We asked One Story author Darin Strauss (One Story issue #15, Smoking Inside) to reflect on the loss of John Updike. His thoughts are below. We hope that readers will add their own comments and reflections about this literary (and short story) giant.
In this week after John Updike’s death, you’ll hear a hundred writers who didn’t measure up to the guy’s groin complain that “Updike never reached his potential.” One jackass–you can find his book in the remainders bin, if you can find it at all–wrote that “Updike was the greatest American writer never to have written a great book.”
John Updike was the best writer–the best sentence maker–of his generation.
It’s odd and sad, what happened to our bard of suburbia. Not too long ago, Nicholson Baker came out with U and I, a book about Updike’s “omnipresence and best-selling popularity.” The challenge, Baker told us, would be “to write about Updike while people could still conceivably sneer at him simply for being at the top of the heap, before any false valedictory grand-old-man reverence crept in, as it inevitably would.” Well, Nicholson, it hasn’t. John Updike never got the G.O.M.R.T (Grand Old Man Reverence Treatment); he got ignored. Writers had turned their noses up at him.
I.e., look at Terrorist. That 2006 novel was Updike’s best, most ambitious novel in fifteen years–and the most disparaged of all our decade’s big books. Was it flawed? Sure. (Find me a book that isn’t.) But who could write a sentence as Updike could? (“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.”) And who but the bravest of WASP novelists would be bold enough to try showing American readers the psyche of an Islamicist suicide bomber?
But–as they often bafflingly do these days–reviewers docked the novelist for his ambition. Even the esteemed David Gates, in the pages of Newsweek, took Updike to task merely for the attempt. “Updike, unfortunately, does take us inside the mind of a would-be suicide bomber,” Gates wrote about this “lame-brained, improbable” book. Updike may have been many things–even his best writing may have real defects–but the man was never “lame-brained.” He did what all writers are supposed to do, and that so few can: he saw things; he saw and he saw. Updike caught the truths hidden in everyday life, with the hyperclarity of a singular talent. Check out, for instance, Terorrist’s dissection of TV today:
“It’s slop…But the commercials, they are fantastic. They’re like Fabergé eggs. When somebody in this country wants to sell you something, they really buckle down. They get intense. You watch a commercial twenty times, you see how every second has been weighed out in gold. They’re full of what physicists call information. Would you know, for example, that Americans were as sick as they are, full of indigestion and impotence and baldness, always wetting their pants and having sore assholes, if you didn’t watch commercials?”
It’s weird to feel the need to defend a guy whose career saw the abundant successes and lotto-size returns that Updike’s had. Another weird thing is that his death comes so soon after that of another American generation’s greatest writer: David Foster Wallace.
DFW claimed not to have cared much for the older novelist. (Sometimes you have to clear the stage to make your own bravura entrance.) But the fact that America lost its best younger writer and its best older writer in the same season–this season of American loss, American decline–seems another curse, another vicious chill in our unlucky air.