of reviews, speeches, reminiscences, think-pieces, forewords, prefaces, introductions, stories, playlet and poems. Preparing his cup of Sanka over the singing kettle, he wears his usual expression: that of a man beset by an embarrassment of delicious drolleries. The telephone starts ringing. A science magazine wants something pithy on the philosophy of subatomic thermodynamics; a fashion magazine wants 10,000 words on his favourite colour. No problem - but can they hang on? Updike has to go upstairs again and blurt out a novel."
posted by WPW at 11:11 AM on January 27, 2009 [21 favorites]


David Foster Wallace was not a fan. Maybe they can work it out in the afterlife.
posted by thebergfather at 11:13 AM on January 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


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posted by aheckler at 11:17 AM on January 27, 2009


I met him several times, and was lucky enough to spend an afternoon talking with him during a hike near his home in Beverly Farms. This was around the time when his son was trying to make a name for himself as a writer, and Updike was very aware that the family name would prove to be as much of a curse as it would be a blessing. At one point during the walk Updike wondered aloud if it would have been better for the son if the famous father had chosen to be a carpenter or cartoonist or member of the clergy. An ordinary man, in other words.

For the son, perhaps. But not for the rest of us.
posted by william_boot at 11:17 AM on January 27, 2009 [7 favorites]


not sure what i'm missing

Updike was one of the last survivors from the age when novel-writing could still have a major cultural impact. [However quaint it may seem now, Couples mattered at the time in a way that, say, Infinite Jest couldn't even hope to approach.] The arrival of a new work from him every year - whatever its merits relative to his oeuvre in particular or fiction in general - was a comfortingly familiar ritual.

By way of comparison: I kept going to Woody Allen films long after I had any expectation of liking them just because he had been such a large part of my cultural identity - and because the reappearance of the familiar crew names in that never-changing font was a reassuring suggestion that perhaps we might go on forever. Updike's books with their uniform spines filled a very similar role.
posted by Joe Beese at 11:18 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


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My wife just said that reading Updike when she was 12 made her want to live in Connecticut, marry a philandering professor, and drink gin all the time. I said, "Isn't that what all young girls want?"
posted by vibrotronica at 11:21 AM on January 27, 2009 [27 favorites]


miss-lapin, that's odd: I, too, was introduced to Updike through a copy of Self-Consciousness. I picked it up on a whim at a garage sale when I was still a teen.

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posted by joe lisboa at 11:21 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I love his short story collection Pigeon Feathers. It has this terrific story called "Dear Alexandros". Here is a short synopsis by the New Yorker:

Two letters: one written by a needy Greek child to his adoptive American parents, Mr. & Mrs. Bentley of Greenwich, Conn., and the reply from Mr. Bentley. The child writes that he is grateful for the money sent him, that he is enjoying his summer vacation, swimming in the sea nearby, that he will begin his lessons with new strength & joy when the summer is over. Mr. Bentley writes a complaining sort of letter, saying that he & his wife have parted. She & the children live in Greenwich; he has come to N.Y.C. He tries to explain the reasons for all this & in doing so reveals his narrow, unhappy life.

posted by Corduroy at 11:22 AM on January 27, 2009


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posted by ktrey at 11:27 AM on January 27, 2009


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posted by Schlimmbesserung at 11:29 AM on January 27, 2009


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posted by Bango Skank at 11:31 AM on January 27, 2009


This is a staggering loss. My Updike interview was one of my personal favorites. Not only did I get a chance to ask the man about those sudden sensual metaphors that tended to pop out of nowhere in his novels, but somehow the subject of Christopher Hitchens came up, which in turn led to a strange segue into fellatio (which, I believe, came from Updike). Updike was quick to point out that he had "written a little essay about blowjobs" decades before Hitch and playfully demanded, "I want my credit." (It's also worth noting that he championed Erica Jong's Fear of Flying.)
posted by ed at 11:32 AM on January 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


I have a first edition of The Witches of Eastwick that I always hoped to have him sign one day.

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posted by JaredSeth at 11:33 AM on January 27, 2009


I think that even those of us who have never been fans of Updike's in the least (in my case this is an understatement) cannot deny that, with his passing, American letters lose one of the few remaining serious authors from a generation that by now has basically disappeared -- the generation of writers who came of age in an era where novels were supposed to be -- not just supposed, but were -- an important part of culture, and daily life. I doubt I'll read him in the future but he's one of those writers -- Mailer, Vidal, Capote, McCullers etc... -- whose books -- successful or not -- were supposed to be relevant -- they were meant to be taken seriously.

