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John Updike was a writer of astonishing gifts, discipline and scope. The sum of his work — novels, essays, poetry, criticism — is enormous. Besides his sixty-one books (including 23 novels), for more han half a century he was a reliably frequent byline in The New Yorker. Sourcing the magazine, USA today says Updike contributed “862 pieces, including 154 poems, 170 short stories and 327 book reviews.” His latest book, The Widows of Eastwick, came out last October in hardcover and still graces tables by the front doors of bookstores. I’ve picked it up and read parts of it several times, declining to buy it because I’d rather read its prequel, The Witches of Eastwick, first. I’ll guess I’ve read at least half of his novels, but neither of those two.
I picked Widows up again last night while paying a visit to Kepler’s Bookstore with JP Rangaswami (a book lover of the first water) and Martin Geddes. As usual with books in stores, I opened to several sections at random, just to sample the writing. And, as always with Updike, I could hardly stop, no matter where I turned. His descriptive precision, the forward motion of his dialogue, the troubled yet charming depth of his characters — blew my mind, and made me grateful that he was with us so long. And yet I’m also pissed that he’s gone at just seventy-six years old, and in apparent full vitality before a lung cancer diagnosis in November.
He died in a hospice, not far from where we live in Massacusetts. Both these facts bothered me. A hospice is so anticlimactic, so plotless. (Did he write in those last two months? Did he record his thoughts in full knowledge that he was due to expire soon? He must have. I cannot believe otherwise. He wrote too well and long about death.) And I had always wanted to meet him.
How odd that lung cancer is what got him. The assumption, naturally, is that he was a lifelong smoker, like so many in his generation, especially writers. The picture in his Wikipedia entry, from 1955, when he was twenty-three years old, shows a skinny kid with a thoughtful expression, sitting on a bench, a burned-down cigarette between the fingers of his left hand. In Self Consciousness, a memoir published in 1989, he recalls with amazement that he had been a smoker as a young man, and how he barely remembered what that was like.
And yet he could describe anything, regardless of whether not he had experienced it first-hand. In The Coup and Brazil, he inhabited the minds of casually murderous protagonists utterly unlike himself — or most readers — with a veracity bright as daylight.
Most of Updike’s characters had strong libidos, or so it seems in retrospect. Of all his sexual passages, one line stands out: “Masturbation! Thou saving grace note upon the baffled chord of self.” From A Month of Sundays. (I got that quote here. I remembered it as “… thou grace note on the tortured chord of self.” Not sure which is right.)
The depth of his understanding probed constantly and sometimes creepily toward the absolute. Look at the opening of The Widows of Eastwick. The first paragraph ends with “Wicked methods make weak products. Satan counterfeits creation, yes, but with inferior goods.” And then continues, “Alexandra, the oldest in age, the broadest in body, and the nearest in character to normal, generous-spirited humanity, was the first to become a widow. Her instinct, as with so many a wife suddenly liberated into solitude, was to travel — as if the world at large, by way of flimsy boarding cards and tedious airport delays and the faint but undeniable risk of flight in a time of rising fuel costs, airline bankruptcy, suicidal terrorists, and accumulating metal fatigue, could be compelled to yield the fruitful aggravation of having a mate.”
Strunk and White advise us to put the emphatic words at the ends of sentences, and to make “every word tell.”
Omit needless words, they also advise. “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Ah, but Shakespeare was no hack, and Rembrandt was no cartoonist. If the machine does complex work, you build a complex machine. Updike, trained originally as an artist, did that. His books, his stories, his paragraphs, were all machines of precision and force. And yet they were not machines. They were, and remain, living things.
I only have two literary heroes, both Johns. Updike is one. McPhee is another. Both are, or were, about the same age. And fixtures at The New Yorker. I hope to read the rest of both before I rest myself. I’ve read eighteen of McPhee’s twenty-nine books, including all the most recent ten.
As with Updike, I read McPhee partly for the joy of running great writing through my mind, and partly because I always feel improved and enlarged by it.
It’s a small thing, but I still hold a small hope of one day meeting McPhee. Meeting Updike will have to wait, hopefully for as long as possible.
Here’s a collection of brief posts about Updike by other writers, at The New Yorker. Great stuff.