John Updike, R.I.P.

January 28, 2009 § Leave a comment


#1 John Updike died yesterday, January 27, 2009; I am moved. Anyone who loves writing and the imagination must stop to acknowledge Updike’s power and talent. Updike brought the adjective back into American letters after Hemingway banished it for decades.

#2 Updike was a generous reviewer, junp starting many writing careers from his post as book critic at The New Yorker. He only wrote mean-spiritedly of one writer that I can think of: James Gould Cozzens; perhaps because he saw in Cozzens a slapdash overreacher , a sprayer of adjectives – in short, a lazier version of himself, Updike.

#3 Updike’s love of the adjective did not always serve him well. Adjectives should be treated like viruses in English writing; they tend to multiply and infect all the other words around them, sapping their punch and singularity, and generally inducing torpor into the whole sentence.

#4 Some of his books demanded adjectives. The Coup, for example, attempted to catch the mental arabesques of an African dictator educated in the French Foreign Legion and at an American mid-Western campus during the 1950s. Here is an excerpt:

“My education here has been strange,” Felix told Craven, contemplating with loathing the toubab’s dry prematurely gray hair; his soft broad lips like two worms bloodless and bloated; his complacent, ever youthful eyes.

#5 When Updike stretched himself (The Coup, A Month of Sundays, Brazil, Roger’s Version, The Witches of Eastwick), he wrote well, exquisitely well. When he leafed through Time Magazine and wrote a novel based on current events (the later Rabbit Novels, S, In the Valley of the Lillies) he wrote less well. He had the intellect, talent, imagination, the magic to write a large, all-encompassing American novel – a War & Peace – but he refused to lend his magic to a project not anchored in a local street or family; instead of one magnificent novel he left us a shelf of good, sometimes wonderful, novels.

#6 Thank you, John. You gave me so much reading pleasure over the years and inspired my path as a writer. Thank you.

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