John Updike and the Waning of Mainline Protestantism

Article excerpt

John Updike is known more for the perfection of his prose than the pacing of his plots. At least, that is an observation one might infer from his critics, who commonly complain that his stories have a surplus of style over substance--although even the most ardent among them admit that his style is sufficient to sustain interest in the most minimal of narrative actions. This backhanded praise of Updike's literary achievement is heard so often that it is worth pausing to ponder. The power of his prose comes, at least in part, from the way he applies his expansively metaphorical imagination to the most tapered slices of perception. In Updike's verbal economy, a maximally exuberant splurge of language is required for the most efficient animation of matters that are seemingly insignificant. This paradox of a style that is as demonstrable as its subject matter is restrained leaves some readers cold, as if Updike generates a lot of heat without producing any goods.

Reading Updike in the context of contemporary popular culture highlights the virtues of his unapologetic literariness. The silver screen has cast its golden aura across the spectrum of media technologies, making movies the measure of our lives. We stare blankly at the speed by which movies flip through images like a pack of deftly dealt cards. Our eyes are so strained by the ocular imperative to lay reality bare that we almost forget how unknowable the world is when stripped of language's garment. From this perspective, the patience of Updike's focus on the delicacy of life's overlooked details constitutes a radical riposte to our image-soaked society. His signature sentences, which unwind slowly with a serpentine precision only to end, frequently, with surprising sharpness, taunt our dulled senses. Updike lights up the ordinary in order to discipline our desires for the immediacy of visual seduction.

Nonetheless, Updike's critics always want more--more message and less of the means by which it is delivered. Such criticisms date early in Updike's career, beginning, famously, with Saul Bellow's diagnosis of Updike's "stony heart" (6) and continuing with lames Wood's accusation that many of Updike's narrators and characters are imperturbable because they speak not from their own predicaments but with Updike's own languid and ultimately complacent prose.

The most perceptive of Updike's critics, perhaps following Updike's own frequent confessions to antinomian tendencies (the separation or even opposition of faith and common morality), have given this alleged imbalance between style and substance a theological significance. Thus Ralph Wood, intuiting the vice that virtue inevitably casts as its shadow, attributes Updike's descriptive generosity to a narratological sloth, arguing that Updike's polished aesthetic surfaces reflect a God that is none too deep. Frank G. Novak, Jr., in a brilliantly provocative reading of Roger's Version, pushes Woods' accusation of moral passivity to the point of suggesting that Updike has a proclivity, at least in this novel, for assigning his protagonist to the side of Satan. And Peter I. Bailey argues that the dialectic between faith and doubt that Updike deployed in his early work collapsed in the Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy and In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996), revealing Updike's journey as a voyage into increasing skepticism and even agnosticism regarding the consolations of belief.

For a writer so steeped in religion, the charge that he has become (or perhaps always was) unsuccessful in adequately transferring the drama of faith to the written page would certainly account for qualms about the superfluity of his prose. Nonetheless, I want to argue that Updike is too invested in reality to permit his readers simply to revel in his roguish verbosity, just as he is too fine a craftsman to let them think they can penetrate the thicket of his words to a level moral clearing. In other words, his prose is neither diverting nor moralizing. …

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