Late night thoughts about late period John Updike
In recent years, it became fashionable to trash John Updike, usually for being too white, too moderate, too old, too prolific, not progressive enough. Even the most energetic and successful of those takedowns, David Foster Wallace’s 1998 essay “Certainly the End of Something or Other,” later collected in Consider the Lobster, sometimes seems more concerned with political correctness and the likability of a protagonist than any literary or story failings.
It’s true that Updike’s later works are not the ones he’ll be remembered for (although I’ll argue that In the Beauty of the Lilies, from 1996, stands among his most ambitious and deeply felt). The last Updike story I loved was “Natural Color,” published in 1998 and collected in Licks of Love. It’s the pick of many later stories in which older men looked back on earlier romances, this time with withering results. To make sure I got the year right, I just looked up the story on a New Yorker DVD. The story is accompanied by the keywords “divorce,” “New England,” “sex,” “husbands,” “old age,” “winter,” “love affairs,” “redheads,” “hair color.” I tend to distrust algorithms when it comes to fiction, but that list sure offers a neat encapsulation of Updike’s interests.
The last novel Updike published while he was alive, Terrorist (2006), doesn’t work particularly well. The characters are unusually flat, speaking in topic sentences, Updike sometimes confuses his audience with that of his characters, and the climax hinges on at least two unbelievable coincidences. But it is by John Updike, so if you give it your attention you are privy to one brilliant section. Roughly two-thirds of the way through, pretty much out of nowhere, someone who I thought was a minor character, one Charlie Chehab, launches into a lengthy, hilarious, insane, and occasionally persuasive argument that the soldiers of the American Revolution were the Al-Qaeda of their time. I won’t quote an excerpt; it must be read in its entirety and it gains more weight later in the novel when we learn something new about Chehab. It’s a thrilling riff unimaginable from any other author. Even when he was allegedly past his prime, Updike could deliver something surprising, unprecedented, and unmistakably his. We should all age that way.