Aside from his enormous talents and Protestant work ethic, Updike’s defining characteristic is his signature style, which he owes to his desire to be a graphic artist, and to his stunningly visual memory. Like Proust, like Nabokov and like Henry Green, all of whom influenced him, Updike wrote sentences that work through the precise meeting of visual detail and verbal accuracy. Updike was fully aware that this precision required a wide verbal range and ingenuity; indeed, when he criticized Tom Wolfe’s failure to be “exquisite,” Updike’s point of comparison was his own style.
Updike wanted to do with the world of mid-century middle-class American Wasps what Proust had done with Belle Époque Paris and Joyce had done with a single day in 1904 Dublin—and, for that matter, Jane Austen had done with the landed gentry in the Home Counties at the time of the Napoleonic Wars and James had done with idle Americans living abroad at the turn of the nineteenth century. He wanted to biopsy a minute sample of the social tissue and reproduce the results in the form of a permanent verbal artifact.
Updike believed that people in that world sought happiness, and that, contrary to the representations of novelists like Cheever and Kerouac, they often found it. But he thought that the happiness was always edged with dread, because acquiring it often meant ignoring, hurting, and damaging other people. In a lot of Updike’s fiction, those other people are children. Adultery was for him the perfect example of the moral condition of the suburban middle class: the source of a wickedly exciting kind of pleasure and a terrible kind of guilt.
It’s easy to understand why people identify Stephen Dedalus with Joyce, and why they identify the narrator of “In Search of Lost Time” with Proust. But it’s strange that people persist in identifying the protagonists of the Olinger stories and the Maples stories and the Rabbit books with Updike. Those characters are Updikean in certain limited ways—unusually sensitive, unusually death-haunted, unusually horny. But they are not unusually smart or unusually gifted. They could never have created John Updike. And only Updike could have created them.
[Photo Via: The. Buried. Talent.]