Keeping Up with Updike

Bech: A Book

by John Updike
Knopf, 206 pp., $5.95

How can a contemporary novelist confront experience? How, knowing that art has worn out so many of the details of life, can one still fix a narrative of a novel’s length into a world made up of “things” and “characters”? How can one make the selection of events or the color of an eye without arousing disquieting feelings about old-fashioned literary calculation? Or again, how to make those eyes and the events they witness not seem examples of a self-indulgent modernism or a coy eccentricity? When excess is tolerated, indeed sought after, by the public and its critics, how can one keep those first tentative ideas for a novel from serving an easy, étonne-moi aesthetic?

Finally, how simply to describe, how to hang qualifiers, metaphors, and images onto events without making the language seem obstructive or cloying, without bringing on oneself the charge of naïveté, of writing as if the objects of the world had not already been heavily described by those masters who made the novel an exploration in naming the particulars of experience? More primitive still: How to move a character across a furniture-stuffed room and not create the deadening sense that words once again are bustling us through a moment that seems somehow perfunctory and that writer and reader are being held by an effete convention?

These questions nowadays hover around the novel. One does not need to believe in a non-linear theory of art, or in progress, or in the artist as a conquistador of new forms, to wonder if this ritual exchange between a single imagination and a loose gathering of receptive readers has not become an empty, formal agreement—a matter of cultural manners rather than a spontaneous and enjoyable common trust. Fortunately, of course, these questions do not intrude each time someone with a literate memory reads, or for that matter writes, the first sentence of a novel. Just as we do not inhibit our daily actions by constantly justifying them with ethical principles, so also we do not read for pleasure only after assuring ourselves that the novel, as an expressive form in the last third of the twentieth century, still vindicates itself. Nevertheless, there are moments—at a sudden break in the narrative, for instance, when we see a cloudburst of fine writing coming on; or when punctuation begins to fade, words couple with their neighbors, and we know that we are off into another neatly planned simulation of unguarded thought—when all the paraphernalia of the novel seem like polite rituals.

If the novels of John Updike occasion such speculations, it is because they are more nakedly traditional than the works of most of our readable contemporaries. By traditional I do not mean that they are simply put together with a debt to a certain historical style, but rather that they present fragments of life without the constant imposition of extraneous attitude, without, that is to say, making the self-conscious and fashionable gestures to irony. The Centaur, Rabbit, Run, Of the Farm,…

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