Updike belongs to a time when novelists -- those you loved and those you hated -- were relevant. Even their beefs mattered: remember Mailer v Vidal? Now (minor) stuff happens only when Franzen disses Oprah. I think people like Chabon, Franzen, Antrim, Lethem have good reason to envy that old mindset -- their job, back then, mattered. Now serious fiction is a corollary of a publishing business that survives on cookbooks, hi-concept thrillers, ghostwritten bios, and Harry Potter. Serious novelists now are caught between a rock (the Da Vinci Code type of mindless mega bestseller) and a hard place (TV, the Internet, media that's not really tailormade for serious literature).

Reading serious fiction is now more or less society's afterthought, the passion of a dwindling, increasingly less relevant audience. As much as I deeply dislike his fiction and his criticism, Updike's death makes even me, as a reader, poorer. And I'm not even American.
posted by matteo at 11:33 AM on January 27, 2009 [36 favorites]


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posted by garnetgirl at 11:34 AM on January 27, 2009


Well put, matteo. Seconded.
posted by joe lisboa at 11:38 AM on January 27, 2009


This is a bit eerie. See, a month or two ago I purchased a signed copy of 'The Andromeda Strain' and a signed copy of 'Jurassic Park' from Easton Press. Within two weeks, Michael Crichton died. Within the last month or so, I got a signed copy of 'The Witches of Eastwick' from Easton Press (still unopened and in the shrink-wrap)....and now John Updike is dead. Today in the mail I just received 'The Joy Luck Club', signed by Amy Tam, also from Easton Press. Sooo...Ms. Tam better be worried!
posted by jamstigator at 11:43 AM on January 27, 2009


David Foster Wallace was not a fan. Maybe they can work it out in the afterlife.

Not that it matters that much, but yeah he was. From your link:

The fact is that I am probably classifiable as one of very few actual sub-40 Updike fans . Not as rabid a fan as, say, Nicholson Baker, but I do think that The Poorhouse Fair , Of the Farm and The Centaur are all great books, maybe classics. And even since Rabbit Is Rich -as his characters seemed to become more and more repellent, and without any corresponding indication that the author understood that they were repellent-I've continued to read Mr. Updike's novels and to admire the sheer gorgeousness of his descriptive prose.
posted by COBRA! at 11:44 AM on January 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


Now serious fiction is a corollary of a publishing business that survives on cookbooks, hi-concept thrillers, ghostwritten bios, and Harry Potter.

"Survives" is one way of describing this state of affairs. Another might be "flops around like a dying fish out of water."
posted by blucevalo at 11:45 AM on January 27, 2009


ed: "It's also worth noting that he championed Erica Jong's Fear of Flying"

I can't find it in any of the introductions to his last 4 collections of book reviews - all of which I own, and where I had thought it would be - but I could swear he once confessed with mild embarrassment that he had at least once written a review with a fantasy of "sleeping with the authoress", as he put it.

I assumed he was referring to Jong.
posted by Joe Beese at 11:46 AM on January 27, 2009


Lit Fans Bid Updike Adieu

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posted by Rock Steady at 11:48 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


cookbooks, hi-concept thrillers, ghostwritten bios
-Sir Artur Conan Doyle
posted by clavdivs at 11:49 AM on January 27, 2009


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posted by Substrata at 11:49 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


matteo, as an addendum to your post, Vidal had a beef with Updike as well. If anyone is interested in hearing the case against Updike, Vidal wrote a devastating critique of the man's mindset and his writing ("Rabbit's own Burrow", Times Literary Supplement, 1996; it's in Vidal's Selected Essays). It's the antidote to Amis, who is never less than puppyish in his eager praise of JU.
posted by WPW at 11:50 AM on January 27, 2009


i was forced to read a&p over and over in various classes. never liked it. only thing i've read of his. not sure what i'm missing. i'm sure this thread will tell me.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 10:58 AM on January 27


Decorum, for one, and the knowledge that not everything is about you.

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Not a perfect man, but a hell of a writer. R.I.P., U.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:51 AM on January 27, 2009


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posted by schyler523 at 11:51 AM on January 27, 2009


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posted by Dumsnill at 11:52 AM on January 27, 2009


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posted by Iridic at 11:53 AM on January 27, 2009


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posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 11:55 AM on January 27, 2009


Hey, it's online. Vidal on Updike.
posted by WPW at 11:58 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Aww . . . I've never read any of the Rabbit books, but his short story "The Walk with Elizanne", which I stumbled across in a creative writing class a few years back, is my favorite, ever.

