Full disclosure: I didn't go to Updike's reading last night at the Unitarian Church. I wish I'd been able to, if only to see if observing the old man live would've changed my mind about him and his work. Because Sharon digs him bigtime and I'm one to respect her tastes and, I'll admit, when I heard her full-force endorsement the question glimmered across my mind: have I been missing something?
But my sense is that seeing his white hair and red face, hearing his WASPy drawl only would've amplified my Updikean aversion.
Why don't I like him? I'm not a 53 year old divorcee from Concord, for one thing. But that's the reductive answer. I can appreciate the fact that the dude can write. No doubt. "A&P"? Classic. "In walks three girls in nothing but bathingsuits"? Gimme a break -- unbelievable first sentence. He nailed it there, shoots the iron right up your spine. But the rest of it, I chalk off to generational differences. There's something stale about it, something too much of my parents, and something pathetic, too, in the old man re-imagining his high school lustings.
And in terms of sex, I was interested to read that he brought up Jonathan Safran Foer at last night's reading when asked if he'd read any other 9/11 novels. (He referenced Safran-Foer dismissively, according to Sharon, unable to recall the title of his book, one that he actually reviewed, at length, in the New Yorker.) I'll admit, I'm a sucker for Saffy-Fo, and it was Updike's review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close that confirmed my distaste. The review was not without merit. When he writes about the book's "graphic embellishments," he's dead on: "Over all, the book’s hyperactive visual surface covers up a certain hollow monotony in its verbal drama."
But the thesis of his argument, why he thrashed the book so, was that 8 year-old kids shouldn't be novel protagonists because they're not sexually mature. He writes, "This reader’s heart slightly sank when he realized that he was going to spend more than three hundred pages in the company of an unhappy, partially wised-up nine-year-old. The novel, traditionally a mirror held up to the Western bourgeoisie, to teach its members how to shave, dress, and behave, has focused on adult moral choices and their consequences . . . However sensitive and observant, the ordinary child lacks property and the capacity for sexual engagement; he exists, therefore, on the margins of the social contract—a rider, as it were, on the imperatives and compromises of others."
This reader finds that thesis a little self-serving and a little dated. And I bet that's exactly how I would've found the man himself last night.