Some time this year, I made a joke on the internet about John Updike losing the contents of his bowels in response to someone’s prose. Three days later, Mr. Updike was dead. Oops.
I must say I’ve never been a real Updike person, or for that matter, cared about the group of American postmodernists – Roth, Mailer, and co. – who clearly influenced DFW and the writers of his generation. Maybe it’s a new postmodern boredom, a kind of rejection of the old hands in some fashionable spring cleaning (though I would note that this isn’t the kind of sheer hatred usually seen in this form, such as people hating on the Beatles for arbitrary reasons, though I do have a bone to pick with Bret Easton Ellis and the New Realists – another story). But that kind of apathy does put an interesting spin on “Certainly the End of Something or Other”, DFW’s review of Updike’s “ambitious departure” Toward the End of Time.
What interests me most about the review is how DFW effectively critiques Updike’s literary stagnation while singling out the characteristics of Updike’s work that are so powerful (in particular his prose). His approach is quite notable: he points out many of the same flaws as those people who refer to him as a “penis with a thesaurus” (52), such as how Updike spends 10.5 pages of his book on the aforementioned member, but at the same time draws attention to places in the book where Updike is at his best, such as in the “half-dozen little set pieces where Turnbull imagines himself inhabiting various historical figures” (56). In Wallace’s view, what really sets Updike apart is his control of language and his prose, and in spite of the fact that he invests that prose on what is effectively a book on The Tragedy of a Man Losing the Use of his Penis and how that serves as a suitable death for its protagonist, his work has a redemptive quality. This, I don’t think anyone really will deny. Updike, for his many unfortunate characteristics, does write a mean novel.
I do agree, however, with DFW when it comes to actually evaluating Updike’s work versus his skill. As he points out when he dissects the book to determine how many pages are spent on, say, the pseudo-futurist frame devices Updike uses to try to give his world a vaguely dystopian quality (and then promptly discards in favor of another good conversation with his member or a tree). Ultimately, there’s something kind of reductive about what Updike does, a major reason why I’ve never really gotten into him. I suppose I’m still one of those people who likes reading well-written books that also have interesting plots and dynamic characters. However, most John Updike books are the same: protagonist modeled strikingly after Updike himself bemoans his unhappiness etc. and buries himself in a pursuit of pleasure that is merely destructive. That’s a pretty good summary of the Rabbit series and most of Updike’s work, sadly. The man’s proficient, but he’s rather formulaic, and, as DFW underscores at the end, the protagonist-that’s-actually-Updike’s-alter-ego is usually a guy nobody could care about, and the linking of his fate to tragedy is doubly uninteresting because of it – on top of all narcissistic/misogynistic qualities one can pin on him.
But I’m straying. I’ve already hit my thesis: DFW defends Updike even as he tears apart TTEOT. There’s nothing more to be said.