Write three pages a day for more than 50 years and you end up with about 25-million words — give or take a few million. John Updike once told The Paris Review: “I would write ads for deodorants or labels for catsup bottles if I had to” and he meant it.
From the time his first short story, Friends from Philadelphia, was bought by The New Yorker in 1954, until his death on January 27, Updike wrote nearly 30 novels, 14 volumes of short stories, nine of poetry and 10 collections of essays and criticism. Not to mention a play.
What is the average reader, who hasn’t spent the last half-century closely following Updike’s output, expected to make of his work? He was, unquestionably, a great stylist and a brilliant observer of the American middle-classes, in particular their sex lives, but like all writers he was prone to the odd off day. Or even year. Here’s a brief guide of what to read — and what to avoid.
The Rabbit series, along with Couples, is widely held to be Updike’s best work and chronicles the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom from a directionless 26-year-old former basketball star to directionless car dealer to a grossly overweight blob, played out against a background of contemporary United States and — naturally — a great deal of sex and disappointment. At times the books can feel as if they are trying too hard to be the Great American novel and the writing is uneven (skip Rabbit Redux if you’re pushed), but Angstrom is one of the great characters in late-20th-century fiction and Updike fully deserved the Pulitzer prizes he won for Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest. In 2001, he also wrote Rabbit Remembered, a novella about Rabbit’s daughter, but that really is only one for the truly dedicated.
The book that made Updike’s reputation and got his face on the front cover of Time magazine when it was published. Set in the fictional Boston suburb of Tarbox in the early 1960s, Couples is about the collision of traditional Wasp sexual mores and the new liberal “post-pill paradise” as 10 married couples hop in and out of bed with each other. Couples is often credited with bringing middle-class sex in all its graphic sliminess into mainstream literature. Updike opened the bedroom doors in an often curious blend of poetic and forensic detail and was both the architect for a new explicitness and the inspiration for the Bad Sex in Fiction prize, for which he was last year given a lifetime achievement award.
Henry Bech, the eponymous anti-hero author of Updike’s series of short stories put together in three volumes, is everything the author was not. Bech is Jewish, unmarried, unprolific, world-weary and up for the glitzier aspects of a writer’s life. He also gets the Nobel prize for literature, an accolade that eluded Updike. Bech is by far Updike’s most obviously comic creation and his penchant for murdering critics has made him an instant favourite for many other writers.
Updike’s reputation among women critics is more varied. The Witches of Eastwick, with its three strong central women who acquire magical powers after being dumped by their husbands, has been construed as Updike’s effort to redress the balance. Unfortunately, a lead male with magical powers of his own turns up to shag them all and dump them all before running off with a younger woman. The least said about last year’s The Widows of Eastwick the better. —