In the Beauty of the Lilies
“I knew now that I had a real deadline,”Nicholson Baker wrote in U and I, which appeared in 1991. The task was
to write about Updike while people could still conceivably sneer at him simply for being at the top of the heap, before any false valedictory grand-old-man reverence crept in, as it inevitably would…. I would study my feelings for Updike while he was still in that phase of intellectual neglect that omnipresence and best-selling popularity inspire.
I don’t see anyone sneering at Updike, and the valedictory stuff still seems a shuffle or two away; but there is manifestly a move to turn Updike into an American monument, and monuments do get neglected, even if they are constantly looked at. He is so routinely praised for writing well that we don’t see how well he writes. Or how badly at times; the risks he takes to get where he is going. It’s possible that you have to be ready, as Updike is in his new novel, his seventeenth, to see New York City as predictably “hushed under a veil of enchantment”—the proof had “cloak” but there’s not much to choose between them—if you’re going to find, on another page, the unpredictable “lemon-yellow dog pee scribbled in the snow among the cigarette butts.” You may have to permit yourself a pompous picture of guns “possessed of a smooth inarguable beauty, haughty in their power to administer death,” in order to arrive at the marvelous ease of “the slither of death’s touch.”
Updike “forces us to reassess the American Dream” (Michiko Kakutani); In the Beauty of the Lilies is “American (in the best sense) to the bone” (James Kaplan). Updike, in his memoir Self-Consciousness, more modestly spoke of “what I had to say about America”; but even there the implication was that saying something about America was a major part of an American novelist’s business. It’s worth pausing over the eager nationalism of such a notion. Who reads Kafka or Calvino or García Márquez for what they have to say about Bohemia, Italy, or Colombia? Ah, but America is not a place, it’s a deferred, endlessly self-correcting idea, always looking for its own best sense? Just so. In Updike’s new novel, the following commonplaces are faithfully recorded, among many others. Americans are competitive (“He didn’t want to compete, and yet this seemed the only way to be an American”); America is open (“Land of opportunity, that’s still the good old U.S. of A.”); America is fast and tough (“In America opportunity doesn’t keep knocking”; “There are no free rides in America”). It’s not just that these maxims contradict each other, it’s that they are not even trying to say anything plausible. Opportunity does or doesn’t knock in Australia? There are lots of free rides in France or Singapore? Germans are not competitive? But of course the maxims are not meaningless. They …