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posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:00 PM on January 27, 2009


His foreword to "The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka" made me begin to understand and love Kafka. That never translated into a desire to read Updike's own work, but it was much appreciated.

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posted by greekphilosophy at 12:02 PM on January 27, 2009


Well crafted post.
posted by dawson at 12:02 PM on January 27, 2009


I never really loved any of his novels, but I absolutely loved some of his sentences.
posted by Mister_A at 12:02 PM on January 27, 2009 [7 favorites]


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I wrote my Senior Thesis for my English Lit degree on his Rabbit Series.
posted by The Gooch at 12:04 PM on January 27, 2009


Oh, damn. I read the first three Rabbit novels and The Witches of Eastwick when I was probably too young to be doing so. Updike is one of a handful of authors who guided me through that weird and rocky transition in my life as a reader, from the world of children's books to adult fiction. RIP.
posted by medeine at 12:05 PM on January 27, 2009


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I still love The Centaur.
posted by thivaia at 12:06 PM on January 27, 2009


WPW: "Vidal had a beef with Updike as well. If anyone is interested in hearing the case against Updike, Vidal wrote a devastating critique of the man's mindset and his writing"

Another cranky old bastard who found Updike some kind of affront was Gilbert Sorrentino, whose near-hysterical pan of A Month of Sundays begins:

The surface of Mr. Updike's writing twitches and quivers incessantly... Mr. Updike has all the grievous faults of an Oscar Wilde updated to include contemporary paraphernalia, speech, etc.; but none of these things can disguise the purple blush that suffuses the work. It is, if I may use such a word, unachieved; i.e., its fancy images are not in touch with the world but emblazon it. The writing is what is in some quarters known as "vivid." - "Never on Sunday", Partisan Review, 1976 [collected in Something Said, North Point Press]

I imagine it would be difficult for a professional novelist not to envy Updike's seemingly effortless fluency and his cozy relations with Knopf and The New Yorker.
posted by Joe Beese at 12:08 PM on January 27, 2009


I haven't read any Updike yet, (Never came up in any classes, and just hadn't gotten to him in my pleasure reading.) but this stings a bit. My co-worker Rob, who is planning to read the entire "Rabbit" series is going to be all about this tonight.

I'm going up to NYC in a couple weeks. I'll try and track down Pynchon and glue him to this mortal coil.
posted by SansPoint at 12:09 PM on January 27, 2009


Joe, I hasten to add that I love Updike's work. And his politics have no impact on that opinion.
posted by WPW at 12:18 PM on January 27, 2009


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posted by lunit at 12:20 PM on January 27, 2009


Here is Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's obit for Updike at the Times.
posted by OmieWise at 12:25 PM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think almost any writer of fiction at any level harbors an opinion about Updike, one way or the other. That alone, is quite a testament.

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posted by Pliskie at 12:28 PM on January 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Goddammit.

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I disliked much of his writing but absolutely respected his craftsmanship, was glad he was there to hate, if that makes sense.

This recent essay from the New Yorker humanized him for me. It's worth looking up at the library if you don't have a subscription.
posted by availablelight at 12:30 PM on January 27, 2009


I usually avoid obit threads, but Updike was my boyhood hero. I was just looking at this interview (text and video) with him last night, and remembering how much he meant to me as I was growing up. The funny thing is, if you were to ask me what my favorite thing from him was, I would have trouble telling you. The middle period short stories are what he said he would be remembered for (and rightly so) but during the 80's there was just a continual stream of such high level, perfect, lucid prose, that it was just awe inspiring. Rabbit at Rest, Roger's Version, S., Memories of the Ford Administration, Brazil, Pigeon Feathers, and also the critical volumes like Hugging the Shore, and Just Looking. I feel like I have been punched in the stomach. (and certain comments here reinforce my belief that DFW fans may be the dumbest readers on the planet)

Thanks for not being a dick matteo, he really was special to me.
posted by vronsky at 12:30 PM on January 27, 2009


Hint: read and like or dislike Vidal but don't take him seriously when he talks about his competitors. He is wonderful critic and writer but always feel he is underated and neglected as a novelist.

Updike; a few mentions of Witches but none thus far on latest and probably last: Widows of Eastwhich.

Rabbitt series a classic series on life in America for recent period.
If it is tough to read stories you were forced to read in school, so too it is tough to enjoy stories one has taught in school, but give A&P another try now that you are all growed up and you will be surprised.
posted by Postroad at 12:32 PM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


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posted by box at 12:35 PM on January 27, 2009


I woke up with the feeling that the world seemed a little bleaker today. Now I know why.

