October 3, 1999
One of the many engaging things about John Updike’s series of bountiful nonfiction collections – Picked-Up Pieces (1975), Hugging the Shore (1983), Odd Jobs (1991), and now More Matter – are the jeux d’esprit, often featuring the author himself. In this new volume, for example, there are whimsical replies to the strange questions that magazine feature editors never seem to tire of asking literary celebrities for 500-word answers to; an interview with his fictional creation Henry Bech; and a brief Borgesian fantasy called “Updike and I,” in which Updike the humdrum householder muses on “Updike” the elusive wordsmith, who always seems to leave him holding the bag in public. All of which sorely tempts a reviewer to respond in kind. … Oh, why not?
Reviewer (sighing): “Another eight years, another nine hundred pages. How do you do it? Why do you it? For that matter,
Updike (apologetically): “Pretty regularly, actually.” (Tries tactfully to shift ground) “As to the why … “
Reviewer (impatiently): “Yes, yes, I remember, you say in the book: reviewing ‘gets me to reading’ and ‘imparts the illusion that I am part of a literary community.’ Very nice; but in the same place you can’t resist a sly dig at the whole business: ‘It is almost impossible to go wrong, in writing a review, and to avoid the tone of being wonderfully right.’”
Updike: “Oh, all I meant … “
Reviewer (warming to his theme): “As a matter of fact, we don’t
Updike (eyes lowered, shuffles his feet) …
In sober truth, envy or any other low emotion a reviewer of More Matter may feel is likely to be overwhelmed by readerly pleasure. Updike’s sentences are as sonorously sinuous as ever, his phrases as felicitous, his
Like his previous collections, More Matter covers a lot of ground. Isaac Newton, E. O. Wilson, and Stephen Jay Gould pass under the microscope. Gene Kelly, Lana Turner, and Marilyn Monroe flit across the screen. Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell, Claes Oldenburg, and Saul Steinberg sit for portraits. Queen Elizabeth and the Waleses put in royal appearances. There are witty and informative pieces on writers’ desks (his own three included), celebrity caricatures, mortuary photographs, hostile haircuts, the scandal glut, the language of cars (“they can say ‘Howdy!’ (a brief, deft toot) and ‘I hate you!’ (a firmer, sustained blast) and ‘Do it!’ (a flicker of the headlights)”), the perils of packaging, the glories of golf, the “twelve terrors of Christmas,” the Eisenhower administration in drag, Satan, Mickey Mouse, the Sistine Chapel, and the Salem witch trials. And all these – only a dipperful from the ample sections on biography, visual arts, places, everyday objects, and personalia – are of course hors d’oeuvres. The main course is literature.
Featured dishes include essays on Melville’s short fiction, the Edith Wharton revival, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the English novelist Henry Green, John Cheever’s journals, and a long, panoramic lecture on New York in 20th-century American literature. Spicy side dishes include numerous reviews of Latin American and (Anglo-) Indian fiction. Updike’s sympathy rarely flags, however exotic the setting or subject; but unsurprisingly, he’s most sure-footed on native ground: e.g., showing how Wharton denied the characters in her novels the freedom she asserted in her life, or rescuing Fitzgerald from the condescension of his biographers. Largely unencumbered by theory or ideology, as good-natured (notwithstanding occasional tartness) as a critic can well be, and amazingly though unobtrusively widely read, Updike seems to be merely offering us his impressions, for what they’re worth. They’re usually worth a good deal.
My favorite piece in “More Matter” is the first, “Freedom and Equality: Two American Bluebirds.” Writers aren’t exactly a reliable source of political wisdom (see, for example, Sartre and Mailer passim), though when they manage to temper passionate eloquence with a bit of good sense and relevant knowledge, the result can be thrilling (see, again, Sartre and Mailer passim). Updike does not go in for passionate eloquence; nor, unlike Gore Vidal, for haughty sarcasm. He’s wistful and affectionate about American ideals, which makes this gentle protest over the distance between those ideals and contemporary American reality all the more effective.
I wish Updike had written more in this vein, and in another as well: that of anti-electronic apocalypticism. The distressing effect of television and advertising on popular literacy – an effect the Internet is likely to amplify – is a subject right up his street, one would think. He alludes to it now and then: in a “Newsweek” essay on the Fifties (“television, a flickering gray toy at the beginning of the decade, grew to dominate the average family’s day and to alter the quality and span of attention”) and in a comment on the remoteness of Wharton’s turn-of-the-century naturalism (“the electronic texture of popular culture unweights misery, spliced as it is among the television commercials”). But nothing more sustained. Nearly all his nonfiction is written by invitation, and apparently the occasion hasn’t come his way.
Updike has often remarked, sometimes a bit deprecatingly, on the secondary, contingent character of his nonfiction. They are “picked-up pieces” and “odd jobs”; compared with venturing on fiction’s open sea, writing reviews and essays feels to him like “hugging the shore.” Introducing this – perhaps last – collection, he speaks more warmly. “An invitation into print, from however suspect a source, is an opportunity to make something beautiful, to discover within oneself a treasure that would otherwise have remained buried.” Fortunately, it’s an unhoardable treasure.