Tag Archives: John Updike

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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Entropy. Futility. Oil. Coogan. Updike.

23 Feb

Being stalked by that coal-black noonday demon. The blade of melancholy around every corner. Every conversation reminiscent, derivative, redundant. Every book, every movie, every song seems to slip out of some cultural echo chamber that is muted, tired, and sad. The world is running out of resources. We are running out of Helium, Phosphates. Everything seems so futile. The stars themselves bent light from the expanding universe, red shifted dots that are the past, more cinder than light.

I blame John Updike.

I’m reading Rabbit is Rich, Updike’s third Rabbit novel, and it is superb. It’s also depressing, challenging, hateful, wordy, ragged and invasive. I feel diminished reading it. Updike can be an incredible writer, but he’s too prolific; a number of his novels are terrible, and plenty of his short stories are precious, overwritten and pretentious. (Sometimes reading his work, I wish Hemingway or Carver would barge in and say, “Enough! ‘He drank his beer and watched television.’ It doesn’t require ten paragraphs to say that.”) But the Rabbit novels are unique. By tethering his immense prose skills to a misanthropic stand-in for the average American male, he’s created a series of novels that are unsentimental, terrifying, sexy and funny as hell. Rabbit, Run has the former high school sports star Rabbit leaving his wife in his first sexual crisis, in his mid-twenties. He shacks up with a new woman across town, causing havoc in everyone’s life around him. Rabbit, Redux has his wife leave him in his mid-thirties, and his sexual congress with a teenager with disastrous results. Both end in tragedy.

Rabbit is Rich has Rabbit contented and chubby, entering the mid-forties with a whine and a whisper. He hates his son, tolerates his mother in law and sort of slides through his days. The resulting novel deals with Japanese manufacturing supremacy, the deflating U.S. dollar, the sense that the world in all of its complex machinations is winding down, and that there’s nothing anyone can do about it. (Replace Japanese with Chinese and you have a perfect description of the U.S. in 2012.) The novel is laced with a deflation; all the characters, all the buildings and devices, the world itself is all losing steam. It’s pages and pages of beautiful flab. It isn’t doing much for my own ambitions.

It isn’t just Updike, though. I blame Steve Coogan, too.

Coogan is a talented British comic actor who’s lost track of his career and he knows it. After cutting his teeth on some BBC TV, Coogan starred in one of the great films of the 2000s, Tristram Shandy—he plays himself in a failed adaptation of the idiosyncratic Lawrence Sterne novel—and then disappeared into some very mediocre movies. He’s wasted and icky in Tropic Thunder. Ditto for Night at the Museum. Hamlet 2 is funny, but sort of one-note and thin. And he’s the weak link in In the Loop, a vicious and great political satire. Drug addiction, some bad luck, and strange choices have cost him ten years of work, and as he enters middle age—the same age as Rabbit—he’s faced with the dark clouds of discontent.

He recently starred in The Trip, a loose sequel of sorts to Tristram Shandy, and a return to his talents. The movie follows Coogan and friend Rob Bryden on a food tour through northern England. I watched it last night. I won’t get into the details, this isn’t a review, but it’s hilarious. But under the surface is a seething fury against aging, against being forgotten. Beneath the banal banter between Bryden and Coogan, there’s a lurking King Lear. Coogan’s face betrays every absurd decision he’s made. His character is floundering about, looking for the role of a lifetime. For Coogan, the role of a lifetime is playing himself.

And back to me. I feel so alone, sometimes, striving in the labyrinths of my own words, thoughts, heart. What is the point? Giving up writing, taking up a different, lesser passion—say needlepoint or ping pong, running marathons or pickling seasonal veggies, hell even the guitar—what difference would it make in the greater energy of the universe? To breathe or not, does it impact the movement of the stars?

It is an excuse to do nothing. I have no pithy rejoinder, no humorous anecdote, nothing in response. I do have Woody Allen who gets it right in Play it Again, Sam.

Perhaps it isn’t the world that’s running out of energy but the human race.