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June 9, 2006 5:09 PM   Subscribe

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posted by bardic at 5:19 PM on June 9, 2006

Uh, yeah. John Updike on terrorism. I'll have to pass -- he doesn't do well unless he's writing about the moral dilemmas faced by aging, horny, male New Englanders. Sure it's limiting but he's damn good at it. And while I'm here, I'll drop in my favorite Updike review ever.
posted by Heminator at 5:38 PM on June 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

You have a favorite Updike review?
posted by ori at 5:49 PM on June 9, 2006

>You have a favorite Updike review?

Actually, yes I do. I hope that would be self-evident if you read the link. Since Updike writes a new book like clockwork about every year and there's a spate of reviews that follow, somehow I've ended up reading dozens of Updike reviews over the years -- and I'm not even that fond of him.
posted by Heminator at 6:11 PM on June 9, 2006

he doesn't do well unless he's writing about the moral dilemmas faced by aging, horny, male New Englanders.

Actually, that sounds more like John Irving. Are you sure you haven't confused the two?
posted by psmealey at 6:25 PM on June 9, 2006

Heminator, a favorite review by David Foster-fucking Wallace? I like the cut of your jib, but that's just cheating.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:20 PM on June 9, 2006

"Terrorism" seems to be the current "lets be topical" novel theme.

I read a lot of books, and "terrorism" usually indicate a book that tries to ride the bandwagon rather than give any insights.

"terrorism" joins "psycopathic stalker" as a good reason to avoid a book.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 7:52 PM on June 9, 2006

oh look at the freaking metafilterers slagging john updike.
posted by xmutex at 10:34 PM on June 9, 2006

I thought it was interesting, and fairly absurd, for the interviewer to bring up Houellebecq. I can't think of two more diametrically opposed authors. Then again, Updike kind of makes that point himself. But the line I used for the title, the Musselman they dragged out to be my interpreter, was just shocking in its (unconscious, IMO) Orientalism.

Terrorist sounds like a dud even without political critique though. I wonder what other novelists are working on the subject, which could be done well. Maybe.
posted by bardic at 1:27 AM on June 10, 2006

(Really liked the DFW review btw. It's funny cuz it's pretty darn truthy.)
posted by bardic at 1:28 AM on June 10, 2006

And while I'm here, I'll drop in my favorite Updike review ever.
posted by Heminator at 5:38 PM PST on June 9

Knew what it was before clicking. :)
posted by Optimus Chyme at 2:31 AM on June 10, 2006

The man is old. He's written a book a year for longer than most Mefiers have been alive. To slag on books a guy writes after the age of 70 is a bit harsh. Many of you know how hard it is to write a book when you're in the flush of youth, full of energy and confidence and things to say. For Updike to still be writing pretty good, to great ("Seek My Face") books into his 70s is wonderful thing. But let me put it this way -- even to write a crappy book in your 70s is something of a miracle.
David Foster Wallace knows that if he is to be considered anything other than the blowhard and bore that he is, he has to knock down the reputations of the Big Three literary fathers: Updike, Roth and Mailer. So go to work, David. Do your worst. But you will never be more than a little boy playing in the wood-paneled rec rooms of the Big Three. You'll never be invited upstairs to the grown-up party. Because you try too hard, and you want it too bad, and basically, you don't have a "big" talent.
When Updike dies, a small wind will begin to blow his way. It will gather momentum over the next decade or two. Then about twenty years after, everyone will wake up with the critical concencus that this incredible man was the greatest author, poet and critic combination this nation has ever produced.
He may not be the great author you or I might have ordered up, if we'd been asked (that would probably have been Toni Morrisson). But fairness requires the acknowledgement of the stupdendous volume and quality of his work -- the beautiful, moving, entertaining poetry, the novels that even when they suck, contain pages, passages and chapters as good as anything every written by anyone, ever. Then there are the enormous collections of criticism and incidental writing ("Odd Jobs" "Hugging the Shore") -- each of mind-blowing quality -- each a literary education in themselves.
You can't dismiss John Updike for what people supppose to be his narrow obsessions any more than you can dismiss Andrew Wyeth for his actual narrow obsessions. The fact is, no American or world author will leave behind a greater, broader, more ambitious and high quality level of work. He doesn't deserve the Nobel Prize. They need to invent a new prize.
posted by Faze at 5:20 AM on June 10, 2006 [2 favorites]

