Wednesday, February 18, 2009

John Updike: 1932-2009

When John Updike died last month of lung cancer, I saw this quote from an interview where he described his most famous creation, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom:

"He is...a Protestant, haunted by a God whose manifestations are elusive, yet all-important."

I thought perhaps those words might also describe the author. I've read 18 of Updike's novels, including all of the Rabbit cycle, all of the Bech books, and various other novels from his considerable career. At some point in the future, I'll write more about my favorite novel of his, "In the Beauty of the Lilies." Updike was many things - miraculous prose stylist, keen observer of modern life, and indefatigably prolific. But we touch on him here because of the reoccurrence of Christian themes over the course of his work. To go any further frankly would require several pages and several years.

In "Too Far To Go," Updike's wonderful series of short stories about the Maples, a couple whose marriage is collapsing, comes the line: “Ah God, dear God, tall friend of my childhood, I will never forget you, though they say dreadful things.” This line sums up much of the Christian consciousness of Updike's fiction - the idea of an embattled Christianity surviving in spite of the rationalist, agnostic spirit of the times. Or as the Wall Street Journal observed: "He deplored 'today's easy knowingness and self-protective irony' while gently mocking 'religious aristocrats, for whom God was a vulgar poor relation with the additional social advantage of not existing.'"

In “Roger’s Version,” we see two different sides of Updike’s Christian sensibilities - when one character observes that the devout have a perplexing rudeness about the surety of their beliefs that might offend them were they to encounter it in anybody else. At the same time though, Roger Lambert, the book’s narrator, speaks about Tertullian’s observation that the Resurrection - indeed, the Incarnation - is to be believed precisely because it is - so out of place.

There you have Updike in a nutshell. He is polite, the Yankee reserve that one would expect from a Pennsylvanian who spent most of his life in New York and New England. But on the other hand, he is the scamp who enjoys the mere scandal of Christ’s existence in a world that would rather just move on. This allowed him to capture, like no other author, manifestations of the Almighty in day-to-day routines of his everyman characters. Let's be honest though - there is a mocking sensibility present in Updike's settings, a sort of intellectually aristocratic eye looking down on these "little" people. And yet it is, perhaps, the eye of God, celebrating the little walks in the woods, the routines of the job, the familiarity of the home.

And the sex. Updike lingers lovingly on the sex, too lovingly for some readers. My female friends always remark on Updike's sex scenes, as the years and the novels piled up, as being slightly creepy wishes set to prose. Updike, like Roth, continued to celebrate the social upheavals of the sixties, seventies, eighties, etc. by the quality of adulterous affairs his God-haunted men sought.

A recent entry, "Villages," a good example of his later novels which tended to run together after a certain point. This one melded the rise of computer technology with the ubiquitous educated urbane dude on the prowl for a quick tryst, while the events of American life sail by. A typical sentence might read, “As he unhooked the luscious abundance buried in her bra, he thought of JFK, Vietnam, Watergate, OPEC, Reagan, yadda yadda yadda....”

Owen McKenzie’s one-volume life strikes one as a smaller replay of Rabbit Angstrom, Piet Hanema with a little longer time on stage, the same male on the prowl, dancing over hordes of women and obsessing over God, only to be slapped on the wrist, again and again. Oh sure, there are the inevitable moments where the outraged wife, or girlfriend, whoever, rages at the injustice of it all. There’s a breaking up, an abortion, maybe even an accidental death, but the hero is soon restored in the end to pad around the kitchen in search of a snack, trying to stave off contemplation of death and fill that God-shaped hole. “How little men deserve the beauty and mercy of women.” The women’s protestations don’t seem so loud, not as loud as the sounds of the lovemaking, so joyous and carefree and endlessly evocative of coral and fruit and whatever other natural adjectives Updike could pile on, to the eye-rolling wonder of the reader.

For myself, the Rabbit books are among my least favorite. "Rabbit Redux" is an embarrassing hodge-podge of sixties stock characters. Even as the books grew in quality, the characters' behavior became steadily more appalling, especially Rabbit himself. My favorite entry is actually his coda, "Rabbit Remembered," which reunites us with all the characters after Rabbit's death as the millennium approaches. One can look at the sins of these characters and for a moment, as I said, envision the eye of God.

The anger or revulsion or frustration we feel for these characters' sins should be counterbalanced when we realize that God Himself finds the same sordid rust accumulating in our own lives and yet somehow finds a way of loving us. The religious aspect of his work though is the most puzzling, since Updike’s faith at times doesn’t seem very lived in as much as observed. I don’t mean that for him personally, but the way his characters are. The ones that stand out are the ones who believe vividly, devoutly, because the rest of them seem so bored with thousands of years of Christendom. One longs for Job’s Jehovah, wrapped in the whirlwind, to suddenly arrive unannounced. But perhaps, Updike longs for Him as well.

From Updike's "The Future of Faith":

"My father...was the son of a minister, but he felt his father had failed in the ministry, having lacked 'the call' and, perhaps accordingly, the necessary devoted energy. Where many fathers - some of them described in late-Victorian novels - conveyed to their sons an oppressive faith that it was a joy to cast off, my father communicated to me, not with words but with his actions and his melancholy, a sense of the Christian religion as something weak and tenuous and in need of rescue. There is a way in which success disagrees with Christianity. Its proper venue is embattlement - a furtive hanging-on in the catacombs or at ill-attended services in dying rural and inner-city parishes. Its perilous, marginal, mocked existence serves as an image of our own, beneath whatever show of success can be momentarily mustered."

I struggle with wanting to agree with this, and not wanting to. In this essay, Updike was commissioned at the turn of the millennium by the New Yorker to argue that faith still has a future. And at times, reading this, I think he pitched it to the intended audience, like a grade schooler at a talent show about to perform a tune he learned on his guitar, sort of embarrassed, secretly hoping to really sell it but giving off a shrug as though, if this fails, he won't be surprised at all. In this estimation, faith in some ways (always the wonderfully vague, inclusive "faith") is just a habit, like smoking a pipe after supper or a worn wool cardigan that one wears because it's familiar, in spite of whatever allure it once might have had. And yet, there is nothing in this excerpt, and indeed, in the entire essay that addresses the fundamental, almost organic need we have to sin, and the same hard-wired agony we put ourselves through over those sins - the sense of being fallen, of needing redemption.

In the essay, Updike tours the old churches and museums of Italy looking at various sculptures and paintings representing the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Christ that stares back from behind his paragraphs is just as flat as the frescoes he sees. There is no attempt to see Jesus - and seemingly no recognition that He can be found in the one place where He said he would be - in the other. No visits to the sick, or those in prison, not even a cup of water for a little one. In one respect, you can almost imagine Updike saying, "I never knew you."

In one sense, he's right - Christianity is embattled, and it always will be in this life. It is the one unbent and unbowed constant, the unmoved mover that continues to bewitch the eastern and western worlds. Christ inspires the Richard Dawkins' and the Billy Grahams, the Stalins and the Churchills, the silent masses and the careful murderers, all in His own way, running to and running away from Him. Perhaps the most dominant image from all of Updike is Piet's catching sight of the church steeple at the end of "Couples" above the smoke and flames.

But to say this ignores perhaps my favorite piece of Updike writing, a poem I once found in a collection edited by Calvin Miller, "The Book of Jesus." In it, Updike, alone among his contemporaries, makes perhaps the most unabashed case for unabashed faith, in all its ramifications:

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the amino
acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable,
a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed by the
and crushed by remonstrance.

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