It's hard to imagine that John Updike is dead: he was so patiently prolific, right up to his latest book,The Widows of Eastwick, and in his regular reviews and stories in the New Yorker, and had made no public mention of his illness. But people have been imagining the event for some time: the New Yorker posted today a famous passage from John Cheever'sJournals, in which he gets a false-alarm phone call in the middle of the night that Updike has died. He makes the kind of sweepingly elegiac statements about the supposed deceased that one makes at a time like that, but is more memorable for the bitter and generous asides about his own family life that make those journals so incredible:
And one of my favorite one-of-a-kind books, Nicholson Baker'sU and I, is constructed entirely around the conceit, inspired by the death of one of Baker's literary heroes, Donald Barthelme, of writing an obituary for another hero, Updike, while he is still alive. (In fact, in a perfect Bakerian moment, I had conflated the two--I had remembered U and I as beginning with that false alarm about Updike's death when it in fact begins with Barthelme's. Incredibly to me, since it fits so well into his subject and theme, Baker doesn't mention the Cheever anecdote, or even Cheever's name, as far as I can tell, anywhere in his book.) Here's a bit of his charge to himself:
And he does. It's the best thing I've ever read on the actual relationship a writer (or a reader) has to the books he reads and authors he admires, including his refreshingly honest list of all the Updike books he has hardly begun or never finished, despite being "obsessed" with him. My own relationship with Updike is a few steps removed from obsessed. My strongest association with him is that he was one of the writers my dad, who reads a lot but not a whole lot of contemporary fiction, was interested in, I think mostly because they both grew up in small-town Pennsylvania, not too far from each other. My dad's favorite of his books, I think, was The Centaur, that early autobiographical novel.
My own Updike reading has been mostly confined to the things he seemed comfortably sure would be the ones he'd be remembered by: the early stories, and the Rabbit novels. I ran across a few of my own very early tries at stories not too long ago, and it was embarrassing how indebted (and poorly so) they were to his, especially "A & P." (The '50s-ish phrase "young married" sticks in my memory as one I tried inserting into my own voice in a remarkably unconvincing way.) And like any reader I've come across a small fraction of his incredible output of workaday reviews, essays, etc., which he collected every decade or so in dauntingly massive omnibuses likeHugging the Shore, Odd Jobs, andMore Matter. And maybe because of them, my main impression of him has been his facility (which I say, mostly, without the negative connotation of "facile"): he could take almost anything in, at least as a reader, and spin it out into golden, tactile phrases. In the introductions to those collections he's a little daunted himself by his affable output (and also proud, like a man standing next to a stack of split wood), counting up totals of books and pages read and compiling lists like this, from Odd Jobs:
One of the professional tasks he often ably set himself to was the sort of postmortem summing-up we're all doing about him now. Baker remembers his piece on Nabokov ("Vale, VN"), mainly for "its tone: gentle, serious, unmaudlin, fluent without affectation, deliberately unspectacular and unrivalrous." Going back to it (it's collected in Hugging the Shore), what stands out for me is his description of Nabokov--characteristically sparkling--which, with a few slight adjustments, could describe himself:
Similarly, I see more than a little self-reflection (and -justification) in his note following the death of Italo Calvin
For Cheever, meanwhile, who, unknown to Updike (I assume, since the Journals hadn't been published yet), had already composed a premature elegy to him, he graciously ceded the primacy as bard of the suburbs that they each had variously been given:
I'm not sure what Updike will end up remembered for--perhaps, as most people expect, it will be those stories and the great Rabbit set--but I think what will stay with me is that "sorcerer's scintillant dignity," put in the service of "an amused and willing student of things as they are," a working writer driven, not by the mania and outrage that seems to push his equally prolific fellows like Oates or Vollmann, but by a calm curiosity that delighted in ordering whatever he turned to into words. --Tom