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Impotent and Extremely Bummed: Or, “Less Like John Updike Than Like Somebody Doing A Mean Parody Of John Updike”
Seminal malignant narcissist/withered phallocrat John Updike gets tenderly ripped the fuck up by ponytailed Gen-X tennis ace dreamboat David Foster Wallace in this New York Observer critique from ’97. Included in DFW’s essay collection Consider The Lobster. Molly Lambert republishes now for you to enjoy.
Is This Finally the End for Magnificent Narcissists?
by David Foster Wallace
The New York Observer
October 13, 1997
- John Updike, Midpoint, 1969
Mailer, Updike, Roth — the Great Male Narcissists* who’ve dominated postwar realist fiction are now in their senescence, and it must seem to them no coincidence that the prospect of their own deaths appears backlit by the approaching millennium and on-line predictions of the death of the novel as we know it. When a solipsist dies, after all, everything goes with him. And no U.S. novelist has mapped the solipsist’s terrain better than John Updike, whose rise in the 60s and 70s established him as both chronicler and voice of probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV.
As were Freud’s, Mr. Updike’s big preoccupations have always been with death and sex (not necessarily in that order), and the fact that the mood of his books has gotten more wintery in recent years is understandable — Mr. Updike has always written largely about himself, and since the surprisingly moving Rabbit at Rest he’s been exploring, more and more overtly, the apocalyptic prospect of his own death.
Toward the End of Time concerns an incredibly erudite, articulate, successful, narcissistic and sex-obsessed retired guy who’s keeping a one-year journal in which he explores the apocalyptic prospect of his own death. It is, of the total 25 Updike books I’ve read, far and away the worst, a novel so mind-bendingly clunky and self-indulgent that it’s hard to believe the author let it be published in this kind of shape. I’m afraid the preceding sentence is this review’s upshot, and most of the balance here will consist of presenting evidence/justification for such a disrespectful assessment.
First, though, if I may poke the critical head into the frame for just one moment, I’d like to offer assurances that your reviewer is not one of these spleen-venting, spittle-spattering Updike-haters one encounters among literary readers under 40. The fact is that I am probably classifiable as one of very few actual sub-40 Updike fans. Not as rabid a fan as, say, Nicholson Baker, but I do think that The Poorhouse Fair, Of the Farm and The Centaur are all great books, maybe classics.
And even since Rabbit Is Rich — as his characters seemed to become more and more repellent, and without any corresponding indication that the author understood that they were repellent — I’ve continued to read Mr. Updike’s novels and to admire the sheer gorgeousness of his descriptive prose. Most of the literary readers I know personally are under 40, and a fair number are female, and none of them are big admirers of the postwar G.M.N.’s. But it’s Mr. Updike in particular they seem to hate. And not merely his books, for some reason — mention the poor man himself and you have to jump back:
“Just a penis with a thesaurus.”
“Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?”
“Makes misogyny seem literary the same way Limbaugh makes fascism seem funny.”
These are actual — trust me — quotations, and I’ve heard even worse ones, and they’re all usually accompanied by the sort of facial expression where you can tell there’s not going to be any profit in arguing or talking about the esthetic pleasure of Mr. Updike’s prose. None of the other famous phallocrats of his generation — not Mailer, not Frederick Exley or Charles Bukowski or even the Samuel Delany of Hogg — excites such violent dislike.
There are, of course, some obvious explanations for part of this dislike — jealousy, iconoclasm, P.C. backlash, and the fact that many of our parents revere Mr. Updike and it’s easy to revile what your parents revere. But I think the major reason so many of my generation dislike Mr. Updike and the other G.M.N.’s has to do with these writers’ radical self-absorption, and with their uncritical celebration of this self-absorption both in themselves and in their characters.
Mr. Updike, for example, has for years been constructing protagonists who are basically all the same guy (see for example Rabbit Angstrom, Dick Maple, Piet Hanema, Henry Bech, Rev. Tom Marshfield, Roger’s Version’s “Uncle Nunc”) and who are all clearly stand-ins for the author himself. They always live in either Pennsylvania or New England, are unhappily married/divorced, are roughly Mr. Updike’s age. Always either the narrator or the point-of-view character, they all have the author’s astounding perceptual gifts; they all think and speak in the same effortlessly lush, synesthetic way Mr. Updike does.
They are also always incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous, self-pitying and deeply alone, alone the way only a solipsist can be alone. They never belong to any sort of larger unit or community or cause. Though usually family men, they never really love anybody — and, though always heterosexual to the point of satyriasis, they especially don’t love women. The very world around them, as beautifully as they see and describe it, seems to exist for them only insofar as it evokes impressions and associations and emotions inside the self.