From the Heminator link:

In case this sounds like a harsh summary, here's hard statistical
evidence of just how much a "departure" for Mr. Updike this novel really

Total number of pages about the Sino-American war -- causes, duration,
casualties: 0.75;

Total number of pages about deadly mutant metallobioforms: 1.5;

Total number of pages about flora around Turnbull's home, plus fauna,
weather and how his ocean view looks in different seasons: 86;

Total number of pages about Mexico's repossession of the U.S. Southwest:

Total number of pages about Ben Turnbull's penis and his various
feelings about it: 7.5;

Total number of pages about the prostitute's body, with particular
attention to sexual loci: 8.75;

Total number of pages about golf: 15;

Total number of pages of Ben Turnbull saying things like "I want women
to be dirty" and "We are condemned, men and women, to symbiosis" and
"She was a choice cut of meat and I hoped she held out for a fair price"
and "The sexual parts are fiends, sacrificing everything to that aching
point of contact": 36.5.

posted by craniac at 6:36 AM on June 10, 2006

And an excerpt from Terrorist:

He does track in the spring; she sings in the girls’ glee club. As students go at Central High, they are “good.” His religion keeps him from drugs and vice, though it also holds him rather aloof from his classmates and the studies on the curriculum. She is short and round and talks well in class, pleasing the teacher. There is an endearing self-confidence in how compactly her cocoa-brown roundnesses fill her clothes, which today are patched and sequinned jeans, worn pale where she sits, and a ribbed magenta shorty top both lower and higher than it should be. Blue plastic barrettes pull her glistening hair back as straight as it will go; the plump edge of her right ear holds along its crimp a row of little silver rings. She sings in assembly programs, songs of Jesus or sexual longing, both topics abhorrent to Ahmad. Yet he is pleased that she notices him, coming up to him now and then like a tongue testing a sensitive tooth.

“Cheer up, Ahmad,” she teases him. “Things can’t be so bad.” She rolls her half-bare shoulder, lifting it as if to shrug, to show she is being playful.

“They’re not bad,” he says. “I’m not sad,” he tells her. His long body tingles under his clothes—white shirt, narrow-legged black jeans—from the shower after track practice.

posted by craniac at 6:39 AM on June 10, 2006

I love you Faze!!

Truth is, Wallace is right. Toward the end of Time is U's worst work. So what. There is a mountain of genius produced by the man. Especially during the 80's it was just home run after home run. And even Updike himself has said that he will be remembered for his short stories, not his novels.

The Updike haters can suck it.
posted by vronsky at 7:37 AM on June 10, 2006

>So go to work, David. Do your worst. But you will never be more than a little boy playing in the wood-paneled rec rooms of the Big Three.

I couldn't disagree more. Wallace's talent is pretty self-evident and most often easily dismissed by those who take one look at Infinite Jest and decide it's inpenatrable and indulgent without reading it. And one of his greatest strengths as a writer is offering up a valid moral critique of the generation that came before him, literary and otherwise. But unlike Updike et al., he had to establish his reputation as a writer when books were no longer quite the dominant form of media they once were.
Had he ben born 20 years earlier I have no doubt he'd be in the same pantheon. And the truth is that even though the "Great Male Narcissists" have written a handful of truly outstanding books, their body of work is far more uneven than the reputation bequeathed to them.
posted by Heminator at 7:58 AM on June 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

