National Book Award winners, part 17: 1964’s The Centaur, by John Updike.

19 Dec

(In seventeen beautiful bullet points . . . and five fabulous footnotes.)

• In 1964, John Updike won the National Book Award for The Centaur. He beat out Thomas Pynchon, Bernard Malamud (I reviewed him here), Mary McCarthy and Harvey Swados[1].

• John Updike is a prodigiously, otherworldly talented writer. He is electricity. He is gasoline. He is a primal force in American letters, for good and for ill. He wrote great books, good books and bad ones.

The Centaur isn’t a great book. The Centaur isn’t a good book. The Centaur is exactly, precisely, a very, very bad book.

• I have a love/hate thing with Updike. I consider Rabbit, Run to be a foundational novel of the 20th century. It’s a terrifying character study of a privileged man living without consequences. And through all the damage he causes, he feels immense self-pity and persecution. Rabbit remains a template for the bulk of our pop culture antiheroes. Who is Don Draper, really, other than a poor Rabbit Angstrom still in possession of his secrets?

The worst novel of Updike's I've read.

Of Updike’s work I’ve read, this is the worst. And it won the National Book Award. Go figure. 

• Updike is skilled, powerful, eloquent, passionate, ambitious and driven. This Updike is unsentimental and a great chronicler of the conflicted interior lives of his characters. But Updike is also arrogant, imperious, privileged, predictable, pedantic and sex-obsessed.

• Updike sees sex as the prime mover of human experience, the great motivator in people, and thus writes a handful of stories over and over. Cheating spouse seeks redemption. Unfulfilled lust turns sour. Middle-aged affair allows for late-in-life renaissance. Man allows pursuit of sex to ruin his life. He loves describing genitals, especially of middle-aged women; he famously described one woman’s vagina as an “ancient cave,” and here he describes another woman’s vagina this way: “its walls were snug, its odor was green, there was a sweetness in the chapel.” He saw the ache that accompanied the loss of widespread religious belief, and the various ways people create their own ways of punishment and penitence for their sins. Sex takes the form of penitence for some, salvation for others (hence the word choice of “chapel”). To Updike, Sex can be religion and religious expression. He says it over and over: you can achieve transcendence in the bedroom. It just exacts a price.

• Updike, more than any other great writer I can think of, should have published less. Thirty novels, fifteen collections(!) of short stories. Plus nine volumes of poetry (he’s a very fine poet), a lifetime of criticism and some very fine essays collected in some thirteen volumes. Taken as a whole he published a few yards of writing, the output of three or four authors. He is correctly held in the highest critical regard as one of the most important 20th century novelists.

• A distinguished life of letters and a formidable intellect, yes, but here his talents are mostly squandered.

• Updike the critic set out some very fine rules to reviewing. The one that stings is rule number five: “If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?”

• I’ll try and follow his advice. The failure of The Centaur is in the conceit. Contemporary writers should stay away from Greek mythology. Or, more accurately, contemporary writers should avoid updating Greek myths for their own purposes[2]. Updike takes the story of Chiron and Prometheus and overlays it on top of the story of a school teacher and his awkward son. All the characters have mythological cognates, and the novel shifts into feverish passages of the Greek myths. It’s an ambitious, challenging idea, but it doesn’t work. The two narratives rest uneasily next to each other. Updike is trying to imbue everyday life with a mythic permanence. He wants to show how our decisions resonate with cosmic significance. But the Greek myths in his novel distract from the significance of his characters’ daily lives.

• Put another way, Updike accomplishes the exact opposite result of what he set out to do. He diminishes his real characters by juxtaposing them with the gods and heroes and saints.  This failure is not mine, it is Updike’s alone.

• Updike should have won for Rabbit, Run, but he lost that year to The Waters of Cronos (just shocking; I reviewed Cronos here). Updike was a hotshot at a young age. He incubated his talent first at the Harvard Lampoon and then later at the New Yorker. He was eventually a judge for the National Book Award. He was a pedigreed insider with writing and editing chops. I believe he was given the award for his entire career to date, and not for this.

• Why? Because he didn’t deserve to win. 1963 was an intriguing year for fiction, with cult works appearing next to mainstream novels by big-name writers. Jim Thompson[3] published The Grifters. Charles Webb released The Graduate. John Rechy published his epic, gay road novel, City of Night. Kurt Vonnegut published his very fine Cat’s Cradle. Sylvia Plath published her fantastic, autobiographical novel of existential despair, The Bell Jar. Walter Tevis—a great writer who hasn’t yet been rediscovered—released his literary science fiction novel, The Man Who Fell To Earth. Susan Sontag published her novel, The Benefactor. John Hawkes[4] released Second Skin. Pearl Buck and Taylor Caldwell released novels. So did Thomas Pynchon.

• What I love about the period of the mid-sixties into the mid-seventies in fiction—and film—was the traditional and classical novels rested side by side next to grand, experimental works. A new type of novelist appeared, returning to the linguistic playfulness of the modernists, but infusing it with paranoia and self-awareness. Thomas Pynchon is one of the key figures to this new school, along with Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, John Barth and Edward Abbey. These authors were the leading lights of a generation, inventive, challenging, baroque, and wordy. Pynchon’s V., perhaps his finest novel, is dense, linguistically playful, ambitious, byzantine, labyrinthine, druggy, difficult and weird. Yet, if you give in to the novel’s cadences, it’s a blast.

• Around the world, a new batch of authors began to appear. Julio Cortazar published his influential, experimental Hopscotch. John Le Carre released his spy epic in miniature, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Future Noble Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa published The Time of the Hero. Keith Waterhouse released his great comic novel, Billy Liar[5]. Pierre Bouille published his Planet of the Apes. Future Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass released Dog Years. John Fowles published his creepy The Collector.

• What’s clear from the above lists is that American fiction, and world fiction, was hitting a turning point, a flowering if you will, into a more bizarre, experimental phase. The madness of the Cold War was everywhere, drug culture was entering the mainstream, and the civil rights movement, the youth movement, and the feminist movement were all in full bloom, with the gay rights movement just around the corner. The form of the novel was responding, fracturing, evolving.

• The awkwardness of Updike’s Centaur is, perhaps, part of this evolution. And like The Centaur, he stands uneasily between two worlds. He is a modernist and a classicist, a realist and a fantasist. He’s a contradiction, sexy, sexist, and mean-spirited, yes, but also loving, big-hearted, and empathetic. Don’t mistake my criticism. He is a fantastic writer, a presence I plan to grow old with, reading his work as the years pass by.


[1] Whoever this is.

[2] Amongst hundreds of novel ideas, I recently scribbled down a retelling of Hephaestus, thrown down from Mount Olympus, making his way back to his home, limping, poor and alone, meeting oddball characters along the way. The kicker is that he’s forgotten who he is. I know, I know, I should heed my own advice.

[3] Thompson, with his best works, exists as a crude, American Dostoevsky; he wrote intense, first-person pulp that elevated the genre.

[4] I’ve always considered him British, even though I know he’s not; The Lime Twig is a superb novel, a crime story stripped of any finery and refracted through some insane person’s perceptions.

[5] Adapted into one of my all-time favorite movies.

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One Response to “National Book Award winners, part 17: 1964’s The Centaur, by John Updike.”

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  1. National Book Award winners, part 24: 1972′s Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor. | simoneandthesilversurfer - April 8, 2014

    […] beat out some very fine writers: Stanley Elkin, Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates, Walker Percy, John Updike, Wallace Stegner, Jerzy Kosinski, Ernest Gaines, Richard Brautigan, Frederick Buechner and E.L. […]

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