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posted by Drainage! at 12:38 PM on January 27, 2009


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posted by lester's sock puppet at 12:44 PM on January 27, 2009


Postroad: "Hint: read and like or dislike Vidal but don't take him seriously when he talks about his competitors.."

Indeed.

I share his politics and consider him capable - in better days, at least - of accuracy as well as cruelty in his literary judgments. But however deserving of contempt Updike's politics may have been [and here's a sigh for having to use the past tense], they had no bearing whatsoever on the literary merits of the novel that was, purportedly, the subject under discussion.

If nothing else signaled that this was a hatchet job inspired by personal animus, his mention of Myra Breckinridge - something he seems to do at the slightest opportunity, I've noticed - would have. However infuratingly cozy Updike might have been with the critical establishment that inflicted such a high price on Vidal for his sexual politics, Vidal is short-changing his readers by not reviewing the book more objectively.
posted by Joe Beese at 12:45 PM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Was it really necessary to devote a paragraph of the man's obituary to the fact that he didn't win the Nobel Prize?
posted by atbash at 12:46 PM on January 27, 2009


atbash: "Was it really necessary to devote a paragraph of the man's obituary to the fact that he didn't win the Nobel Prize?"

It's not as irrelevant as it might seem at first glance.

The prize seems to have been a preoccupation of his. In addition to having most implausibly awarded it to his fictional alter-ago - in what I assumed was a sour response to having lost his best chance at it to Toni Morrison - the uniform book spines that he insisted upon from the very beginning of his literary career seem the mark of a writer perhaps a little too mindufl of oeuvre. I recall that in his review of a biography of John O'Hara - that chronicler of middle-class mores with whom Updike was so contemptuously lumped by Vidal - he particularly noted the subject's public hankering after the prize.
posted by Joe Beese at 1:02 PM on January 27, 2009


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posted by jayder at 1:10 PM on January 27, 2009


Rabbit Redux is one of my favorite pieces of writing.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:33 PM on January 27, 2009


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posted by Football Bat at 1:37 PM on January 27, 2009


I'm a European and Updike seems to have made little impact outside of the US and Canada, at least I've never had anyone bring up Updike in conversation and his books, if available in Iceland, rarely moved from bookstore shelves. So I know next to nothing about him. What are his classic short stories? I'm curious to read some of them and, if I like them, move on to his best-regarded novels.
posted by Kattullus at 1:39 PM on January 27, 2009


I finished Rabbit at Rest (the fourth and final of the series) late at night, in bed. Updike was somehow able to make Rabbit Angstrom's ordinary, mundane, messy life lyrical. I don't know how he did it; it was magic, I guess. When I finished that last page in bed, in the dark, with the dog sleeping on the floor and my wife sleeping beside me, I cried.

I still pick up Rabbit, Run in bookstores and reread the first few pages.
posted by booth at 1:40 PM on January 27, 2009


I enjoyed The Slump.
posted by theclaw at 1:45 PM on January 27, 2009


I've made my dislike of updike very, very clear for a long time.

But ones passing I believe everyone should take a moment to respect the goodness of a person, no matter what.

The central reason I hate Updike's writing results from the fact that I love one aspect of it dearly: his prose is simply stunning. He's a wordsmith in the true sense and it has given his career the respect it receives. His rise to prominence was due to his kind of revolutionary presence and overt sexuality that was a kind of courageous reaction to his progenitors and the society around him. As much as I feel that both time and his staggering longevity delineated from his work (many disagree), I give honor to any author who could work that long with vigor and prolific-ness. I truly believe being prolific is a virtue.

So to Updike on this day, I offer simplicity:



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posted by Lacking Subtlety at 1:46 PM on January 27, 2009


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posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:47 PM on January 27, 2009


The central reason I hate Updike's writing results from the fact that I love one aspect of it dearly: his prose is simply stunning.

Huh? The main reason you hater him is because he's a good writer?
posted by grumblebee at 1:53 PM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


i was forced to read a&p over and over in various classes. never liked it. only thing i've read of his. not sure what i'm missing.

I didn't "get" A&P until I was older, but for me, it's the best depiction of the reverie of teenage male lust colliding with the inevitable disappointments of adulthood. When I got older, I understood.

