Updike the Synthesizer


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Updike gave a lecture on American art last year at the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was called “The Clarity of Things: What is American about American Art.” Updike discussed how American painting finally managed to become American. Most of the early American painters were tradesman. They knew how to paint, but they didn’t know how to be “painterly.” As Updike put it, they were “liney” in the beginning.

A line is a child’s first instrument of depiction, the boundary where one thing ends and another begins. The primitive artist is more concerned with what things are than what they look like to the eye’s camera. Lines serve the facts.

Liney is how you paint when you know how to render individual things but you don’t have the skill to make the depth and perspective cohere into a scene, to blur some of the hard lines in order to create a work of art. Still, there was something about liney painting that was true to the American experience. Speaking about the liney paintings of mid-18th-century painter John Singleton Copley, Updike said, “In the art-sparse, mercantile world of the American colonies, Copley’s lavish literalism must have seemed fair dealing, a heaping measure of value paid in shimmering textures and scrupulously fine detail.” But as America developed, so did its painters. They wanted to be able to paint like the masters across the sea. As ever seems the case in America, they had mixed-up desires: They wanted to be just as good as the Europeans and yet uniquely American. So American painters had to learn the subtle lessons of the craft all over again. Aesthetic problems that, in Europe, had been tackled and resolved in the early Renaissance became contemporary. Eventually, the American painters found a way. During the 19th century, they started making paintings that could easily have been created by European masters but for the slightly rougher subject matter of an American wilderness largely untamed. In doing so, they gained in skill at the expense of their specific style. To become better painters, they had to stop being so American.

As Updike saw it, it wasn’t until the era of Abstract Expressionism that Americans came to a real ownership of painting, to a way of painting that was distinctly American: “And, to leap ahead…into Abstract Expressionism, which for the first time in art history saw the United States decidedly shake off the influence of Europe and lead the way.”

With Abstract Expressionism, American painters had discovered a way to be “liney” and “painterly” at the same time, on their own terms. Abstract Expressionism was like a fusion of that American desire to be self-sufficient and simple, without becoming provincial. Speaking of Rothko’s painting “Number 10,” Updike noted that, “It has the two-dimensionality of liney work, but the rectangles would not float and intrigue the eye if they were less painterly, with the thin wash of variation within the central yellow panel and a casual dribble leaking from it; if the edges of were less feathery in their brushing, they would not hover in their ghostly way.”

Updike never made the comparison, but there is a similar story to be told about American fiction. It all started in bewilderment and fear. There was, for all practical purposes, no such thing as an American literature until the mid-19th century. Nobody knew how to write in America, nobody knew what an American novel would look like, how it would sound. Nathaniel Hawthorne worried about that problem all the time. Eventually he grasped toward a kind of American Gothic, a version of Romanticism that was colored by the deep pull of the wilderness and the stark morality of Puritanism. That’s not unlike what happened to the 19th-century painters. Romanticism — for the landscape painters — seemed like a way forward, a way to contribute to the European project and to be American at the same time. But they never achieved the full fusion between liney and painterly that would have to wait until Abstract Expressionism. Poe, Melville, Whitman — they all toyed around with this formula in their own ways. They produced legendary fiction, but it was the fiction of extremes. It never really touched upon the day to day, the simple mundane truths of a life lived on American shores. It was Henry James who finally achieved an exploration, in novel form, of the fine details of everyday American life. As he put it, “Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue.” James was able to capture this experience in prose by turning firmly back to English roots. He lived up to the title “novelist” to an almost scary degree. He was the personification of fiction, of the novel. But he had to give something up. He had turned himself into an English novelist. There are themes that ring out with an American tone, but the methodology, the sensibility, is essentially English. He once said, “However British you may be, I am more British still.”

The early 20th century, too, produced its great American writers. From Dreiser to Norman Mailer, important works kept coming. But these were extraordinary times of world war and the creeping possibility of revolution and/or economic collapse. Normal life was to be suspended in the light of world events that outshone them. The task of writing about Americans in their daily lives would have to wait. Finally, the wars ended, the tumult subsided. American literature was ready to get back to the challenge of capturing the essential Americaness of people in non-extraordinary times.

That’s where Updike came in. That’s where Rabbit entered the stage. Rabbit, the now-immortal American jackass. Having tasted the extraordinary once —as a local basketball star in his high school days — Rabbit settled into the normalcy of suburban postwar American life. Vaguely unsatisfied and human — all too human — Rabbit was a person we hadn’t heard very much from in American prose, at least not in American prose that was so clearly in dialogue with the great ones, that could produce pure artfulness on every page. “What Updike is saying — or conclusively demonstrating — is something very simple: that the unexamined life is worth examining.” That’s what Martin Amis had to say about Updike. It sums up Updike’s literary project nicely.

