Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike 1932 - 2009

I was in the Las Vegas airport when Tara called to tell me that John Updike had died. It seems flamboyantly dramatic to write this now, but I actually had to find a place to sit down to collect myself. I can't think of any other celebrity whose death could affect me like this. I suppose if something happens to our new Beloved Leader I'd be a bit distressed, although that loss would be political, and wrapped almost entirely in a potential which (barring an asteroid or alien attack) can only diminish with time. I once read an interview with science author Ann Druyan in which she discussed her passion for Beethoven as a debt; when she compiled the music for the golden record included with both Voyager spacecraft, she chose part of his Fifth Symphony as a way of repaying this debt. Except for the working-at-NASA part, this is pretty much how I feel about Updike. There is no way I can repay the debt I owe him.

I'm guessing that most writers who read Updike's books cannot help but be spooked by his depth of field, and/or absurdly prolific output. His fiction and non-fiction (I'm avoiding the nine volumes of poetry) hold, for me, the same unnerving quality as Bruce Lee action sequences, or certain Queen songs, or footage from the Mars rovers; all share a precision that seems beyond the reach of humans. At his best, his fiction felt like reportage from an existing reality. I sometimes had the impression he was toying with his readers, dumbing down, and would occasionally open up his internal throttle only for his own amusement. In 1997's Toward The End Of Time, his only sci-fi novel, the protagonist finds, then loses, a dead body;

I was being watched, though my quick visual search of the woods revealed only receding depths of fresh leaves, lobed maple and triform hickory and serrated beech, leaves invading and nibbling at the carbon dioxide, forming ragged caves and tunnels of air worming their way down to the tracks and the creek. I was apparently alone on my vegetable planet.

At his worst, Updike's fiction grubbed around in the most sordid nooks of reality, seemingly just to vouch for his own lack of inhibitions (there's a particularly depressing oral sex scene in Rabbit Redux). Over the years, he got some ill will for the painfully plausible depictions of misogyny in the "Rabbit" quadrilogy. I was always irritated reading criticism in which the author was confused with his creations, although there was something a little off about his constant churning and rechurning of marital infidelity. "Life is too short," he'd once famously said, "for a writer to be in any way polite." I no longer agree with this sentiment, but I could at least appreciate that he'd condensed the thought so neatly.

The late Tim Yohannon, founder of Maximumrocknroll and a staunch teetotaler, once told me that he'd gotten "stinking drunk" the night Minutemen guitarist D. Boon died. Standing uselessly in the Las Vegas airport, I tried to think through my own options for indulgent grief (Sbarro and $10 at a slot machine were the best I could muster). I've only read 11 of his 52 books - not counting poetry or the unpublished work that will hopefully emerge, Tupac-style, for years to come - so I have many more opportunities to get acquainted with the man. But I am going to miss scanning the contents page of every incoming New Yorker for his name, and I am really going to miss that tiny but real pulse of relief whenever I found that name attached to another review or short story, proof that he was still going, still active, still writing.