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posted by jonp72 at 1:58 PM on January 27, 2009


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posted by johannahdeschanel at 1:58 PM on January 27, 2009


I'm going up to NYC in a couple weeks. I'll try and track down Pynchon and glue him to this mortal coil.

The nice thing about being a Pynchon fan is that it's quite possible we'll never know when he dies.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 1:59 PM on January 27, 2009


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posted by Smart Dalek at 2:01 PM on January 27, 2009


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posted by cjorgensen at 2:14 PM on January 27, 2009


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posted by plaidrabbit at 2:15 PM on January 27, 2009


I'm going up to NYC in a couple weeks. I'll try and track down Pynchon and glue him to this mortal coil.
posted by SansPoint at 12:09 PM on January 27


Dude, I could not handle losing Wallace, Updike, and Pynchon in such a short span. Don't even play. :(
posted by Optimus Chyme at 2:16 PM on January 27, 2009


Huh? The main reason you hater him is because he's a good writer?

I think the point struggling to be made is that he didn't use his talent as well as he could have, and that's certainly true in later years—I got very tired of seeing his churned-out-by-the-yard reviews/essays/thumbsuckers where he maundered on gracefully about some subject until he reached the end of the assigned wordage. But his early stories and novels are brilliant.
posted by languagehat at 2:39 PM on January 27, 2009


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posted by CitizenD at 2:39 PM on January 27, 2009


I will always remember the breasts like scoops of ice cream in "A&P" and how concerned I was that the girls in our 10th grade English class would consider this simile to be sexual harrassment.
posted by Kirklander at 2:48 PM on January 27, 2009


Updike came into my life 25 years ago, when I had brought a library book along with short stories along on vacation, and the single story in that anthology by him forever changed the way I looked at books, and what I demanded from writers.

That story was 'The Happiest I've Been', and my deep appreciation of it will be coloured by the resemblances it bore to my life at the time. It's in itself a simple story, of a boy leaving the small town he grew up in, and the people he grew up with; suddenly realizing he did have belonged there, even when it might have looked different.

I own most of Updike's books now, and only some of his stories have brought that intense excitement of reading something that was much bigger than just the words on the page. And I have criticized a lot of his novels. Yet, I will always remember that there was a moment that the lightning struck, and I suddenly knew what that literature thing was all about.

So, his death came as a shock, tonight [CET].
posted by ijsbrand at 2:55 PM on January 27, 2009


Hrm.

Well.

Expect Phillip Roth will get a similarly long and deep sending-off when he goes.
posted by sighmoan at 2:58 PM on January 27, 2009


This is a bit eerie. See, a month or two ago I purchased a signed copy of 'The Andromeda Strain' and a signed copy of 'Jurassic Park' from Easton Press. Within two weeks, Michael Crichton died. Within the last month or so, I got a signed copy of 'The Witches of Eastwick' from Easton Press (still unopened and in the shrink-wrap)....and now John Updike is dead.

I think you might enjoy Ann Coulter's new book.
posted by ColdChef at 3:17 PM on January 27, 2009 [20 favorites]


I remember being twelve or thirteen and trying to make it through one of the Rabbit books that my parents had left lying around while we were at my grandparents' place.

I quit about halfway through.

I've never gotten that far into any of his books again, though I've given him a couple of tries.

His essays, though, I love. And I love him as icon of the public intellectual.

But as there's plenty of his work that I haven't read, and because I never really thought of him as living, as being contemporary and of the time I lived in, I don't think that his death will change very much for me if I don't think about it when I think of him.
posted by klangklangston at 3:40 PM on January 27, 2009


Updike was a staple of my younger years, and while I've found a distance between us since then, I could never deny what we had. Rest In Peace.
posted by Divine_Wino at 3:42 PM on January 27, 2009


.
posted by fixedgear at 3:53 PM on January 27, 2009


Thanks for the great link (the Ted Williams article he wrote for The New Yorker in '62), bewilderbeast.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:05 PM on January 27, 2009


The list of important writers alive just got shorter.
posted by ersatz at 4:18 PM on January 27, 2009


Though many of his stories were too much of the alcohol soaked train-wreck depressing variety for a bright-eyed boy in his mid-20's, I always did like The Centaur. Quite possibly one of the best small-town America stories there is.
posted by blindkoala at 4:48 PM on January 27, 2009


.
posted by Navelgazer at 4:59 PM on January 27, 2009


What I have really loved, these past few years, was his critical writing.

Seconding this.

