Saturday, February 10, 2007

Path of Least Resistance

In my last post, I quoted Dan Green on John Updike, who "is increasingly reviled these days for his purported stylistic preciosity . . ." That may be true, but I know one writer who reviled him 30 years ago. In his 1976 review of Updike's A Month of Sundays (which appears in the essay collection, Something Said), Gilbert Sorrentino wrote this:
Mr. Updike is of that school that holds that characters are the sum of their parts; i.e., add layer upon layer of description touching upon modes of dress, manners, speech, habitations, possessions, mores, etc., and presto! we know who the character is and how he will act in a given circumstance; we know, that is, his reality. Conversely, if we know what he says and thinks, we know what he will wear, his tastes, and so on. The author partakes, in other words, of the tried and true novelistic signals in ordering his characters' activities and lives. An odd sophistry of causality inheres in such constructions. Jane, Marshfield's wife, is prim, proper, intelligent, educated, athletic. It routinely follows that she is sexually unsatisfying to Marshfield; she is civilized when she is confronted by his lover, and so on. His lover is slightly shabby, a trifle vulgar, rather embarrassingly emotional, and divorced. She, of course, lives in a raw, new housing development; she is crass when she meets Jane, etc. The reader almost expects Mr. Updike to make her chew gum and subscribe to the Reader's Digest. Marshfield's assistant is young, soupy-minded, liberal, "against the war." His attitude toward, for instance, young people with drug problems? You guessed it. And on and on. The signals flash, the attitudes stiffen, the characters "walk off the pages." This is the kind of characterization one expects from Neil Simon, an effortless sliding into the path of least resistance. It has little to do with the making of serious fiction.

Yet all these things that I touch upon are reckoned by Mr. Updike's admirers--and they are many--as strengths, not weaknesses, as wonders of truth, style, audacity, vision, even as indicators of greatness. But each page of this book throws up a wall behind which it is well-night impossible to discover the manifold realities of the world that the author chooses to deal with. We are given this world as seen by Mr. Updike, as interpreted by him. We are given wit and talent and we are given invention. But we are not given literature.

Oddly (and sadly) enough, this kind of fiction is often thought to be poetic, though it has nothing to do with poetry unless one conceives of the poem as a bauble. On the other hand, Hugh Kenner has termed this sort of writing "a surface scummed by iridescent prose." That strikes me as both just and exact.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is certainly true that Sorrentino had a long-standing animus against Updike. I'm a mighty admirer of Sorrentino's work (more so than I am of Updike, whose fiction I nevertheless think is underestimated), but this was a blind spot of his, in my opinion. I really think he objected to Updike's subject (suburbia)and to his realism, and didn't pay close enough attention to his skills as a stylist--which sometimes do indeed "exceed" his realism.