updike: small appliances of civilization

…”They were just people, members of the race of white anmals…Highly neural, brachycephalic, unquely able to oppose their thumbs to the four other digits, they bred with elegant settlements, and both burned and interred their dead.”

They were the people of John Updike’s world. Rootless but insidiously regimented, they live “as cells do in the coffin, for the conception ‘America’ had died in their skulls.” They come, for the most part, from the small cities of Pennsylvania and New England, and they have “an instinctive taste for the small appliances of civilization, the little grinders and slicers and holders.” If they are not young- in their teens and early twenties- they are often old; but whether they are young or old, they suffer in whispers inner torments and defeats as acutely observed, as moving and as oppressive as any modern American fiction. And occasionally they run.

The book that catapulted Updike onto the cover of Time magazine, Couples is about the sex lives of ten people from the fictional town of Tarbox, New England, who enjoy what one character calls “the post-pill paradise”. “It’s fantastic,” says John Mullan, professor of English at University College London. “You’ve got to have it.” “It’s an incredibly shocking book,” adds author and English professor John Sutherland, “not just for its sexual explicitness … but it was also pretty libellous about people who lived in that area of New England.”—Read More:http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jan/28/john-updike-sutherland-mullan

Their creator knew them- in motion or repose- as litmus knows acid or silver knows light. There is in John Updike’s writing the kind of visceral understanding that can whiten a world to being in the flicker of a phrase or in a sudden cackle of speech. Updike knew, for instance, about the ominous quiet of a “Sunday-stunned town,” or the unctuous and barren comforts of the “progressive” church (“If there’s to be a true healing it must be Harry and Janice who act”), or just how it is with an old man when, as “moisture walks out from his mouth,” he lights a cigar.

Updike understood- better than foundries of sociological discourse can ever understand- the arcane folk rituals of adolescence ( on the orchard-dappled plains of central New Jersey, we were told, the older boys and girls parade nude in the headlights of their cars). And because John Updike writes of a more representative American  experience, he tells us something other than what the fellow chronicler of the young, J.D. Salinger, told us. For if Salinger reflected what the young would like to be, Updike told us what they are.

Lev Grossman:Updike’s hallmark was his glittering, gloriously vivid style. His talent for spotting detail, for capturing in prose the slightest shift in light or in a character’s mood was unmatched. It was not the most fashionable of gifts. While his contemporaries practiced the rock-ribbed realism of Hemingway and Carver or the high-concept contraptions of the metafictionists, Updike conducted his pursuit of eloquence and wit almost alone. Ironically, it was sometimes held against him, and he was tagged a lightweight.
Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1874848,00.html#ixzz2D3FcjMJE


Updike on Salinger’s Franny and Zooey: Few writers since Joyce would risk such a wealth of words upon events that are purely internal and deeds that are purely talk. We live in a world, however, where the decisive deed may invite the holocaust, and Salinger’s conviction that our inner lives greatly matter peculiarly qualifies him to sing of an America where, for most of us, there seems little to do but to feel. Introversion, perhaps, has been forced upon history; an age of nuance, of ambiguous gestures and psychological jockeying on a national and private scale, is upon us, and Salinger’s intense attention to gesture and intonation help make him, among his contemporaries, a uniquely relevant literary artist. As Hemingway sought the words for things in motion, Salinger seeks the words for things transmuted into human subjectivity. His fiction, in its rather grim bravado, its humor, its morbidity, its wry but persistent hopefulness, matches the shape and tint of present American life. It pays the price, however, of becoming dangerously convoluted and static. A sense of composition is not among Salinger’s strengths, and even these two stories, so apparently complementary, distinctly jangle as components of one book. Read More:http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/09/13/specials/salinger-franny01.html?_r=2

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