Roiphe: The Bizarre and Misguided Critical Assault on John Updike’s Reputation

A column about life, culture, and politics.
Jan. 27 2012 7:00 AM

Rabbit at Rest

The bizarre and misguided critical assault on John Updike’s reputation.

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The writer’s obligation, surely, is to write a charismatic, interesting, illuminating novel about, really, anyone. But this idea that Updike has the responsibilities of a senator, or school principal, or pastor toward his fictional universe, an obligation for fairness and justice to all of his characters, for a clear-sighted, unwavering morality that extends over his New England and Pennsylvania towns, and even in a surprising number of critical briefs against him, for well rounded theological positions, perversely endures.

Updike offers his own engaging mea culpa about his relation to women in a poem:  “I drank up women’s tears and spat them out/ as 10-point Janson, Roman, and Ital.” This seems, however, more of an indictment of the way writers treat other people, male and female, than a confession of his sexist attitudes. Do writers use and arguably exploit those around them? Of course. Is there something unappealing or ruthless about this way of existing in the world? Of course, again. But this is not a commentary on Updike and his uses of female experience so much as a description of the writer’s life (see female writers like Sylvia Plath or Mary McCarthy), and if Updike addresses this moral dubiousness honestly and head-on that should be to his credit.

From the beginning, Updike wrote about trying to defeat death or mortality through affairs, through the intensity of sex, which is one of the things David Foster Wallace in particular criticizes him for. Updike describes an affair in Toward the End of Time:  “Its colorful weave of carnal revelation and intoxicating risk and craven guilt eclipsed the devouring gray sensation of time.”

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This sense of using sex, or the creation of many lives, through affairs, and mistresses, transcending the limits of one small, suburban existence through sex, runs through Updike’s writing from the beginning. In one story he has an amazing description of a man running into a former mistress: “I felt in her presence the fear of death a man feels with a woman who once opened herself to him and is available no more.”

And so it is as someone who has always resisted, written around, plotted against and fought the idea of death, that he writes movingly about its proximity in his last book, a remarkable collection of poems, Endpoint.

The poems, which he wrote as he was dying, have an alarming clarity to them, a cool descriptiveness. He is still interested in the ironies, still interested in the celebration and the blooming style. He wrote the following a month before he died about a CAT scan and needle biopsy, and the pleasant clouding of Valium:

I heard machines and experts murmuring about me—
A dulcet tube in which I lay secure and warm
And thought creative thoughts, intensely so,
As in my fading prime. Plans flowered, dreams.

All would be well, I felt, all manner of thing.
The needle, carefully worked, was in me, beyond pain,
Aimed at the adrenal gland. I had not hoped
to find in this bright place, so solvent a peace.
Days later, the results came casually through:
The gland, biopsied, showed metastasis.*

In another one of his last poems he wrote, “be with me words, a little longer.” And after three years in an Updikeless world, one wishes the same thing.

*Correction, Jan. 27, 2012: This article originally misprinted the sixth line of the poem as "The need, carefully worked, as in me ..."