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John Updike Croaks!!!

Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageJust breaking news…author John Updike died at age 76 of lung cancer. Sympathies to his friends and family.

A couple thoughts about his legacy:

• The term "literary lion" comes to mind here. Updike was basically the face of the literary establishment. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, I leave up to you to decide, dear readers. This guy published about a novel a year for the last 100 years, reviews and poetry seemingly every week in the New Yorker, New York Times Book Review, and New York Review of Books..anything with the word "New York" in it, apparently.

• He was only 76?!!! He seemed like he was more around 176.

• He was sort of the Great Father of last generation of writers that this generation's writers variously adored and rebelled against.

• Subject of a famous patricidal literary gutting by David Foster Wallace which can be read here. Also collected in his non-fiction collection "Consider the Lobster." It's ostensibly a review of Updike's book Toward the End of Time, and it begins thusly (and appropriately):

  Mailer, Updike, Roth — the Great Male Narcissists* who've dominated postwar realist fiction are now in their senescence, and it must seem to them no coincidence that the prospect of their own deaths appears backlit by the approaching millennium and on-line predictions of the death of the novel as we know it. When a solipsist dies, after all, everything goes with him. And no U.S. novelist has mapped the solipsist's terrain better than John Updike, whose rise in the 60s and 70s established him as both chronicler and voice of probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV. As were Freud's, Mr. Updike's big preoccupations have always been with death and sex (not necessarily in that order), and the fact that the mood of his books has gotten more wintery in recent years is understandable — Mr. Updike has always written largely about himself, and since the surprisingly moving Rabbit at Rest he's been exploring, more and more overtly, the apocalyptic prospect of his own death.

Toward the End of Time concerns an incredibly erudite, articulate,
successful, narcissistic and sex-obsessed retired guy who's keeping a one-year journal in which he explores the apocalyptic prospect of his own death. It is, of the total 25 Updike books I've read, far and away the worst, a novel so mind-bendingly clunky and self-indulgent that it's hard to believe the author let it be published in this kind of shape. 

• Yet Updike was also revered by some. In fact, Nicholson Baker wrote one of the strangest, best books I've ever read called U & I, an entire book about Baker's obsession and worship of Updike (who I consider a vastly inferior writer to Baker, but influence of our elders is a weird thing, I guess). In it, among other things, Baker fantasizes about what it would be like to play golf with Updike, and attempts to remember what happens in the 20 or so books he's read of his without cheating by looking…then goes back and shows what he got wrong, and how we remember books differently (and sometimes better) than they actually are.

• Personally, I'm not a John Updike fan. I've read (or attempted to read) a couple of his books that are generally considered amongst his best: Of the Farm and Rabbit at Rest. He just strikes as completely of his time (the very early 60s school of realism, before the much funnier, more talented postmodernists like Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon, etc came along): it's basically "pretty" descriptions of frost on a window, things like that. Fussy, "good" writing your old high school English teacher would approve of. Nothing really clicks: I never felt like Updike had anything urgent to say about what it's like to be alive. This is probably a generational thing, and I might be wildly off-base. Love to hear others' thoughts.