While his fiction may have been uneven, his nonfiction was always superb: whether reviewing a book in the New Yorker or the work of a painter in the NYRB, Updike was--in my view at least--one of America's greatest living critics. (I also have a soft spot for his poetry).
posted by ornate insect at 5:04 PM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


greatest living critics, period.
posted by ornate insect at 5:06 PM on January 27, 2009


It's interesting to see that lots of people had to read "A&P" over and over again in english classes. I thought we had to read it so often because John Updike graduated from my high school. The Centaur was my favorite too.
posted by Drab_Parts at 5:08 PM on January 27, 2009


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posted by dbgrady at 5:10 PM on January 27, 2009


Matteo put it so beautifully.

I did not like the man's writing (I consider it DickLit, but it's really more white-well-educated-suburban-selfish-bastardLit) but I do acknowledge the gravity of his passing. He was a Literary Lion the likes of which will not be seen again.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 5:17 PM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'll always think fondly of Updike, because when I was making my way through the Rabbit books a boyfriend corrected me for pronouncing "redux" phonetically.

But I was right, jerkface!

And Updike has many times made lovely company.
posted by birdie birdington at 5:35 PM on January 27, 2009


ornate insect: " his nonfiction was always superb: whether reviewing a book in the New Yorker or the work of a painter in the NYRB, Updike was--in my view at least--one of America's greatest living critics. (I also have a soft spot for his poetry)."

Nth-ed.

I would say that his criticism will come to be held in higher esteem than his fiction - but as several commenters have correctly observed, no one is keeping score any more.
posted by Joe Beese at 5:45 PM on January 27, 2009


.
posted by paisley henosis at 6:21 PM on January 27, 2009


aww. I liked Couples, enjoyed his subtlety and felt awakened by it. I'm sorry he died and quite young really. It's good to hear he chose the help of a hospice near where he lived. From what I've heard the people in hospices really offer a tremendous gift both to the dying and those around them in making death an easier part of life.

And interesting patchwork of John Updike quotations.

matteo's wonderful comment is so rich in honoring Updike's role as an author in society of the 60's and 70's also in describing contemporary cultural changes in reading interests.

In addition, I think part of Updike's historical significance is that he was considered an important person at the New Yorker magazine, was part of the NYC intelligentsia of that time for a couple of decades during major cultural changes, especially in attitudes towards sex, relationships, marriage.

Sad to hear of his death. I hope it was a relatively comfortable one for him and that he was able to come to a workable peace as he made his physical exit.

Condolences to his wife, Marsha and his four children.
posted by nickyskye at 6:30 PM on January 27, 2009


"He had hoped Sally would laugh at this, and she did, and in a sudden mutual gush they cashed into the silver of laughter all the sad secrets they could find in their pockets." -- John Updike ("Warm Wine" in Marry Me).
posted by mattbucher at 7:00 PM on January 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


I remember this:

Suddenly summoned to witness something great and horrendous, we keep fighting not to reduce it to our own smallness. From the viewpoint of a tenth-floor apartment in Brooklyn Heights, where I happened to be visiting some kin, the destruction of the World Trade Center twin towers had the false intimacy of television, on a day of perfect reception. A four-year-old girl and her babysitter called from the library, and pointed out through the window the smoking top of the north tower, not a mile away. It seemed, at that first glance, more curious than horrendous: smoke speckled with bits of paper curled into the cloudless sky, and strange inky rivulets ran down the giant structure's vertically corrugated surface. The W.T.C. had formed a pale background to our Brooklyn view of lower Manhattan, not beloved, like the stony, spired midtown thirties skyscrapers it had displaced as the city's tallest, but, with its pre-postmodern combination of unignorable immensity and architectural reticence, in some lights beautiful. As we watched the second tower burst into ballooning flame (an intervening building had hidden the approach of the second airplane), there persisted the notion that, as on television, this was not quite real; it could be fixed; the technocracy the towers symbolized would find a way to put out the fire and reverse the damage.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:37 PM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I can't help but think, if he were floating nearby, eavesdropping upon this conversation, he'd like us to write about his penis, in memory of he who can no longer write about his penis.
posted by Pronoiac at 8:35 PM on January 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


John Updike has died.

