September 29, 2010

Wallace & Updike

Category: Literature :: Permalink

Today, I finished David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.  Foster is in many ways an odd writer, given to almost obsessive self-clarification, leading to lots of parenthetical remarks and footnotes to his footnotes (I’m not kidding), or, in the case of the final essay, “Host,” to lots of little (and some not-so-little) explanatory boxes scattered all over the page, with arrows pointing to them.  He knows he has a weird style and he’s having fun with it, and, to tell the truth, I did too.

I’m not going to review the book, but I will say that Wallace frequently raised points I had never considered or shed light on things I had never thought about.   There are probably too many to include in one blog entry, so let’s start with just this one.

Wallace’s review of John Updike’s novel Toward the End of Time (“Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think”) points up the problems I’ve had with Updike’s novels: while I, like Wallace, enjoyed some of Updike’s earlier work,  in his later work “his characters seemed to become more and more repellent, and without any corresponding sign that the author understood that they were repellent” (52).  I’ve often heard Updike recommended as a Christian author because he did identify himself as such and he often deals with Christian themes, has characters talk about God, and so forth.  And yet so much of what he wrote….  Well, here’s how Wallace  sums up toward the end of his essay:

Maybe the one thing that the reader ends up appreciating about Ben Turnbull is that he’s such a broad caricature of an Updike protagonist that he helps clarify what’s been so unpleasant and frustrating about this author’s recent characters.  It’s not that Turnbull is stupid: he can quote Pascal and Kierkegaard on angst, discourse on the death of Schubert, distinguish between a sinitrorse and a dextrorse Polygonum vine, etc.  It’s that he persists in the bizarre, adolescent belief that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants is a cure for human despair.  And Toward the End of Time‘s author, so far as I can figure out, believes it too (58-59).

Of course, Wallace is not the first to point this problem out.  John Gardner, in On Moral Fiction, wrote about Updike’s novel A Month of Sundays that it “can easily be read as a piece of neo-orthodox Presbyterian heresy (Christ has redeemed us in advance, so let’s fornicate)” (98).

If you want Updike stories that I think are really worthwhile, check out his short story collection Pigeon Feathers, or perhaps try his novels The Centaur or Of the Farm.  But more and more, after that, Wallace’s complaint is exactly on target.  (Someday, I’d like to read the whole of Larry Woiwode’s essay on Updike, of which I have only the first part, published in the now defunct BIAS Report years ago.  Maybe someday I’ll obtain the rest of it.)

Posted by John Barach @ 1:57 pm | Discuss (2)

2 Responses to “Wallace & Updike”

  1. Leah Meisterlin Says:

    Want some more (but earlier) Wallace-on-Updike action? Lipsky’s Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace offers some gems.

  2. John Barach Says:

    Thanks! The library here didn’t have the book, but I was able to search for “Updike” on Amazon and find the sections of the book that talk about him.

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