Heminator, I would agree with you that of the Great Male Narcissists, only Mailer has written a "handful" of "truly outstanding books." Roth and Updike have written HEAPS of great books. As far as David Foster Wallace is concerned, he gives himself away in the third paragraph of his "devastating" critique of the GMNs -- where he says "Most of the literary readers I know personally are under 40, and a fair
number are female... " Now, anyone who knows geeks, guys who live with their mothers, and role-playing game nerds, knows what Wallace is saying here. He's bragging that he actually knows girls!
David Foster Wallace is the guy in the Darth Vader suit waiting in line outside the theater before the opening of the latest Star Wars move -- the guy who gets mocked out by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog ("You push this button to have your mother come pick you up").
Wallace is standing outside the theater of great writing, dressed in his novelists costume, hoping the someone will mistake him for the real thing. But he is (as Merle Haggard once said of Gram Parsons) a pussy. He cannot kill the father. The father will not even give him an appointment.
John Updike slew a whole generation of fathers -- then revived them in his literary essays. He even (reluctantly) went toe-to-toe with Nabokov -- getting his ass whipped, actually. But even getting your ass whipped by Nabokov would be an honor.
And while we're talking about great male narcissist writers, I would like to add Gore Vidal, who had a brilliant run of thematicaly and stylisticaly varied novels and outstanding literary essays right up through the seventies. You've never even heard of Vidal's best novels. He was more prolific than you know. But compare the bizarre and disjointed work of his feeble old age (from the 1980s to today), with Updike's vital and upright output. Vidal lost his erection. Updike's is getting a little soft, but some mornings he wakes up and -- whoom!
posted by Faze at 9:32 AM on June 10, 2006

I don't deny that DFW has talent - but talent of the bright grad student variety. He writes like he expects to be graded. His books aren't impenetrable, just boring. they never really achieve lift-off.

"He even (reluctantly) went toe-to-toe with Nabokov -- getting his ass whipped, actually. But even getting your ass whipped by Nabokov would be an honor."

Not sure what you are reffering to here - could you elucidate? I remember Nabokov citing Updike as his favourite modern writer, along with Robbe-Grillete and Borges. But is has been a while since I have kept up with any of this.
posted by vronsky at 9:51 AM on June 10, 2006

vronsky -- There was an incident, I'm relying on memory here, where Nabokov somehow got the impression that Updike had dissed Vera. It was some kind of misunderstanding, but McNab blew his top. Updike tried various strategies to put himself back in the Russian's slipstream, but never succeeded. After that, I sensed a kind of resentment of Nabokov by Updike, and felt like Updike was huffing up his shoulders to give him some real literary competition. Eventually, Updike exhaled, but he has never (to my knowledge) written or spoken of Nabokov since. (By the way, do you remember that in addition to Robbe-Grillete and Borges, Nabokov also named Edmund White as a living writer he admired? Those were the days!)
posted by Faze at 10:19 AM on June 10, 2006

I think Faze, (95% sure - but like I say, it has been a while) that you are mixing up Updike and Edmund Wilson. Wilson had a major falling out with N, and I think it was over some imagined slight toward Vera, and some harsh criticism of N's translations of Gogol.

Updike even mentioned Nabokov warmly in a recent inerview I saw on PBS.
posted by vronsky at 10:49 AM on June 10, 2006

The Updike haters can suck it.

*sucks it*

Hmmm. Tastes a bit like a watermelon Jolly Rancher . . .

Anyway. Wasn't going to bother with this your-favourite-author-sucks-fest, but now that the Updike circle jerk has gotten so feverish and self-congratulatory, I may as well.

A few months after 9/11 - maybe six or eight or so? - there appeared in The Atlantic a John Updike short story. I can't remember the title, and can't find any mention of it. Anyway, it purported to be a kind of fictionalization of the events of that day from several perspectives. There were short riffs from the POVs of a Kindly Confused Old Lady on United 93, a Harried Businessman in the WTC, and a Crazed Zealot Jihadi on one of the WTC-bound flights.

Two things stuck with me about this story:

1) In only a few thousand words - maybe 5,000 at most - John Updike, purportedly one of the great literary geniuses of our time, had turned one of the most extraordinary and visceral mass tragedies of all time into trite melodrama.

2) Updike was apparently so full of his own hype - and/or so completely insulated against real editorial criticism - that he couldn't see, or be made to see, what an awful, embarassing piece of writing he'd produced.

