Updike’s American Pen

Written on January 30, 2009 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Literature

Rolf Strom-Olsen

John Updike's death this week at the age of 76 has produced the kind of tribute, praise and remembrance from across the American cultural landscape that one might expect from a national literary landmark. Michiko Kakutani's piece in the NY Times offers a fair review, even if it sounds at times like she's writing a term paper for her first year English literature seminar. (But then many of Kakutani's reviews sound that way.)

For many of us non-American readers, Updike is probably a name at once familiar and unread. Kakutani tells us, reasonably, that Updike "opened a big picture window on the American middle class in the second half of the 20th century," which largely explains his irrelevance to those of us who see other vistas when we look out our windows. His famous so-called "Rabbit" novels are quintessential Americana that neither translate nor travel well at all outside their cultural milieu. I am unsure why that is. Certainly, one can appreciate works of fiction about cultures not one's own, but Updike's work dissecting the Middle American Experience is strangely unmemorable. When I sat down to write this, I was planning to discuss the one Rabbit novel I have read. But when I actually thought about it, I realised, much like a testifying member of the now thankfully gone Bush Administration, I had no recollection at all. Except in my case, this is the truth. I can't remember which one it was, nor anything that happened. Now I am wondering if I actually read it at all.

If Updike, chronicler of Americana, left me unmoved, I have enjoyed some of his more recent fiction, much – well, some – of which involves growing old. If you have a moment, visit a few of his essays and stories from the New Yorker, such as this one.

"I wake each morning with hurting eyeballs and with dread gnawing at my stomach—that blank drop-off at the end of the chute, that scientifically verified emptiness of the atom and the spaces between the stars. Nevertheless, I shave."

That's a good line not just because it is funny, but because it gets both funnier and more insightful the more you think about it. That kind of talent is what earned Updike his various literary awards and his spot in the pantheon of modern American letters.



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