By Mary Lyn Maiscott
It’s been more than a week since John Updike died, and in this crazily blogging world that might as well be a year. However, I don’t think Updike would mind my dwelling on him and his unique oeuvre, since dwelling on things was what he did best (he would have made a great copy editor, as he was apparently afflicted, as I am, with ASD, attention surplus disorder). Updike would describe something you had seen countless times in such a way that you felt you’d never really looked at it—or that someone had finally fully caught what you did see. At its best, his pulling away of the tiniest layers could be mind-blowing, like a drug (UDD—the Updike Drug?); at its worst it could be tedious (probably only a golf aficionado or computer nerd wants to read pages upon pages of the details of a game or program). But readers must have had more “Yes! That’s it!” moments with Updike than with any other writer.
My own favorite such moment came from a simple depiction: his fictional couple the Maples’ running to their Greenwich Village window when they hear the “clatter” of horses’ hooves, knowing mounted policemen are coming down their cobbled street—because that’s what I’ve always done in the same situation. I also have an enduring image in my mind of “Rabbit” Angstrom in a field, looking toward the house of his possible daughter, the field conjured up in all its ugly/beautiful naturalness but also evoking the wistful state of mind of Updike’s most famous character.
The other day, looking for a light—I mean physically light—book to take on vacation, I discovered I had an unread Updike on my shelf, Roger’s Version. The copyright is 1986 but I don’t know when or where I bought it; I like to think it was on Cape Cod, since Massachusetts was Updike’s adopted home state. The book was a used paperback; on the fly sheet is a faint, penciled “50¢.” If Updike were writing this, he would now describe in painstaking detail the shiny hot-pink cover and what that might signify, as well as the little illustration of Adam’s and God’s fingers nearly touching, à la Michelangelo, on a computer screen. (He might also speculate as to the paperback’s previous owner—what that person’s face looked like, what his house looked like, how he came upon the book, why he sold it—not to mention the bookseller…)
Though my vacation didn’t pan out, I nonetheless—a sore throat as my excuse—spent most of the next two days reading Roger’s Version. And here, for me, was the fresh afterlife of Updike: his thoughts, his visions, doubtless his memories and fears and appetites, his imagination, coming at me full-strength through these yellowed pieces of paper. Roger is a theologian, quite a flawed one, grappling with middle age (I calculated that Updike, who shared the fluffy grey hair and eyebrows of his protagonist, must have also been about his age when he created him, 52), a straying wife, and a fear of death.
I could certainly relate to the last. I’d spent the midnight hour of my recent birthday looking for poems to lift me away from a looming depression, but everything I picked up seemed to be about mortality—and almost hard-heartedly so (I decided that poets as a group are hardly the namby-pambies of some hoary stereotypes). In teaching his niece about a William Cullen Bryant poem on the subject, Roger begins to rail against it: “‘Breathless darkness, and the narrow house.’ Bryant was so young, you see, he could say it; an older poet’s hand would have frozen with terror trying to write those lines.”
But his own hand seemed never to freeze. He took on not only death but also such “sins” as adultery and incest, in such a human way that you had to, like the author, go deeper—and therefore get more confused, seeing all the greys, all the layers—than you normally would. In another part of the book, Roger contemplates both a pencil and his own future death, calling the latter “the impossibly fine point to which my life will have been sharpened.”
John Updike, in some mysterious way, made millions of fine points possible.