Updike, Redux

Last night was the first real meeting of the literary discussion group I organized hereabouts, Bloomsbury West.

Instead of reading in standard bookclub style — choosing one book– we have decided to choose a topic, ie. author, genre, geographical area, etc. Our first choice was JOHN UPDIKE.

I think that none of us in the group had ever read him before, or hadn’t visited his work in a while. As a result of the way our group is designed, we ended up discussing five different books of his:  S.Seek My Face, Of The Farm, Rabbit, Run, and Bech, A Book. Here were some of the highlights of our discussion:

  • Bech, A Book really intrigued us as a group, because it is Updike writing as an alter ego writer, a Jew in New York City who has writer’s block. Bech, the alter ego, has  very different sort of voice and personality that Updike. We argued and discussed whether we thought the character of Bech was directly influenced by other writers Updike k new, such as Philip Roth.
  • The overwhelming achievement of Updike seemed to be his ability to describe something simple — mowing a field, the pimple on the nose of a reporter — in a way that not only captured detail, but also created atmosphere, and supported ongoing metaphors in the story. As Claudette said, in the case of the pimple in Seek My Face, all he did was describe the pimple and yet you got a sense of everything around it– the entire face and character of the reporter.
  • We had a lively discussion, one that was unsettled, about the narcissistic undertones of Rabbit, Run, which is arguably Updike’s most famous book. Liz felt the character of the Rabbit was mostly unredemptive, as was the mother-in-law, though Updike provided glimpses of humanity. We discussed whether the feeling of negativity toward the American culture in the novel — ie. the shady car salesman in the Midwest — was Updike’s take on life or just a current of reaction to the time it was written, the late 1950s.
  • The issue of how Updike writes women was a big part of the discussion, especially since Robert and Claudette had read two of his novels that were written from the feminine perspective. We noted from an article from the NY Times that Updike had been bashed by feminists for his work S., which is an epistolary novel based loosely on The Scarlet Letter.
  • One of views presented was that Updike’s view of women was typical of the time, and not necessarily an unexpected view of women, based on the way men see women, ie. either as angels, whores, or mothers, This was the case in the book I read, Of the Farm, in which the main character interacts with three women– his mother, whom he has a highly inappropriate intimacy with– not sexual but almost too familiar. She is definitely at the top of pecking order of women in the Joey’s life. Then he interacts with the memory of his idealized ex-wife, Joan, (idealized both by his mother, and himself); and he sexualizes his present (literally) wife, Peggy, who is in one scene hoeing in the garden in a bikini.

  • Adultery was a prevalent part of the work we looked at. In each novel, someone had abandoned a spouse, cheated on someone, had prostitutes or some variation on that theme. Updike had a way of presenting it in the story as a part of normality, as a part of the “middle” — that somewhere east of Kansas–which he liked to represent in his work.

Overall, we found the extent of Updike’s work to be astounding, not only in number (61 books!), but in imagination. For me, it was work that was perched happily on the edge between the lush, effusive Victorian era of writing and the simple realism of contemporary fiction. We agreed that we were probably most interested in reading his Bech works, though I personally am curious about the image of America presented in the Rabbit.

Our group, too, was great! I was so happy to hear the learned opinions about the writing and the way they read it! As Claudette said, “It is so GOOD to talk about books again!”

Next meeting: Jose Saramago.

Elizabeth Howard

Elizabeth writes literary non-fiction, haiku, cultural rants, and Demand Poetry in order to forward the cause of beautiful writing. She calls London, Kansas City, and Iowa home. 

  1 comment for “Updike, Redux

Comments are closed.