John Updike's Beautiful Genius

Article excerpt


Ever since the recently deceased (1932-2009) American master John Updike's first books began appearing (almost exactly) a half-century ago, opinion has divided over the question of whether an author so technically accomplished can really be a substantial creator of lasting fiction.

Mr. Updike's long-established reputation as an exquisite stylist has been used as a stick to beat him with, by readers and critics who seem to wish he were Robert Stone, or at least Joyce Carol Oates. Perhaps because Mr. Updike's verbal precision and delicacy are unaccompanied by conventional restraint (he's as sexually forthright as Henry Miller, for all the latter's Rabelaisian bluster), even admirers of his fiction balk at fixing his star in the firmament occupied by the ambitious, life-seizing likes of Saul Bellow and Joseph Heller or Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon.

Well, this longtime admirer is here to argue that Mr. Updike's suave pastels and chiaroscuros attract the eye and inhabit the memory as insistently as do the broad strokes and sweeping flourishes of even the best (as I believe those listed above indeed are) of our postwar fiction's adventurous world-builders.

Mr. Updike's metier is the display of lives seen as compositions of numerous small moments - writ large in his own blockbuster, the tetralogy of novels focused on high school basketball hero and failed adult Harry Rabbit Angstrom; and captured in elegant capsule form in the dozens of crystalline short stories, produced with enviable diligence and finesse over five decades, which arguably constitute his finest work.

Perhaps one might evoke the once universally admired figure of Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883), whom Henry James pronounced the beautiful genius of 19th-century Russian fiction; another elegant stylist, whose scrupulously constructed stories and novellas lack, indeed eschew, the psychological and symbolic power of Feodor Dostoevski and the scope and grandeur of Leo Tolstoy - yet achieve resonant universality through their taut concentration on strongly felt experiences of romantic, family and class contrasts and conflicts.

Similarly, the action of a typical Updike story focuses on a mind's adventure, in its exploration of a world perceived to be changing, maturing and aging exactly as are we all.

Hence the raison d'etre and form of Mr. Updike's posthumously published final collection. The dilemmas that its characters confront echo a seminal story published decades ago: Pigeon Feathers, in which a thoughtful adolescent, David Kern, is frightened by a fatalistic pronouncement, regarding our planet's fate, uttered in H.G. Wells' The Outline of History. Inclined to pessimism but reassured by the beauty that resides in natural objects (such as the story's title objects), the boy reasons hopefully that a God [who] had lavished such craft on these worthless birds would not destroy His whole creation by refusing to let David live forever.

Such hopefulness pervades My Father's Tears even as its contents assemble troubling evidence from the perspectives of memory, experience and imagination. …