I’m guessing that for the young educated adults of the 60s and 70s, for whom the ultimate horror was the hypocritical conformity and repression of their own parents’ generation, Mr. Updike’s evocation of the libidinous self appeared redemptive and even heroic. But the young educated adults of the 90s — who were, of course, the children of the same impassioned infidelities and divorces Mr. Updike wrote about so beautifully — got to watch all this brave new individualism and self-expression and sexual freedom deteriorate into the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the Me Generation.
Today’s sub-40s have different horrors, prominent among which are anomie and solipsism and a peculiarly American loneliness: the prospect of dying without once having loved something more than yourself. Ben Turnbull, the narrator of Mr. Updike’s latest novel, is 66 years old and heading for just such a death, and he’s shitlessly scared. Like so many of the novelist’s protagonists, though, Turnbull seems to be scared of all the wrong things.
Toward the End of Time is being marketed by its publisher as an ambitious departure for Mr. Updike, his foray into the futuristic-dystopic tradition of Aldous Huxley and soft sci-fi. The year is A.D. 2020, and time has not been kind. A Sino-American missile war has killed millions and ended centralized government as Americans know it. The dollar’s gone; Massachusetts now uses scrip named for Bill Weld. No taxes — local toughs now get protection money to protect the upscale from other local toughs.
AIDS has been cured, the Midwest is depopulated, and parts of Boston are bombed out and (presumably?) irradiated. An abandoned space station hangs in the night sky like a junior moon. There are tiny but rapacious “metallobioforms” that have mutated from toxic waste and go around eating electricity and the occasional human. Mexico has reappropriated the U.S. Southwest and is threatening wholesale invasion even as thousands of young Americans are sneaking across the Rio Grande in search of a better life. America, in short, is getting ready to die.
The book’s postmillennial elements are sometimes cool, and they truly would represent an interesting departure for Mr. Updike if they weren’t all so sketchy and tangential. What 95 percent of Toward the End of Time actually consists of is Turnbull describing the prenominate flora (over and over as each season passes) and his brittle, castrating wife Gloria, and remembering the ex-wife who divorced him for adultery, and rhapsodizing about a young prostitute he moves into the house when Gloria’s away on a trip.
It’s also got a lot of pages of Turnbull brooding about decay and mortality and the tragedy of the human condition, and even more pages of Turnbull talking about sex and the imperiousness of the sexual urge and detailing how he lusts after assorted secretaries and neighbors and bridge partners and daughters-in-law and a little girl who’s part of the group of young toughs he pays protection to, a 13-year-old whose breasts — “shallow taut cones tipped with honeysuckle-berry nipples” — Turnbull finally gets to fondle in the woods behind his house when his wife’s not looking.
In case this sounds like a harsh summary, here’s hard statistical evidence of just how much a “departure” for Mr. Updike this novel really is:
Total number of pages about the Sino-American war — causes, duration, casualties: 0.75;
Total number of pages about deadly mutant metallobioforms: 1.5;
Total number of pages about flora around Turnbull’s home, plus fauna, weather and how his ocean view looks in different seasons: 86;
Total number of pages about Mexico’s repossession of the U.S. Southwest: 0.1;
Total number of pages about Ben Turnbull’s penis and his various feelings about it: 7.5;
Total number of pages about the prostitute’s body, with particular attention to sexual loci: 8.75;
Total number of pages about golf: 15;
Total number of pages of Ben Turnbull saying things like “I want women to be dirty” and “We are condemned, men and women, to symbiosis” and “She was a choice cut of meat and I hoped she held out for a fair price” and “The sexual parts are fiends, sacrificing everything to that aching point of contact”: 36.5.
The novel’s best parts are a half-dozen little set pieces where Turnbull imagines himself inhabiting different historical figures — a tomb-robber in ancient Egypt, Saint Mark, a guard at a Nazi death camp, etc. They’re gems, and I wished there were more of them. The problem is that they don’t serve much of a function here other than to remind us that Mr. Updike can write great imaginative set pieces when he’s in the mood. Their justification in the novel stems from the fact that the narrator is a science fan.
Turnbull is particularly keen on subatomic physics and something he calls the theory of “many worlds” — which actually dates from 1957 and is a proposed solution to certain quantum paradoxes entailed by the principles of Uncertainty and Complementarity, and which is unbelievably abstract and complicated but which Turnbull seems to think is roughly the same thing as the Theory of Past-Life Channeling, apparently thereby explaining the set pieces where Turnbull is somebody else. The whole quantum setup ends up being embarrassing the way something pretentious is embarrassing when it’s also wrong.
