Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Reading John Updike

Way back in January, I wrote about John Updike after his death, that I had never read him after being assigned The Centaur in high school. I put Rabbit, Run on hold at the library and finally last week it arrived. I started it last night. I don't think Updike is for me.

I can see it's brilliant and beautifully written. I can see that; it's obvious. I mean, look at this sentence:

His downstairs neighbor's door across the hall is shut like a hurt face.

Is that not an amazing sentence? The specificity of not just a downstairs neighbor, but across the hall, and what that conveys about Rabbit's living quarters. It says nothing about the neighbor, but in conveying information about the door, it says volumes about the neighbor. And the simile! "shut like a hurt face." So unexpected and again conveying so much about the situation. It blows me away how much this sentence communicates.

A page later, Rabbit hangs up his coat and Updike is careful to tell you it's a wire hanger. Again: volumes in a word. I can see that objectively.

The problem is: I don't care. I found myself skimming, ignoring reams of information. Then flipping ahead to see how long the chapter was.

I'm just not worthy of this type of capital-L Litra-chure, I'm afraid. For example, Rabbit spends four pages walking to his mother's house:

As he walks along Potter Avenue the wires at their silent height strike into and through the crowns of the breathing maples. At the next corner, where the water from the ice plant used to come down, sob into a drain, and reappear on the other side of the street, Rabbit crosses over and walks beside the gutter where the water used to run, coating the shallow side of its course with ribbons of green slime waving and waiting to slip under your feet and dunk you if you dared walk on them.

And I'm thinking, "Oh, for God's sake, man! Ask me if I care about where the slime used to be. Just get on with it!"

I fear I am a cretin.


qoe said...

I wonder what you would make of Muriel Spark's oeuvre... Don't start with "The Prime of Miss Jean Brody." Start with "Memento Mori".

If you do, that is...

it's margaret said...

I guess you are so NOT early 20th C, heh?!

Laura Toepfer said...

I'll have to put Ms. Spark on my list just to see. I don't know how much of it has to do with that particular style of writing and how much has to do with a lack of connection with the protagonist. I'm pondering more on that.

As for early, or mid-20th century, I realized yesterday that Rabbit, Run and To Kill a Mockingbird came out in the same year! So I guess it really depends. But I'm wondering if this Updike-like style of drilling down on every moment is a fairly recent phenomenon or not. I'm genuinely ignorant about that.

I am comforted by the fact that Nick Hornby has the same kind of reaction that I do to these kinds of books, but it still makes me uncomfortable, knowing how well they are written and how little I like them.

Molly said...

Actually, I don't care for Updike, either. The sentence about the door "shut like a hurt face" is, to me, over the top, and the same is true for the water which "sobs" into the drain. It feels like writing begging to be noticed.

Instead, I'm an admirer of the authors whose work is a little less showy; the work where a sentence is actually working to drive the plot along, but does so in a way that is naturally elegant. The mystery writer Emma Lathan was an absolute master at this. And all I know is I've never gotten through Updike, but I've read To Kill a Mockingbird about 15 times.

qoe said...

The unfortunate thing about "To Kill A Mockingbird" is that it was a one hit wonder. Ms. Lee, where have you been all of our lives!!! We have been waiting for your next great novel!!!