Ten years after his death, the American’s sexual politics don’t bear scrutiny – but his novels do
When I was growing up, John Updike never meant to me what he was supposed to mean. A male American kid who wanted to write, I should have been reading the New Yorker but still subscribed to Sports Illustrated instead, even when I reached university.
In freshman year, a boy in my dorm started talking about Updike and quoted his line about the “two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known” (you can guess what it referred to). He turned into a friend, but somehow Updike became associated in my mind with an undergraduate world of preppy East Coast elitism and more or less constant sexual preoccupation that I wanted to resist.
In high school, puberty, and the world of possible experiences it opened up, hadn’t seemed fun to me; it appeared to involve a process of replacing deep affections and interests with shallow and embarrassing ones. But when you got to college those experiences became harder to avoid. I was moving into Updike territory. Pretty women, casual infidelity, the selfish and loving and destructive tendencies of sex, not to mention the fun of it, these were some of his subjects.
When Rabbit, Run, his breakthrough novel, came out in 1960, his publishers asked him to redact some of the sexually-explicit scenes that might get them into trouble with the censors – Updike compromised by taking out a few “dirty” words (which he reinstated for the British paperback four years later).
But if he were publishing today he might find himself in a different kind of trouble. Those scoops of vanilla belong to a teenage girl who has walked into a grocery store in her swimsuit, a character in the much-anthologised story “A & P”, told from the viewpoint of a young checkout clerk.
It’s a perfect little New Yorker story – with its awkward but engaging point of view, vividly rendered slight incident, and sort of half-mast epiphany at the end – but hard to recommend these days without some kind of warning. Not so much for Updike’s focus on the male gaze, but because of the extent to which the girl appears to be complicit in it: she pays for the jar of herring snacks her mother has asked her to pick up by pulling dollar bills from the top of her swimsuit.
Updike himself, during his teenage years in small-town Shillington, Pennsylvania, identified the New Yorker as the symbol of his literary aspirations. “I loved that magazine so much,” he said later. “I concentrated all my wishing into an effort to make myself small and inky and intense enough to be received into its pages.” A few months after graduating from Harvard, newly married and temporarily staying in his in-laws’ country house, he had his first short story accepted by William Maxwell, the New Yorker’s fiction editor, who told him that a job would be waiting when he came back from his fellowship at Oxford. The kid had it made.
“This frictionless success has sometimes been held against him,” writes Adam Begley in his excellent biography, in which he also expresses the hope for a “surge in [Updike’s] posthumous reputation”. After Updike moved with his wife and two children (two more were to follow) to a rambling colonial house in Ipswich, Massachusetts, he charmed his way to the centre of a set of young families, whose friendship for each other led to a series of increasingly knotty affairs and broken marriages – the subject of many of Updike’s stories, and the bestselling 1968 novel, Couples. Even if, as Begley insists, “he wasn’t the instigator” in all these shenanigans, “he threw himself with reckless enthusiasm into the tangle of Ipswich infidelities.”
It’s customary to separate the virtues and failings of the life from the work, but the truth is, what shows up in one is likely to find expression in the other – especially in a writer as autobiographical as Updike. Last year I reread Couples and found its social landscape more monotonous than I’d remembered, thinner and less fun. Everybody seems willing to sleep with everybody else, which makes them all, on some level, attractive, but indistinguishable, too.
The book is hardly an advertisement for infidelity, the arc of the narrative bends towards unhappiness, but you also sense a kind of collective weightlessness. Its characters live in a world in which ordinary obligations (jobs, kids) don’t matter as much as they should. Nobody seems to have outgrown their teenage hormones. Even before Updike’s death in January 2009, the tide had started to turn against him. David Foster Wallace famously slammed his 1997 novel Toward the End of Time, labelling Updike as “just a penis with a thesaurus” in a review that is more measured and substantive than that jibe might suggest:
I’m guessing that for the young educated adults of the Sixties and Seventies, for whom the ultimate horror was the hypocritical conformity and repression of their own parents’ generation, Mr Updike’s evocation of the libidinous self appeared redemptive and even heroic. But the young educated adults of the Nineties – who were of course the children of the same impassioned infidelities and divorces Mr Updike wrote about so beautifully – got to watch all this brave new individualism and self-expression and sexual freedom deteriorate into the joyless and anomic self indulgence of the Me generation.
More recently, Sarah Churchwell, revisiting Rabbit, Run in 2017, argued that “part of the ‘curse of incompleteness that had haunted American writing’ was its inability to recognise the full humanity of half of humanity – the female half.” That phrase about the “curse of incompleteness” was taken from the New Yorker’s glowing obituary of Updike, which claimed that he “broke it”, and called him “one of the greatest of all modern writers, and the first American writer since Henry James to get himself fully expressed”. Churchwell observed: “When Henry James looked at women, he imagined that they thought like him. When Updike looked at women, he imagined that they thought about him.”
Of course, the New Yorker had a good reason to eulogise Updike: he was one of their boys. As Ben Yagoda put it in About Town: “If ever a writer, a magazine and a time were made for each other, the writer was John Updike, the magazine was the New Yorker, and the time was the Fifties.”
