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Joyce Carol Oates on John Updike

"I teach his lovely short stories all the time—his language is luminous, sparkling, and glinting, with a steely sort of humor."

—Joyce Carol Oates, from "Remembering John Updike" in The New Yorker, June 28, 2009

John Updike's Rabbit at Rest

1990

JCO and John Updike at the Swedish Book Fair, Gothenburg, Sweden, 1987. Photo by Raymond Smith.John Updike's choice of Rabbit Angstrom, in Rabbit, Run, was inspired, one of those happy, instinctive accidents that so often shape a literary career. For Rabbit, though a contemporary of the young writer—born, like him, in the early 1930's, and a product, so to speak, of the same world (the area around Reading, Pa.)—was a "beautiful brainless guy" whose career (as a high school basketball star in a provincial setting) peaked at age 18; in his own wife's view, he was, before their early, hasty marriage, "already drifting downhill." Needless to say, poor Rabbit is the very antithesis of the enormously promising president of the class of 1950 at Shillington High School, the young man who went to Harvard on a scholarship, moved away from his hometown forever and became a world-renowned writer. This combination of cousinly propinquity and temperamental diamagnetism has allowed John Updike a magisterial distance in both dramatizing Rabbit's life and dissecting him in the process. One thinks of Flaubert and his doomed fantasist Emma Bovary, for John Updike with his precision's prose and his intimately attentive yet cold eye is a master, like Flaubert, of mesmerizing us with his narrative voice even as he might repel us with the vanities of human desire his scalpel exposes.

Full Text of John Updike's Rabbit at Restright-arrows

Updike Toward the End of Time

1997

Updike's prose, as always, is distinguished by passages of lyric beauty even amid the despairing rubble of Ben Turnbull's cobwebbed cellar. The prose-poem interludes in which, for instance, Ben recalls his impoverished rural childhood, dominated by a passionate, aggrieved mother and a hapless father, echo similar passages in other works of Updike's, from the early, gracefully elegiac short stories and the boldly Joycean nostalgia of "The Centaur" (1963) to the lapidary writer's prose ...

Full Text of Updike Toward the End of Timeright-arrows

John Updike's The Coup

1979

Beneath, behind, informing every scene of this inspired novel, which a superficial reading might judge as almost too inspired (a tour de force against readers' expectations, like Updike's very first novel The Poorhouse Fair, which was anything but a "young man's novel"), is a passionate and despairing cynicism which I take to be, for all its wit, Updike's considered view of where we are and where we are going. No moral uplift here; no gestures, like Bellow's, toward the essential "health" of the commonplace.

Full Text of John Updike's The Coupright-arrows
John Updike's American Comedies

1979

. . . A writer who shares Updike's extreme interest in the visual world as well as his obsession with language is Joseph Conrad who, significantly, could imagine the ideal and the real only as hopelessly separate: when the "ideal" is given historical freedom to experience itself in flesh, in action, we have the tragicomedy of Nostromo, we have the Feminine Archetype, Mrs. Gould, at the very center of a storm of mirages, each an "ideal," each a masculine fantasy. But Conrad—ironic and witty as he may be—is finally without Updike's redeeming sense of humor. Art itself is not redemptive; but the sudden shifting of point of view that allows for a restoration of sanity is often redemptive. There is an Updike who is forever being driven along dangerous narrow roads by a beautiful woman with an intriguing, because mysterious, past, himself a hoarder of words, hoping only to experience transparency in the face of such wonder; there is another Updike in the guise of Reverend March, knowing his bitter metallic Calvinistic faith so unkillable that he may mock it, betray it, take every possible risk of damnation—because he is already saved, or already damned anyway. And out of this curious duality comes the paradoxical freedom of the true artist: having conquered both his temptation by vice and his temptation by virtue, he may live as ordinarily as anyone else.

