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UPDIKE 1932 – 2009: Rabbit At Rest


A giant of literature. Although, along with Roth and Mailer, he has been one of the dominant forces in American letters for nearly a half century, he still wrote regularly for the New Yorker and described himself rather endearingly as a freelancer to David Ulin, when Ulin interviewed him onstage at UCLA last fall as part of the tour for his latest novel, The Widows of Eastwick.

On the other hand, in his 1998 essay about John Updike,
Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think, David Foster Wallace, who also describes the author as “the chronicler and voice of probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis the XIV,” wrote a long and wonderfully grumpy screed about, among other things, the similarity of all Updike’s protagonists. (Quoting the gifted dead about the gifted dead feels weirdly comforting rather than the reverse today. Go figure.)

It reads in part:

They tend to have the author’s astounding perceptual gifts; they think and speak in the same effortlessly lush, synesthetic way that Updike does. They are also always incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous, self-pitying…..and deeply alone, alone the way only an emotional solipsist can be alone. They never seem to belong to any sort of large unit or community or cause. Though usually family men, they never really love anybody—and, though always heterosexual to the point of satyriasis, they especially don’t love women. The world around them, as gorgeously as they see and describe it, tends to exist for them only insofar as it evokes impressions and associations and emotions and desires inside the great self….

Yes, well. That pretty much sums up what has always bothered and attracted me about all of Updike’s work. And yet, and yet….one cannot help but love his incandescent sentences.

I am deeply saddened that there will be no more of them.


William Pritchard, the author of Updike: America’s Man of Letters, has listed his picks of the six most essential Updike books in a column for the Boston Globe. (Pritchard cheats and lists the Rabbit books as one). If you’ve read none of them, get to it. Great sentences await you.

PS: The New Yorker is collecting writers’ reminiscences regarding Updike here and readers’ thoughts here.

The New York Times has a video conversation with Updike here.


  • I agree that that para you quote from Foster Wallace sums up quite succinctly Updike’s entire ouvre, and that sense that after you’ve read a couple, you don’t really need to read them all. I just sort of skimmed the Rabbit sequels (even the name got a little too cute after the first time, considering it referred to a middle-aged then elderly man who was utterly self-absorbed and indeed, seemed to regard everyone and everything around him (especially the women in his life) as somehow existing just so he can have self-referential existential ephiphanies of interest only to himself.

    BUT that he did set such a recognizable tone, for his whole generation as well (I’m reading Paul Thoroux now and he’s exactly the same, just in India and not New England, but it almost doesn’t matter WHERE these guys are), is remarkable. Quite a wordsmith and “freelancer” indeed.

  • Thoroux, cool idea. Speaking of that general age group, I’m reading V.S. Naipaul right and, although he sounds like an unpleasant fellow personally (unlike Updike, who seemed quite likeable), writes as if others actually exist—as well as being a stupendous storyteller and a crafter of great prose of the highest order.

  • Celeste, I also love reading V.S. Naipaul, and you’re right, he engages with and informs with the “locals” instead of using them as a backdrop for his own western-centric phobias, egotistical/existential ruminations and other self-referential stuff characteristic of that generation. (The pre-boomer gen, I guess, very consciously informed by their WWII-era parents used to self-sacrifice and having no time or patience for self-reflection, so they went in the opposite extreme. Our pendulum has swung full circle, maybe, although that’s not quite the right image: it’s sort of swung back but has a whole new set of values to be in opposition to at the same time. — That sounds clunky but you get my gist.)

    My spelling was wrong, it’s Paul Thereau, not like of Waldern’s Pond. The Elephanta Suite set in India is a huge disappointment (except for his vivid writing — he captures the scenes so well but then wastes them by turning them into backdrops for his middle-aged-suburban-white-uber-hetero-male stuff).

    Of course Naipaul IS of bi-cultural b.g. so he couldn’t be so distanced, but not everyone in that position pulls it off: they often give the anti- western bias which is just as bad. (I hated Slumdog Millionaire as a horrible western cliche — sympathize with the Indians who think so — and hated the much-touted Lost In Transoation by Sophia Coppola for same reason. Bill Murray there was in the Updike mold, more or less.)

    Pico Ayer is still one of the best I’ve found as far as pulling off giving us an insight into different cultures (particular Japan from an India POV) coming from a completely different one, with a genuine ability to crystalize, appreciate and illuminate his subject.

  • Okay, that spelling didn’t look right either so I looked it up. It’s Paul Theroux. (Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux, I assume we’re both talking about, yes? Anyway, I knew you didn’t mean the Walden fellow.)

    I haven’t read lots of Pico Iyer but I love what I’ve read and thought he was wonderful when I saw him on a panel at the LA Times Festival of books a year or ten back.

    Speaking of the look into a clash of cultures, have you ever read the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott? I listened to it on CD and, although it lapses into a strange structural form at some point near the end, is an amazing work—about the last days of the British Raj. I never wanted the books to end. If you haven’t read it, you might want to have a look and see if it appeals to you. There’s nothing quite like it.

  • Yes, you’re right about that spelling, Celeste — I was going to post the correction myself, but you beat me to it. Dang them fancy Frenchie names, with all those silent consonants and so darn many vowels strung together just to make one sound. A might nice-sounding language though, I must admit.

    In a quirk of timing, Theroux’s Elephanta Suite is named after what his protagonist says was the most luxurious suite in the most luxurious hotel in Mumbai/Bombay, the Taj — which just got bombed as we know. Its vi w of the Gateway is akin to getting a suite with a view of the Empire State building (formerly also the WTT). Especially in light of all this, I have no patience for the self-absorbed “westerner in a dirty country.” Who of course only comes alive in the arms of pre-pubescent hookers because women in America are such ball-busters. No disrespect to Updike, but I see a continuity of genre here. BUT it’s to Updike’s huge credit that when he, Roth and a few others started writing, this genre didn’t exist, so it didn’t feel as familiar and even as sometimes tired as they do now. He helped us see beneath the generally banal and civilized surface of “good society” by making it okay to expose the warts of male sexism, egotism, ethnocentricm (I can’t believe I’m using that now-PC word, but it fits here) and ennui that masks “success.”

    Paul Scott does ring a bell, though I’ve read a number of books about that era — at this time of night I can barely remember my own name, but didn’t want to let the matter of Theroux’s name go another day. My favorites are histories like about how Corbett founded the national park named after him: has all the drama of fiction but more. Part of my bias re: India is I know and love the country well, and have toured it with Indian friends who took me to places of the Raj and gave me their point of view. Like how their ancestors weren’t admitted to the Raj clubs and how they’re still seething with resentment over it — even as they’re trying to outdo the elitism of their former masters with the most extravagent forms of nouveau riche decadence they can manage. This is a book I’m meaning to write myself. Along with… (I’ll try not to infuse it with self-referential ruminations by a self-obsessed western female, and if I must, will try to interweave any such lapses with observations of the “native culture.” Without of course making them sound too quaint as “natives,” as we westerners are wont to do.) Okay, bon soir…And especially to you, Mr. Updike.

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