On rereading Updike.

Some time ago–several years or more–I decided that I would re-read John Updike’s entire oeuvre, in order. I felt that I hadn’t gotten as much out of the novels on first reading as I might reading them again. I also thought it would be a nice Internet gimmick, something I could use to promote the blog in some very, very small fashion. Finally, when he died I realized that if I wanted to read any of his work, it would almost have to be something I’ve already read.

However, an Internet stunt is no reason to do anything, and I have no desire to re-read some of Updike’s work. It is true I am a fan. It is also true I have been once-through all but his criticism and perhaps some of his poetry. Upon his death, I wrote that he was the closest thing I had to a hero (not because of any heroic action but because he wrote and wrote and wrote). Despite all this, I’m quick to agree with many of his critics that Updike wrote some pretty crappy fiction, although I think his critics and I disagree on the crappy ones.

I do not care for Updike’s attempts to nudge outside of his genre or to impose his Eastern, protestant, suburban, affairs-and-divorces-as-sport sensibilities on other locales. The Coup was forgettable. Brazil, supposedly Updike’s attempt at magic realism, stank–after the fifth or sixth time of comparing the male protagonist’s penis to a yam, I had to throw up my arms in despair and scream “get a new metaphor!” Widows of Eastwick was a disappointing last novel that has something in common with Star Wars Episode I — it took the mysticism of the original and gave it a rational explanation. No, Billy, there is no Santa Claus. (Widows of Eastwick, however, had no Jar Jar) Terrorist exposed the cracks in the stucco of Updike’s career. He’s at his best writing close to home. In Terrorist, Updike attempts to get into the mind of someone totally unlike him; a mind he learned about in the same way Updike learns about everything, by reading about it in the Atlantic or the New Yorker, and it shows. Finally, Updike never did quite get endings. Most of his novels seem to get wrapped up a little too quickly, off pace with the rest of the prose.

I realized recently that I just don’t have the time to read so much that I don’t really want to read. A few weeks ago I picked up a copy of The Poorhouse Fair, Updike’s first novel, from the library (weirdly, I don’t seem to own a copy). It’s not bad, but I realized within just a few pages that I didn’t want to re-read it. And then I realized that I didn’t want to re-read any of the books in the paragraph above. Finally I realized that, at the rate I’ve been reading lately, it would take me three or four years to get through everything Updike wrote, and that’s assuming I stopped reading everything else.

Since I’m not an academic, why should I put myself through this torture?

So, instead, I’m going to make a list of Updike’s novels I would like to reread. They are:

  • The Centaur (which he claimed as his favorite, once)
  • Rabbit Run
  • Rabbit Redux
  • Rabbit is Rich
  • Rabbit at Rest
  • A Month of Sundays*
  • Rogers Version*
  • S*
  • In the Beauty of the Lilies
  • Seek My Face

*I don’t particularly want to reread either A Month of Sundays or S, but because they, with Roger’s Version, comprise what academics generally consider the “Scarlet Letter” or “Hawthorne” trilogy, I thought I’d give all three a go, after I also reread the Scarlet Letter, one of my favorite novels.

So, wish me luck. Rereading a book you remember as being good is always something of a risk.

2 thoughts on “On rereading Updike.

  1. enjoy the journey. Perhaps in addition to seeing new limitations of the author’s work you will also also discover greater depths. be interesting to see.

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