Thursday, 7 November 2019

No 92 - The nature of John Updike

I recently read half a review of the work of the late American writer John Updike, and gave up in some disgust. A usually perceptive critic seemed to think that delivering up a welter of uninhibited four-letter words served as a way of revealing the misogynistic underbelly of Updike’s hyper-polished prose. This isn’t the first time Updike has been attacked for an habitually clinical depiction of sex, taken to mean that he fails to understand women – a perception that possibly cost him the Nobel Prize. He did win many other awards, but it still remains a mystery to me that this extraordinary writer, once dubbed America’s Dickens, never got the Big One, even if one objects to a certain cool cynicism of vision. This sort of thing didn’t prevent the 2019 Nobel committee choosing Peter Handke, whose politics sound abominable, or prevent a number of previous committees choosing men who wrote like angels but in real life treated their women like dirt.  

Two things here. The first is that Updike does indeed describe sex and the minutiae of women’s bodies with crystalline accuracy – the same unflinching, character-revealing and comprehensive gaze he brings to bear on the interior of a car, or the contents of a garage. He picks out things which (I presume) most men do register in their lovers’ secret recesses, but don’t go so far as to delineate them in richly, at times comically, metaphorical prose. I’m not sure what Updike’s feminist objectors would prefer: romanticised stereotype, the glutinous clumsiness of the Fifty Shades variety, or the coy avoidance of a Jane Austen? Not only feminists have had issues: David Foster Wallace, while claiming to admire Updike’s craft, objected to the ageing protagonist of Toward the End of Time, Updike’s solitary futuristic novel, paying exaggerated attention to the state of his genitals. On re-reading the novel, I think it’s Wallace who exaggerates, making me wonder what his problem might have been. I think I am safe in saying many if not most men pay a good deal of necessary attention to their goolies, ageing or not, even if unlike Updike they don’t talk about it much. In short, Updike is as forensically observant of male anatomical quirks as of female, suggesting he is driven by something other than a covert desire to demean women. Indeed, I’d suggest almost the opposite. I also recently re-read Rabbit is Rich, one of four novels concerning car salesman Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, and was struck afresh by what an appalling human being he is – and there is no way that Updike isn’t perfectly deliberate in this. 

So here’s the second thing. Because in story after story Updike portrays his men as complexly flawed, often downright stupid and gauche in their relationships, and only borderline sympathetic, it has become too easy to collapse the characters into the writer, and to judge Updike as being equally impoverished in his understanding. On the contrary: I suspect that Updike is placing that myopic masculinity at the very centre of the American cultural crisis that he portrayed life-long in such analytic, fascinated, still-half-loving detail.  Behind this lurks the gnarly and perennial question about how far knowledge of a writer’s life should affect one’s judgement of the art, and vice versa.

But all this is beside my main point here. Revisiting other of Updike’s works, marvelling at the consistency of their deft and intricate quality (excepting The Coup, aberrantly set in Africa and a truly awful book), it’s something else altogether that has struck me. Updike’s settings are predominantly urban and suburban, and he can hardly be called an ‘ecological’ writer – yet I’ve become aware of many telling instances in which the natural and animal worlds insert themselves into the narratives. At times this seems almost unthinking: Nature is just there, like flowers in the gardens, part of the enveloping intimate detail Updike excels at – but almost the more telling for its apparent unconsciousness. Here’s an illuminating little passage from Seek My Face, a 2002 novel decidedly about art, not nature:

The ‘sixties liberated her from lipstick and those frizzing ‘forties and ‘fifties perms as well as from girdles and garters; she let her hair grow long and flat down her back, bundling it into a quick ponytail to paint or do housework, she had all sorts of artful clips and hinged round combs, tortoiseshell, and ivory before endangered elephants became an issue.

Not only does this, with extraordinary economy, capture his artist-protagonist’s life as refracted through a cultural history of hairstyles; it also alludes to a history of animal life and an economy of exploitation: so common is it that we almost forget that a “ponytail” is equine mimicry, that “tortoiseshell” is originally more than the colour of a cat, or even more allusively that girdles were once made with whalebone. In this one brief mention of elephants, a wider cultural shift of attitude towards the wild and trade in animal parts becomes integral to his character’s biography.

It would, of course, be a mistake to think that Updike ever included a word or image unthinkingly: he is way too precise. That his scattered evocations of the natural – the peonies outside the window, the woods beyond the fence – are one with some serious consideration of human-natural relations, is indicated by this long passage from Villages (2004).

While Owen shaves ... he hears the mockingbird, mounted on its favourite perch at the tip of the tallest cedar, deliver a thrilling long scolding about something or other, some minor, chronic procedural matter. All these local levels of Nature – the birds, the insects, the flowers, the furtive fauna of chipmunks and woodchucks scuttling in and out of their holes as if a shotgun might blast them the next instant – have their own network of concerns and communications; the human world to them is merely a marginal flurry, an inscrutable static, an intermittent interference rarely lethal and bearing no perceived relation to the organic bounty (the garbage, the gardens) that the human species brings to Nature’s table. They snub us, Owen thinks. We should be gods to them, but they lack our capacity for worship – for foresight and the terrors and convoluted mental grovelling that foresight brings with it, including the invention of an afterlife. Animals do not distinguish between us and the other beasts, or between us and the rocks and trees, each with its pungence and relevance to the struggle for existence. The earth offers haven to scorpions and woodchucks and quintillions of ants; the stars guide the Canada geese and arctic terns, the barn swallows and monarch butterflies on their immense annual migrations. We are mere dots beneath their wings, our cities foul and barren interruptions in the discourse of predator and prey. No, not interruptions, for many species accept our cities as habitats, not just the rats in the cellar and the bats in the attic, but the hawks and pigeons on the skyscraper ledges and now the deer brazenly, helplessly stalking through suburban back yards, both pets and pests.