Yet Updike himself was a more reluctant insider than this suggests – and less tied to the period of his first success. “Inlander” was a word he would use to distinguish himself from the coastal elites he met at Harvard and in New York. Katharine White, Updike’s first editor at the New Yorker, in turning down a submission told him to avoid stories in which “a young man looks back nostalgically at his basketball-playing days”. She meant to steer him away from the ordinary Americans of his Pennsylvania childhood and towards the urban upper-middle-class domestic milieu he was starting to inhabit. But when the real possibility of becoming (however slowly) a New York insider began to take shape, he fled Manhattan – after just two years – and settled in a small town 30 miles north of Boston and started writing about a young man from Pennsylvania who looked back nostalgically on his basketball-playing days.
That tension, between the Shillington kid and the effortlessly successful New Yorker man of letters, runs through his whole career, and finds its best expression in Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, whom Updike imagined as himself without the advantages – as a way to get at the life he might have lived before he was corrupted by success. Rabbit, by contrast, is trying to resist the corruptions of failure: dead-end job (he sells kitchen appliances), drab apartment, marriage to a pregnant wife who relieves her own boredom and depression with drink, crying toddler.
One night after shooting hoops with kids in the neighbourhood he gets in the car to pick up his son but instead starts driving south, towards some beach, he hopes, though he eventually gets lost and somewhere in the middle of the night turns around and ends up sleeping in the car outside the men’s club where his old high school coach is shacked up. The novel is told in a relentlessly breathless present tense, mostly from Rabbit’s perspective. (Though the crucial scene, where his wife Janice drunkenly drowns their newborn child after Rabbit has walked out on the marriage for a second time, inhabits her point of view).
It is also extremely, uncomfortably good. Updike has often been faint-praised for the beauty of his style but the plot in Rabbit, Run is simple and opaque, surprising and inevitable, small-scale yet high stakes – in other words, it contains all of the contradictions a good plot should. And the style does its job. Updike’s gift for rendering superficial detail turns the present-tense narrative into a kind of high-resolution computer game, where the reader is the player. Even if you don’t like Rabbit, you see the world so vividly through his eyes that sympathy doesn’t seem to matter.
Rabbit certainly makes himself pretty hard to like. Updike doesn’t pull any punches as, in later novels, he follows his hero through most of the big political and cultural shifts of the second half of the American century: through the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution, the Johnson and Nixon and Carter and Reagan years, at the end of which he dies, after playing a little pick-up basketball in his Florida retirement. Along the way he shows himself to be racist and sexist, liberal and tolerant, unfaithful, loving, cold, sentimental, crude, idealistic, close-minded and open-hearted in ways that are often difficult to disentangle or judge.
Here’s one example, out of many. In Rabbit Redux, Janice falls in love with Charlie Stavros, the Greek salesman at her father’s car dealership, where she starts working to help pay the bills. In the middle of her affair she persuades Rabbit to take the family to a Greek restaurant when Stavros shows up. Rabbit, who knows what’s going on, picks an argument with Stavros about the Vietnam War, in which he takes a predictable part, bigoted and jingoistic. All of the sympathies get messy. Janice’s liberalism is really just a cover for her infidelity, but Rabbit also knows he’s misbehaving. Back at home, he asks her whether she’s sleeping with Stavros. She denies it and he hits her until she gives in, after which they spend the night intermittently making love, until in the morning. Rabbit says to her, keep your lover, if he makes you happy, because I can’t. And Janice admits to him, something died in you when you gave up your girlfriend and came back to me.
None of this makes for comfortable reading. Rabbit clearly belongs, to use Hillary Clinton’s infamous phrase, in the basket of deplorables. Had he lived long enough, he would probably have voted for Trump. In one internal monologue, he reflects on the difference between white and black men as lovers:
The men are slow as Jesus, long as whips, takes everything to get them up, in there forever, that’s why white women need them, white men too quick about it, have to get on with the job, making America great.
But it’s not so easy to sympathise with Janice either, when she chastises her husband and son at the Greek restaurant – to which she dragged them so she could hang out with her lover:
Harry, you are so provincial. The two of you, sitting there side by side, determined to be miserable. Ugly Americans.
And her argument that Rabbit lost something when he stopped running, when he stopped resisting, when he came back to his wife and child and dead-end job and tried to live up to his obligations, feels less cruel in this context and almost loving. Because it seems true. Rabbit, Run and the three novels that followed at a rate of one per decade (Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest) remain one of the best fictional accounts of a certain kind of America ever produced. Andrew Davies is working on a TV adaptation; Rabbit’s past, like Mad Men, offers a sharp lens for observing the present.
Updike straddled the great national divide, between the inlanders and the urbanites, which has only deepened since his death. His best work reflects the tensions between them in ways that don’t rule out some kind of common ground. As Foster Wallace pointed out, Updike’s view of sexual relationships had already dated before he died – and much of it looks even worse now when you see it on the page. But part of the point of great writing is to date, to stand in later years as a vivid reminder of a time and place that we have grown out of. If we’re lucky.
Benjamin Markovits is talking about his new novel, Christmas in Austin, at the British Library, London NW1 on Feb 6 (bl.uk/events)