Poor devil was worried about that happening, too.
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:11 PM on January 27, 2009



The surface of Mr. Updike's writing twitches and quivers incessantly... Mr. Updike has all the grievous faults of an Oscar Wilde updated to include contemporary paraphernalia, speech, etc.; but none of these things can disguise the purple blush that suffuses the work. It is, if I may use such a word, unachieved; i.e., its fancy images are not in touch with the world but emblazon it. The writing is what is in some quarters known as "vivid." - "Never on Sunday", Partisan Review, 1976 [collected in Something Said, North Point Press]

Odd--though the NPR announcement of Updike's death halted me in medias res as the loss of a major figure does, it didn't send me straight to the shelves for some Updike to look at then and there. Told myself I'd get to it Saturday maybe. But Sorrentino's lashing did the trick. I went pawing through the stacks looking for something vivid, purple, blushing, emblazoned. Spent the evening with my nose in Brazil (which is not Connecticut suburbia, btw) and Sorrintino is absolutely right and it's wonderful.
posted by jfuller at 9:15 PM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


.
posted by exlotuseater at 9:16 PM on January 27, 2009


As a fellow psoriasis sufferer: thank you, Mr. Updike, for writing about our disease with such clarity.
posted by goofyfoot at 9:22 PM on January 27, 2009


Martin Amis on Updike in The Guardian.
posted by vronsky at 9:45 PM on January 27, 2009


"For me, his greatest novels were the last two Rabbit books - Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest. With that fourth novel in the tetralogy, he had the homerun with all the bases loaded. His style was one of compulsive and unstoppable vividness and musicality. Several times a day you turn to him, as you will now to his ghost, and say to yourself 'How would Updike have done it?" This is a very cold day for literature."
posted by vronsky at 9:51 PM on January 27, 2009


It may be worth mentioning that the Lifetime Achievement Award for Bad Sex in Fiction went to Updike this past year.
posted by blucevalo at 9:52 PM on January 27, 2009


I've just started doing a "poem of the month" display at my library and this month's poem was Updike's "January." Until I found it in an anthology I had no idea he'd written a collection of children's poems.

I'd better think carefully about who I pick for next month's display.
posted by Biblio at 10:05 PM on January 27, 2009


Terrific Adam Gopnik piece from the May/June 2008 issue of Humanities.
posted by vronsky at 10:05 PM on January 27, 2009


Joe Beese: Thanks for clearing that up. After stumbling through the Updike collection, I have located that confession in the intro to Picked-Up Pieces. This may be a reprehensible case, but I may have dreamed of taking up the issue further with a passive-aggressive Russian literary fanboy too inept with the English language to engage in bona-fide wit and too gutless to leave a real name. But I shall sleep well tonight knowing that the issue could be civilly and constructively cleared up with you.
posted by ed at 11:13 PM on January 27, 2009


When I was an undergrad, my very pretentious, self-important professor invited Updike to speak. He gave a lecture in the Auditorium - you know, with tickets that you buy and all that - and he did a less formal, cozier Q&A for our class.

I asked him what he thought about his critics; whether he read them and whether he placed any importance on the things they wrote. He said that he did pay attention to reviewers, that he hoped they liked his books because he wanted them to sell. As for literary critics... Updike looked over his shoulder at my professor (a published literary critic), turned back to us, shrugged, and said "Well, they have to make a living."
posted by Clay201 at 6:00 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


While his fiction may have been uneven, his nonfiction was always superb

Wow. I completely disagree, and am surprised to see so many thoughtful, intelligent people taking that position. Just goes to show you, it takes all kinds.
posted by languagehat at 6:43 AM on January 28, 2009


Sorry to hear of his passing, when Updike was on, there was no one better. The Rabbit books can be used as a history of America in the second half of the twentieth century. Rabbit Redux IS the 70's; disjointed, self-centered and somewhat lewd.

I saw Updike speak soon after Saul Bellow died and he was very thoughtful about his legacy. He gave all kudos to Roth as being the greatest living American writer in a song and dance of false modesty, but I never could help but like him. He is undoubtably the product of being an only child in a household that revolved around him.

A quote I always like from "U and I", Nicholson Baker's book about Updike worship, when he is asked about some of his poetry being very sexually explicit, "Updike said in reply that poetry is experienced in private, and that life is too short to worry about propriety. [His actual words soaring above my ratty paraphrase, are; "I think taste is a social concept and not an artistic one. I'm willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else's living room, but our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite. Since his words enter into another's brain in silence and intimacy, he sould be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves."]