Full Text of John Updike's American Comediesright-arrows

from The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates

July 22, 1976

[ ... ] Next morning drove to Georgetown, Mass., to have lunch with John Updike and his new wife/companion, Martha Bernhardt, one of the most pleasant visits we've ever had with anyone. Georgetown is a charming little town not far from Ipswich, where John's and Martha's former spouses apparently live, but their old, attractive home is situated right on the main street, and trucks pass by constantly, so that one can hardly hear what's being said and the whole house trembles .... With all Updike's money, and his and Martha's good sense, how has it come about that they've bought a house in such a location? Updike's working space is large and airy, though, and at the rear of the house, so perhaps the trucks won't bother him. I'd go mad in such a small town myself but he seems to thrive upon that kind of near-seclusion. (With a family around him: Martha's three boys. He's like a character in an Updike story.)

The dust jacket for Marry Me on a bulletin board, and the sketch for a new edition of Poorhouse Fair. Updike's modesty: his mentioning that the new novel wasn't particularly good, he'd rather we read his new book of poems, his assertion that he couldn't do an anthology like the one I did for Random House because he's "too dumb" (an outrageous statement coming from the author of Picked-Up Pieces alone). Gentle, sly, clever, witty, charming, immensely attractive; and Martha seems to be his equal in every way. One can see why they fell in love though it isn't possible to guess at the various agonies they experienced, and caused, in coming together. (Updike's story "Separating" is one of the most moving stories he's written.) We took them to lunch at a nearby restaurant and spent a wonderful two hours or so talking of innumerable things. I don't wonder that interviewers have misread Updike, taking his assessment of himself seriously. He's self-deprecating in a playful, understated way, the result perhaps of his early fame. Success has not spoiled him but, I suspect, made him nicer. (He said that Harvard "ruined" him—made of his natural hillbilly self another personality, an anti-self; Harvard was an anti-mater. But in what way Updike has been ruined one can't guess .... ) Perhaps, like me, Updike doesn't dare acknowledge the central importance of writing to his life; perhaps the gift rather alarms him, as it does me, at times, and has the aura of something so sacred it either can't be spoken of at all or must be alluded to in a slighting manner.
[ ... ]

Roth and Vonnegut and Bellow were mentioned, and Erica Jong, and Alfred Kazin ("I couldn't help but admire," John said in his amiable way, "how Kazin's mouth seemed to disappear under his ear"—referring to a violent spasmodic tic Kazin has developed; a tic that Ray and I found awfully distracting when we saw Kazin last, though Kazin himself isn't the least bit self-conscious.) I liked John's penchant for lightweight, amusing gossip, nothing malicious, nothing extreme. Yet still one could sense that he felt competitive in terms of these other writers .... I found myself unconsciously competing with him: mentioning that my writing didn't make much money, that my books didn't earn their advances for years. His self-deprecation couldn't match that. A best-selling writer, after all, can't present himself as being neglected.

Updike's slight guilt, perhaps, over his early and easy success. The New Yorker means a great deal to him. In ways I can't quite fathom. It's a kind of parental authority, a sanctuary, a Great Good Place; there were copies lying about the house, on the dining room table, in the living room. On the walls: a Steinberg cartoon from years ago, sent to Updike at the age of thirteen; a Thurber cartoon also. (Updike was, and probably still is, a natural "fan.") If The New Yorker ever disowns him the poor man will suffer horribly ... but might, eventually, become a riskier and more flamboyant writer. I happen to like most of what he writes, and wouldn't wish him to change, but that's just selfishness on my part. We don't want people to change whom we like.

Updike's ... modesty. He doesn't seem to sense how odd certain remarks of his are. (He claimed that I was "famous"—but he wasn't.) If he weren't serious these remarks would be, in a way, unpleasant; almost aggressive. A kind of reversed snobbery. But he's serious, he really believes these things, he's a hillbilly from rural Pennsylvania somehow masquerading as a world-famous writer, and the role makes him uneasy and ironic....

We're both Joyceans, hence cousins of a sort ....