A lot has been said, from Martin Amis to the obituaries popping up in every periodical, about Updike and his ability to write the experiences of the American middle class. There’s no question this was his greatest accomplishment. Rabbit is so utterly recognizable as “one of us” that the novels seem to roll along with the barest of effort. It is more difficult, however, to figure out how Updike was able to accomplish the very thing that so many other talented writers could never quite get right. I think it has to do with the same kind of synthesis between “liney” and “painterly” that Updike talked about in his lecture. There are sentences in all of Updike’s novels that can sit comfortably alongside anything written by Thomas Mann, or Robert Musil, or Marcel Proust. This from Rabbit Redux:

In winter, Pine Street at this hour is dark, darkness presses down early from the mountain that hangs above the stagnant city of Brewer; but now in summer the granite curbs starred with mica and the row houses differentiated by speckled bastard sidings and the hopeful small porches with their jigsaw brackets and gray milk-bottle boxes and the sooty ginkgo trees and the baking curbside cars wince beneath a brilliance like a frozen explosion.

There’s an in-your-face confidence to that prose, a genius that can tell us small porches are “hopeful” and that parked cars can “wince.” In passages like that, Updike revels in his skill, practically rubs our noses in it. This is Updike being “painterly.” But he could be “liney,” too. Updike never worried whether sentences of lyric beauty could perfectly well contain mundane specificity without losing anything. Here’s the third sentence from Rabbit, Run: “The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires.” Another writer would have said “shoes” or maybe “sneakers” instead of Keds. They would have been afraid of the “Keds,” of the specificity of the brand. They would have been scared that talking about Keds would have let the air out of the beautiful soaring balloon of a sentence they had created. Not Updike. And he’s writing this in the late ’50s. There’s no sneer on his face either, no condescension to the fact that it matters, it matters that these kids playing basketball in the alley are wearing Keds. The Keds bring a lineyness to the sentence, a specificity that is true to an American experience in which brands and mass culture are written into our DNA. And still, even in their Keds, the voices of these boys catapult into moist March air blue above the wires. Updike’s novels are filled with this synthesis, this blend between a universal soaring language and the everydayness that snaps the mind back into immediacy. The ease with which he brought the singular and the universal together is what really made him great.

The one passage that struck me as forced in re-reading Rabbit, Run is from the early part of the book where Rabbit first starts to run. He is driving away, trying to flee his stale marriage, heading to West Virginia simply to be heading somewhere. Updike writes:

On the radio he hears “No Other Arms, No Other Lips,” “Stagger Lee,” a commercial for Rayco Clear Plastic Seat Covers, “If I Didn’t Care” by Connie Francis, a commercial for Radio-Controlled Garage Door Operators, “I Ran All the Way Home Just to Say I’m Sorry, “That Old Feeling” by Mel Torme, a commercial for Big Screen Westinghouse TV Set with One-Finger Automatic Tuning…

The passage continues in this vein for another page or so. It is forced because it reads simply as a list of references that haven’t been worked into the experience that Updike is describing. It reminded me of John Dos Passos’ great novel trilogy, USA. I’ve always admired the way that Dos Passos organized the novels in alternating sections. The bulk of the books are constituted by the ongoing stories of several characters, sometimes interweaving, and the things that are happening to them as they go through life in the period between the wars. Dos Passos alternates these stories with what he calls Newsreels, which are essentially fragments of headlines and newspaper columns and bits of gossip giving a fragmented sense of the era. Then there are the Camera Eyes, first person, impressionistic glimpses of experience. Occasionally, Dos Passos would throw in a brief quirky biography of a notable figure of the time. Reading the above passage from Rabbit, Run, I felt like I was reading one of Dos Passos’ Newsreels. But it also made me realize how much Dos Passos’ USA, brilliant as it is, is a kind of failure. Dos Passos never came up with a sufficient technique by which the bits of actual experience, the real stuff of the time, the names, the brands, the popular songs, etc., could live in the individual stories he was trying to tell. Dos Passos puts those things into his novel, but he has to keep them separate, he has to show that they are ultimately epiphenomenal to the “real” story.

Amazingly and consistently, but for the one passage in which he resorts to that long list of stuff on the radio, Updike resists the impulse to divide levels of experience. There is a kind of deep metaphysical democracy to Updike’s prose. The details matter, the specific show being watched on television, the kind of car being driven, because those details are wrapped up in the substance of the experience. Here’s a passage from Rabbit At Rest:

He likes to pour salt out of the shaker until he has a heap and then rub the French fries in it, one by one. The French fries and about a pound of salt are all the kid eats; Harry finishes his Big Mac for him, even though he doesn’t much care for all the Technicolor glop McDonald’s puts on everything — pure chemicals. Whatever happened to the old-fashioned plain hamburger? Gone wherever the Chiclet went.

You can’t overestimate how difficult it is to write about McDonald’s that well. You can only write like this if you really care about the experience, if you take it seriously. Updike took it seriously. By flattening his metaphysics, by letting everything be essential, Updike discovered a new richness. He made the “painterly” and the “liney” one. In a funny way, I think the old guard, from Hawthorne to James, would have been proud. He solved the problem of American literature in ways that would have surprised them, but he did it. John Updike was a great American novelist. • 2 February 2009