That phrase "in silence and intimacy" has stuck with me through my reading life, a beautiful way of describing the relationship between author and audience.
posted by readery at 7:05 AM on January 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


.
posted by jock@law at 7:37 AM on January 28, 2009


The New Yorker remembers.
posted by vronsky at 8:36 AM on January 28, 2009


.
posted by daizy8 at 8:43 AM on January 28, 2009


I loved the Rabbit series. The modern equivalent is Richard Ford's series; The Sports Writer, Independence Day and Lay of the Land. Highly recommended.
posted by xjudson at 9:45 AM on January 28, 2009


I read the Centaur when I was in high school--when it and I were new. I had never read such sentences before. Some scenes have resonated through my reveries ever since--Chiron meeting Venus in the girl's locker room, the rumbling of Zeus's thunderbolts over the intercom, the novel's Prometheus, now a second-rate painter living in Greenwich Village, recalling his father years later. And what a father George Caldwell was, so gentle and wise and loving--so far from the experience of anyone I knew at the time or for years afterward.

It was a hell of a book to be reading in high school in small town Idaho in the 60s. I can't say I was never again the same person afterwards. There are few other books of which I could say that.
posted by y2karl at 10:51 AM on January 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


He wanted to be a cartoonist, early on.
posted by maryh at 12:34 PM on January 28, 2009


Sorry - here is the Gopnik essay.
posted by vronsky at 1:03 PM on January 28, 2009


I like his novels but (oddly I guess) his poems are some of my favorites. He made light verse seem pretty tough...


The Stunt Flier

I come into my dim bedroom
innocently and my baby
is lying in her crib face-down;
just a hemisphere of the half-bald head
shows, and the bare feet, uncovered,
the small feet crossed at the ankles
like a dancer doing easily
a difficult step--or,
more exactly, like a cherub
planing through Heaven,
cruising at a middle altitude
through the cumulus of the tumbled covers,
which disclose the feet crossed
at the ankles à la small boys who,
exulting in their mastery of bicycles,
lift their hands from the handlebars
to demonstrate how easy gliding is.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:20 PM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


.

That said, I have to say that I think Updike is a product of his time: the pinnacle of American power and prosperity, with the slow and inexorable slide into... whatever we're headed into. Growing up in the nuclear era was the American moment, the beginning of our ascendancy (or so it seemed), and it produced an amazing amount of self-centered hubris and a frankly repugnant culture.

Mr. Updike was a talented writer, but he was also one of the icons of that culture: sex- and self-obsessed.

Me, I admire Cormac McCarthy. Though he's a contemporary of Updike's, I think his ugly vision of the world is closer to reality.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:16 PM on January 28, 2009


matteo's nicely summed up elegiac comment syncs with Updike's opinions, although Updike was, characteristically, surprisingly equitable about the cultural state of writing, publishing, and reading:
When I was a boy, the bestselling books were often the books that were on your piano teacher's shelf. I mean, Steinbeck, Hemingway, some Faulkner. Faulkner actually had, considering how hard he is to read and how drastic the experiments are, quite a middle-class readership. But certainly someone like Steinbeck was a bestseller as well as a Nobel Prize-winning author of high intent. You don't feel that now. I don't feel that we have the merger of serious and pop -- it's gone, dissolving. Tastes have coarsened. People read less, they're less comfortable with the written word. They're less comfortable with novels. They don't have a backward frame of reference that would enable them to appreciate things like irony and allusions. It's sad. It's momentarily uphill, I would say.

And who's to blame? Well, everything's to blame. {...} Now we have these cultural developments on the Internet, and online, and the computer offering itself as a cultural tool, as a tool of distributing not just information but arts -- and who knows what inroads will be made there into the world of the book.

This all sounds very gloomy, and you may ask: Why is this man smiling? Well, I love writing and I'm getting toward the end of my writing career. I'm grateful, really, that I'm not trying to begin now. It will be done: there will be writers, there will be readers. But for the moment you can't say the world of print is hot, where it's at. It's a kind of pleasant backwater in a way.
posted by Doktor Zed at 7:44 AM on January 29, 2009


matteo put things better than I would have — so much more eloquent than a . — although "deeply dislike" seems a bit harsh to me. People have mentioned Updike’s novels, poems, reviews, essays, short stories, but not yet his one venture into the theater, the play Buchanan Dying about the man who (so far) has been the one bachelor president, and the only one from Pennsylvania, Updike's (and my) native state.

The play I think was designed more to be read than to be performed, but in my capacity as cultural editor of a small newspaper I attended the world premiere in Lancaster PA some 30+ years ago, then a reception with the author at Wheatland, Buchanan's own house not far from the theater. (I still have photographs of Updike somewhere that I took that night but — not particularly being a fan — I didn't speak to him personally.)

Those who admire him more than I do might like to check out the extensive website Penn State University has created about various aspects of Buchanan Dying.
posted by LeLiLo at 10:48 PM on January 30, 2009


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