So when I heard word of his new novel - Updike comes down from the mount to weigh in on Islamic terrorism! - I was less than enthusiastic. And what with all the talk of vital erections even in the pro-Updike talk here, I'm even more reassured that it very likely blows goats (as the excellent Amitav Ghosh explains in more polite language in the linked review).

I can't speak for his take on neurotic New England misogynists, as I've never been able to get through more than a few dozen pages of his previous novels - this isn't just an Updike thing, I have the same trouble with, for example, Martin Amis and Ian MacEwan - but if that Atlantic story was any indication, the Master is way out of his depth on this whole people-who-are-shades-of-dun-and-beige-and-commit-inexplicable-acts thing.

*pulls Wallace's Girl With Curious Hair from the shelf, commences third reading of "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way"*

i.e. *returns to sucking it*
posted by gompa at 10:59 AM on June 10, 2006

Wow, didn't realize Updike had such constituencies on both sides.

I happen to like him. I don't think he's great. As for DFW playing l'enfant terrible, I'd remind anyone that Milton had to tear down Elijah, Eliot had to tear down Milton, Ginsberg had to tear down Whitman ("I pull at your beard!"), etc. DFW knows exactly what he's doing in that essay--and if you don't recognize the fact that a young Updike played the same sorts of games in his 20's and 30's, you're blind. And yeah, I realize the Anxiety of Influence is kind of out of style, but a basic point remains--any strong author has to clear space for himself or herself, always. The genius of DFW's review is that while harsh on Updike, he's also very admiring, IMO. DFW on Updike is at least more interesting than Updike on Updike, to say the least.

To say writing a novel in your 70's is an accomplishment by itself is stupid. Again, Milton. He wasn't just old, but freakin' blind when he "wrote" his best work. Nuff said.

Updike's Updike. There certainly will be no lack of weeping and gnashing of teeth when he goes, but like a lot of well-known authors, he'll have left us with some stinkers. I don't understand why that idea bothers you so much Faze--Shakespeare had his Timon of Athens moments as well.

Then again, maybe he'll go the way of Hemingway, whose stock has done nothing but plummet since his death (which is a shame). To make predictions about an author's future stature in the canon is just that--a prediction. FWIW, Ellison and Bellow are much more interesting authors, and will be read much father into the future than Updike. But hopefully lovers of books will continue to read as widely as possible.

And say what you will about Kakutani and Ghosh, but they both make pretty solid critiques of Terrorist that are both esthetic and political--even if it's "un-PC" to characterize a young Muslim as an ideological robot, it's also pretty darn easy for an author to create a character with no nuance, no subtlety, and no motivating emtion other than rage. Maybe it's true, but a Sunday night movie can accomplish the same portrait.

From the end of Ghosh's review: "Why indeed do the billions of non-Americans who walk this Earth refrain from blowing themselves up? I suspect that Updike really cannot see that they have any good reason not to."

Coupled with Updike's own admission that he indeed knows very little about Islam (less than I do at least, and I've never set out to write a novel about it), I think this is saying a lot. But it's usually a good thing for an author to try new things, which Updike obviously has. Yet another book for my "to read" pile for this summer.
posted by bardic at 11:20 AM on June 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

gompa - thank you for sucking it. Actually I agree with you. I couldn't make it through the 9/11 story you are referring to either (though I was surprised to hear in a recent interview that he witnessed the towers falling, from a relative's house in Brooklyn). I won't pick up the new novel either. haven't read him at all since the Toward the End of Time clunker, even skip over him in the NYer. But Updike in his prime... fuck me sideways he was brilliant. Rabbit at Rest was his high point. Work backwards from there. And don't forget his volumes of criticism ( as faze said, an education in themselves) and poetry and the jaw-droppingly great short stories.

