Thursday, February 19, 2009

Poor John Updike

Poor John Updike.

I first read his one of his books in 1984 because I had too; the American Literature syllabus at Manchester demanded it.

Despite being forced to read it (a great way of putting anyone off even the greatest book ever written) Rabbit Run, published in 1960 isn’t a bad book at all. It’s perhaps the first of many Updike novels that shows his brilliant descriptive skills.

Encouraged, I read a few more Updikes and found them competant if a little samey, and in fact the more I read the more like one huge novel, or rather the same novel rewritten they came to seem.

And there are an awful lot of John Updike novels -
like most writers who are shit, he wrote far too much and too often – publishing over 20 novels and 10 or something short story collections in a literary career that spanned five decades.

Of all those novels, no fewer than two are pretty good, and one or two more (no more than that - Updike is too bland) might be great.

Here’s my list:

Roger’s Version – about a religious fundies’ attempt to prove the existence of god by computer analysis.

Memoirs of the Ford Administration – A really clever little book which is actually about parallels between the mid 1970s crisis of confidence in the United States in the aftermath of Watergate and the era of President James Buchanan who was unable to avoid the outbreak of the American Civil War.

Rabbit is Rich – A very good sequel in which our hero, nicknamed Rabbit finds material success but emotional catastrophe in the early 1980s. The description and evocation of the time and place are just outstanding, and the hero hasn’t quite become a complete tosser yet.

The excellent (and equally talented) David Foster Wallace nailed the attitudes of my generation to the grand old man of American Lit in this brilliant essay.

I really doubt anyone will bother with John Updike novels in 20 years time; which is a pity, as there's seldom been anyone who could write better descriptive prose. It’s just a shame all he seemed to care about was dull middle aged men having dull sex outside dull marriage.




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