The best of Updike, the worst of Updike.

Bringing out the dead.
Jan. 27 2009 10:01 PM

Rabbit at Rest

The best of Updike, the worst of Updike, and why the two are connected.

What superlatives shall we settle on in memorializing John Updike, dead today of lung cancer at age 76? It is possibly true that he was the best Talk of the Town writer The New Yorker will ever have, though saying that feels like a heresy against James Thurber. Was he the dominant novelist-critic of his generation? That's even truer, though Cynthia Ozick turns out dense and mind-expanding essays, whereas Updike was foremost a reviewer with exceptional antennae. To consider the 1,700-odd pages of his Harry Angstrom saga—the bounding tetralogy of Rabbit books and their limping postscript—is to find yourself considering a work with an excellent claim as the Great American Novel, but you'd be forgiven for preferring to spend time with four or five Very Good ones.

Updike's most enduring legacy exists at the level of the sentence. If you count swinging Saul Bellow as a Canadian, Montreal-born, and also class Vladimir Nabokov as a transnational, all-transcending anomaly, then Updike is, line for line, without peer, the finest American prose stylist of the postwar era: meticulous, crystalline, and luminously hyperrealist, his opulent language hanging on austere forms. Even his bad writing—and the consequence of his three-pages-per-day prolificity is that there's no shortage of it—sparks with phrases that send the heart skittering.

The precision is painterly in the way of photorealism, except when it's cinematic. (Updike once said that he imagined Rabbit, Run as a movie, with the present-tense narration intended to catch the fluidity of filmic motion and the opening basketball-court scene "visualized to be taking place under the titles and credits.") The grace of the style is such that the felt ecstasy of composition renders even descriptions of physical desolation and emotional grief intoxicating. Martin Amis, Updike's only rival as a post-Nabokov virtuoso, wrote that "having read him once, you admit to yourself, almost with a sigh, that you will have to read everything he writes." Nicholson Baker, another scintillating miniaturist, embarked on the memoir/homage U and I despite not having read even half of Updike's books. Do writers as inimitable as Updike leave heirs? Or just addicts?

It also must be said that, on the subject of sex, Updike could be the worst writer Knopf has ever known. David Foster Wallace, in a review of Toward the End of Time that sized up Updike as a "phallocrat," counted 10 and half pages devoted to the protagonist's thoughts about his penis, and that cannot be a record. Anyone with the stamina to get through Brazil, a beachy retelling of the Tristan and Isolde myth, will discover at least as much space fruitlessly expended on the hero's "yam." Last month, Updike justly earned a lifetime-achievment prize in the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. He clinched it with a passage in the new Widows of Eastwick that includes—avert your eyes, children—the following sentence: "Her face gleamed with his jism in the spotty light of the motel room, there on the far end of East Beach, within sound of the sea."

This is a very rare kind of dreck, the sort that can be secreted only by a brilliant professor of desire, and it cannot be separated from the masterly understanding of lust and physical love Updike displays everywhere from Couples to "A&P" to a review of Erica Jong's Fear of Flying. The same refinement of sensibility that kept Updike marvelously attuned to the motions of a mind in heat could have a way of aestheticizing sexual experience to awkward effect. One of this magician's very best tricks was to address this problem in the stories gathered in The Complete Henry Bech. There, in a collection starring a priapic novelist who was Updike's counter-ego, the author's exquisite mind reconciles itself with the farce of the flesh. The voice is not quite like anything else in Updike's expansive oeuvre, and the reader feels himself safe in the hands of the funniest writer never to make a career of comedy.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.