It’s undeniable that the writer has thought through the question of humans’ embeddedness in Nature – whether or not Owen is ventriloquising Updike, and whether or not one agrees with this view. A religious person, for example, would not: and indeed Owen grapples with this issue again, late in the novel and late in his life:

We feel made for a better world, and the fault is ours that this is not Eden. ... [F]ear and loathing can be explained as, like pain, a survival device selected and refined by Darwinian evolution. Because we fear death, we try harder to live. As long as our genes get through, Nature doesn’t care how we suffer.

We are, in this perspective, no more significant than insects swirled about in the cauldron of an insensate cosmos. Even once-ecstatic sex, in the jaded elderly reminiscing of the ironically-named Hope, protagonist of Seek My Face, is reduced to “Bug-behavior, the repulsive intricacy of insect genitals and strategies, strategies in which the death of the individual is quite casually folded. Poking, biting, squirting, dying.” The equally elderly narrator of Toward the End of Time echoes her:

There was no God, each detail of [my] rusting, moldering cellar made clear, just Nature, which would consume my life as carelessly and relentlessly as it would a dung-beetle corpse in a compost pile. Dust to dust: each hammer stroke seemed dulled by cosmic desolation...

In another mood or mode, however, this very brevity can bring about a brief but meaningful rapture:

I was an insignificant insect rapturously enrolled, for these brief bright instants of my life, in a churning, shining, birthing, singing, dying cosmic excess. From the quasars to the rainbow shimmer on my dragonfly wings, everything was an extravagance engraved upon the obsidian surface of an infrangible, eternal darkness.

The cosmos may be unfeeling, but nor, in the main, do humans care how Nature suffers. The thoughtless side-effects of human rubbish, mechanisation, and predatory exploitation infects everything. These undercurrents really surface in Toward the End of Time which, as I mentioned, is set in the future – 2020 to be precise. A sort of cataclysm has occurred, though its nature is left vague: there has been a huge war, which has, among other effects, wiped out the Siberian tigers, left the American midwest a radioactive dustbowl, and “an electronic infrastructure had been one of the first casualties of urban catastrophe and global underpopulation”. It is the culmination of the industrial toxicity underpinning the often pleasant but ultimately brittle suburban American life that Updike chose as his lifelong artistic patch. There are now little self-perpetuating robots, breeding in the trash-heaps, secretive and voracious, but surviving humans carry on life rather as before (it’s very different from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). The first-person narrator, Ben Turnbull, drawing toward the end of his own time, lives only somewhat more isolated than his suburban predecessor characters – enough however to be more than usually aware of the resurgence of wild nature and the flux of seasons. The first section is entitled “The Deer”: the insouciant animal raids the garden dahlias and poops on the lawn, much to his wife Gloria’s anguish. She wants to kill it. Ben is more sympathetic, paradoxically because he thinks “Rapacity, competition, desperation, death to other living things [are] the forces that make the world go around.”  A deep apocalyptic sense has the odd effect of making one feel both more precious and aware, and also more futile: “Alas, time’s arrow points one way, toward an entropy when all seas will have broken down all rocks and there is not a whisper, a sub-atomic stir, of surge.” The novel’s final section, “The Dahlia”, closes with several pages, quite cosmologically technical, contemplating that ultimate condition of entropy, of the galaxies collapsing in on our “scorched planet”, from which all life will have long vanished, or been swallowed by a red star. But Ben, like all of us, is numbed by the aeons involved, by the impossibility of  comprehending the disappearance of time itself.

My own mind quails. The blue shift is tens of billions of years from heating the interstellar space by so much as a degree Fahrenheit. I am safe in my nest of local conditions, on my hilltop in sight of the still-unevaporated ocean. Nevertheless, I am uneasy. All the vegetation in my view is gray, leafless. The sea has no colour; its uniformity of surface, scarcely rippled, offers the very image of entropy. The firmament is heavy, a mere webbing of lambent mortar between giant clouds as shapeless and motionless as paving stones. Plagues stalk the scabs of land, perpetuated by microorganisms that understand only annihilation; and nations, too, all illusions of gloire and civilizing mission hopelessly decayed, compete like animals in a cage where food for only half of them is supplied. The very short view alone is bearable.

That myopia is, perhaps, the core dilemma, both the saving and the destruction, of the human consciousness. It is all, to be sure, profoundly unsettling, yet so clear-eyed it is beautiful. The measured and delicate prose is itself the very antithesis of entropy. Updike, I think, no matter how materialist and ultimately bleak he seems, was attentively in love with all the foibles of American life, and implicitly, unflinchingly, constantly asked the only question that matters: How do we achieve a meaningful life in the face of oblivion?


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