Updike Gets His Mojo Back

Article excerpt

Stacey Olster, ed. The Cambridge Companion to John Updike. New York: Cambridge UP, 2006. Xvi + 193 pp. Hardback $75.00; paperback $24.99.

Once upon a time, John Updike lost his mojo. For me, anyway. Back in the mid-1960s, just out of graduate school and reading Updike for the first time, then audaciously teaching his early works in American lit courses (yes, there was a time when it was considered bold or foolish to assign novelists such as Mailer, Bellow, Malamud, Roth, or Updike), I had a little romance going with the author's Rabbit, Run (1960) and The Centaur (1963). I really loved the modernist experimentalism of the latter (and still do) and, as a former high school basketball player having played in a small country town (a legend, as the song goes, in my own mind), I believed that Harry Angstrom whispered to me on a wavelength only we shared. It was with a pain almost like jealousy that I learned he whispered just as privately to other guys who loved the novel and identified with Rabbit as much as I did. I got over it and found in the novels shortly to follow much to like if not so much with which to identify. By the late 60s and early 70s, the country had lost its Eisenhowerera innocence, but Updike reflected the changes 4engagingly--and graphically--in Couples (1968) and another Angstrom novel, Rabbit Redux (1971). In relation to the former, in the university where I taught, the sexual lives of its folk were hardly, shall we say, as freewheeling as those Updike represented in Couples's Tarbox, but even I could judge that they were less constrained than they had been in the 1950s. As for Redux, it spoke painfully of the changes in the racial landscape growing out of the 60s, ones, indeed, that were already represented in academia in students, programs, and social and political unrest. And as far as I was concerned Updike still had his mojo. But somewhere in the next decades, Updike lost it for me. I did not stop reading him entirely, but I no longer anticipated each new novel with the same excitement, and reading him became a catching up, more a chore than a pleasure. Read Updike? Not tonight. I have a headache.

As best I can reconstruct what happened to the magic between us, it had something to do with a suspicion that after the early successes Updike's novels became, oddly, either too predictable or too unpredictable. On the one hand, some of the fiction appeared programmatic, as if, once he developed a bit of shtick, such as the repeated takes on Henry Bech or Rabbit Angstrom or The Scarlet Letter, he rode it too hard and imaginative creativity gave way to the working of a sort of combinatoire. On the other, in such books as The Coup (1978), The Witches of Eastwick (1984), Memories of the Ford Administration (1992), and Brazil (1994), Updike's choices of forms or subject matter seemed merely outre, a way perhaps to pump up a flagging imagination or simply to show readers, in an African subject or magic or metafiction or magical realism, that, hey, I can think outside the box. While Updike rarely abandoned features--quotidian realism, even in such a myth-oriented text as The Centaur, and his preternatural verbal facility--that defined his early work, as a reader I surmised that for Updike neither style nor straight realism was enough and could be redeemed only by shtick or strangeness. Like one of Updike's lapsed believers, I wondered whether there were anything that might reverse my backsliding. Might anything get Updike his mojo back, restore a magic lost for me to his novels and stories? Surprisingly, I found it in the essays in The Cambridge Companion to John Updike. It is surprising because, in my experience, it is rare to read a series of essays in a collection like this and to come away with renewed interest in an author rather than exacerbated boredom. But many of these essays have helped me to think about Updike's works differently, and novels I'd had no desire to read I went out and purchased at good old Half Price Books and began working my way through them. …