Better, and more convincingly “futuristic,” are the narrator’s soliloquies on the blue-to-red shift and the eventual implosion of the known universe near the book’s end, and this would be among the novel’s highlights, too, if it weren’t for the fact that Turnbull is interested in cosmic apocalypse only because it serves as a grand metaphor for his own personal death — likewise all the Housmanesque descriptions of the optometrically significant “Year 2020,” and the book’s final, heavy description of “small pale moths [that] have mistakenly hatched” on a late-autumn day and now “flip and flutter a foot or two above the asphalt as if trapped in a narrow wedge of space-time beneath the obliterating imminence of winter.”
The clunky bathos of this novel seems to have infected even the prose, John Updike’s great strength for almost 40 years. Toward the End of Time has occasional flashes of beautiful writing — deer described as “tender-faced ruminants,” leaves as “chewed to lace by Japanese beetles,” a car’s tight turn as a “slur.” But a horrific percentage of the book consists of stuff like “Why indeed do women weep? They weep, it seemed to my wandering mind, for the world itself, in its beauty and waste, its mingled cruelty and tenderness” and “How much of summer is over before it begins! Its beginning marks its end, as our birth entails our death” and “This development seems remote, however, among the many more urgent issues of survival on our blasted, depopulated planet.”
Not to mention whole reams of sentences with so many modifiers — “The insouciance and innocence of our independence twinkled like a kind of sweat from their bare and freckled or honey-colored or mahogany limbs” — or so much subordination — “As our species, having given itself a hard hit, staggers, the others, all but counted out, moved in” — and such heavy alliteration — “The broad sea blares a blue I would not have believed obtainable without a tinted filter” — that they seem less like John Updike than like somebody doing a mean parody of John Updike.
Besides distracting us with worries about whether Mr. Updike might be injured or ill, the turgidity of the prose also increases our dislike of the novel’s narrator (it’s hard to like a guy whose way of saying his wife doesn’t like going to bed before him is “She hated it when I crept into bed and disturbed in her the fragile succession of steps whereby consciousness dissolves”). This dislike absolutely torpedoes Toward the End of Time, a novel whose tragic climax (in a late chapter called “The Deaths”) is a prostate operation that leaves Turnbull impotent and extremely bummed. It is made very clear that the author expects us to sympathize with and even share Turnbull’s grief at “the pathetic shrunken wreck the procedures [have] made of my beloved genitals.”
David Foster Wallace pwing in Wii Tennis
These demands on our compassion echo the major crisis of the book’s first half, described in a flashback, where we are supposed to empathize not only with the textbookish existential dread that hits Turnbull at 30 as he’s in his basement building a dollhouse for his daughter — “I would die, but also the little girl I was making this for would die. There was no God, each detail of the rusting, moldering cellar made clear, just Nature, which would consume my life as carelessly and relentlessly as it would a dung-beetle corpse in a compost pile” — but also with Turnbull’s relief at discovering a remedy for this dread — “an affair, my first. Its colorful weave of carnal revelation and intoxicating risk and craven guilt eclipsed the devouring gray sensation of time.”
Maybe the only thing the reader ends up appreciating about Ben Turnbull is that he’s such a broad caricature of an Updike protagonist that he helps us figure out what’s been so unpleasant and frustrating about this gifted author’s recent characters. It’s not that Turnbull is stupid — he can quote Kierkegaard and Pascal on angst and allude to the deaths of Schubert and Mozart and distinguish between a sinistrorse and a dextrorse Polygonum vine, etc. It’s that he persists in the bizarre adolescent idea that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants is a cure for ontological despair.
And so, it appears, does Mr. Updike — he makes it plain that he views the narrator’s impotence as catastrophic, as the ultimate symbol of death itself, and he clearly wants us to mourn it as much as Turnbull does. I’m not especially offended by this attitude; I mostly just don’t get it. Erect or flaccid, Ben Turnbull’s unhappiness is obvious right from the book’s first page. But it never once occurs to him that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.
* Unless, of course, you consider constructing long encomiums to a woman’s “sacred several-lipped gateway” or saying things like “It is true, the sight of her plump lips obediently distended around my swollen member, her eyelids lowered demurely, afflicts me with a religious peace” to be the same as loving her.
Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording. She tumbls here.
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