From Jonathan Dee’s shrewd and unassailable review of the new Updike biography in this month’s Harper’s. More of a review of Updike and his career. Sadly it’s for subscribers only:
If there’s a category-buster in Updike’s vast oeuvre, it’s the tetralogy of Rabbit novels, which on its face is both realistic and nonautobiographical. Updike, in a foreword to the Modern Library collection of these works—which trace the life of a former high school basketball star turned car salesman, from disillusioning, rebellious young adulthood to material success to death—described Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom (I have always hated the condescending obviousness of that last name) as “incorrigible—from first to last he bridles at good advice, taking direction only from his personal, also incorrigible God.” But what strikes one now, reading across Updike’s oeuvre, is how similar Rabbit is, in the end, to Piet Hanema or Richard Maple or Henry Bech or other Updike stand-ins. He trivializes rather than embodies his era’s struggle with expanded freedoms by using them to grant himself moral immunity from the consequences of fucking whomever he likes. Characters don’t have to be likable, of course; but the off-putting aspect of Rabbit, Run isn’t that it’s about a man, worshipped in his youth for his natural talent, who doesn’t question his own droit de seigneur in abandoning his pregnant wife and young child to shack up with a local floozy (whom he treats with contempt) because he is bored; it’s that Updike—who later wrote of the “heavy, intoxicating dose of fantasy and wish-fulfillment” that went into the writing of the novel—proposes that he’s telling a story about America, not a story about Updike.
Boom! What’s great is how this review is more than a refutation of some common pro-Updike arguments, chiefly the “Say what you want about his misogyny, the man wrote some beautiful sentences” defense. Later Dee does some fair and smart quoting to show that Updike’s sentencing was often (as it so often is with writers) a way to use art and artifice to shirk more moral duties, to give himself license to avoid having to delve more sympathetically into his (female, usually) characters’ psyches. Rather than settle for refuting the Updike-as-lyricist defense, he makes a smarter claim: “It makes him seem like a more interesting and instructive writer, if not necessarily a better one, to understand his profligate [lyric] gifts not only as a strength but as a weakness.”