(and Pushkin, not Gogol above)
posted by vronsky at 11:53 AM on June 10, 2006

“The Beautiful Bowel Movement” by John Updike

Though most of them aren’t much to write about—

mere squibs and nubs, like half-smoked pale cigars,

the tint and stink recalling Tuesday’s meal,

the texture loose and soon dissolved—this one,

struck off in solitude one afternoon

(that prairie stretch before the late light fails)

with no distinct sensation, sweet or pained,

of special inspiration or release,

was yet a masterpiece: a flawless coil,

unbroken, in the bowl, as if a potter

who worked in this most frail, least grateful clay

had set himself to shape a topaz vase.

O spiral perfection, not seashell nor

stardust, how can I keep you? With this poem.
posted by vronsky at 12:08 PM on June 10, 2006

Yeah. I hate Updike's poetry. Sorry. I thought Joyce's and Faulkner's were pretty bad too.
posted by bardic at 12:10 PM on June 10, 2006

"Milton. He wasn't just old, but freakin' blind when he "wrote" his best work. Nuff said.

Samuel Johnson on "Paradise Lost": "None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure."

If John Updike had released books under different pseudonyms, like Stephen King, each new book would have been hailed as the debut of a great new author -- even this latest "Terrorist" (I imagine, haven't read it yet).
posted by Faze at 12:38 PM on June 10, 2006

Faze, you're welcome to disagree with me, but take it up with Kakutani and Ghosh if you feel your man has been slighted. Honestly, I had a hard time finding a positive review for the book--by most accounts, it's a stinker. Like I said, that doesn't condemn Updike, it just seems to mean that he's struggling with a topical issue he isn't equipped to deal with. And I'm planning on reading it, FWIW, so please don't think I came here to condemn Updike's entire body of work. Not at all. The book sounds interesting nonetheless, and the issue certainly is an important one.

As for DFW, he's read 25+ novels by Updike. Have you? Further, to actually satirize Updike as he does requires, IMO, a hell of a lot of (admitted) love for his work. It's the literary equivalent of a roast. I'd be disheartened if Updike himself didn't read that piece and find it hilarious.

As for Milton, well, again, we can agree to disagree. But since you're so quick to lionize Updike in terms of his future canonical relevance, I find it hard to believe that you wouldn't grant that Milton is, uh, kind of a big deal.

As for Stephen King, I wonder if you've seen his latest work, "Straw Man."
posted by bardic at 12:48 PM on June 10, 2006

Thanks for linking that DFW review, which I hadn't read. It's a great take down. The last line is perfect.

Merle Haggard called Gram Parsons a pussy? Hilarious. I guess you're allowed to say that if you cut your chops in the San Quentin house band.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 1:04 PM on June 10, 2006

Gram Parsons is, to this day, the most overrated pussy ever to don a Nudie suit with a cross on the back. He only wrote one good song ("Hickory Wind"), and somehow thought that earned him the right to invite himself to stay a Merle Haggard's house -- thus earning the Haggard's vaginal epithet. (The Rolling Stones couldn't stand him either, although there is no gainsaying the man's taste in covers: "I Like the Christian Life," etc. Brilliant.)
Vronsky -- I'm aware of the Nabokov-Wilson dustup, but the spousal insult was definately a Nabokov-Updike affair. I'm going to have to re-read Brian Boyd's massive two volume biography to the facts straight.
bardic -- I understand that DFW is trying to clear a space for himself. But it's like clearing an acre in Huntington Gardens to erect a Wendy's. He doesn't belong and never will. DFW's place is down with the dweebs, the fan fiction, and the ham radio operators. Of COURSE he read 25 books by Updike. He doesn't know the meaning of the word "boredom." That's why inflicts it so ceaselessly on his readers. (Come to think of it, maybe I have read 25 book by Updike, only unlike the tedious-minded DFW, I don't make numbered lists of everything I read.)
posted by Faze at 3:42 PM on June 10, 2006

The reason the interviewer may have mentioned Houellebecq is Updike's recent review in the New Yorker calling Huellebecq, bascially, talentless scum. This, I think, tells you all you need to know about Updike. Take that as you will.
posted by Football Bat at 6:01 PM on June 10, 2006

While I ain't no Houellebecq girl, I don't think he called him talentless scum at all. You may need to read it again.
posted by vronsky at 7:26 PM on June 10, 2006

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