Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Midcentury Men

Sometimes it seems no book will ever again lodge in my psyche the way the books I read in my teens did. Of those, a disproprotionate number seem to be by white male Americans writing in the middle of the last century. Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), John Cheever (1912-1982), J. D. Salinger (b. 1919) and John Updike (1932-2009) were mixed in with plenty of writers who weren't male, 20th century, American or very good, but I certainly did acquire a lot of my writing-by-imitation lessons from those 4. Even now, I still think about them all the time, despite their differences from each other, and from me.

Of those guys, it's Updike that I feel most ardently. Maybe because he's the only one who's been creatively active in my lifetime (I don't expect Salinger to publish anything further, other than perhaps a Unibomber-style manifesto, at this point, though when I was 14, I was sure he would). And maybe I've so admired Updike's stories just because he wrote the most like I wanted to write--though I do think most writers come to the page because *no one* writes exactly what we want to read, and we write to fill our own gaps.

What I think Updike had that I want is that penatrating gaze beyond the glaze of the everyday, that ability to full characterize the third person and give a tiny breathing space even in first. Those *voices*, that self-consciousness of characters who, even if they are don't know they are in a story, know that people are always on view in the world, visible and audible. Updike's characters can't stop talking, at least to themselves, especially to themselves. They can't stop thinking and I can't stop thinking about them.

All this is by way of saying that I am upset--to a rather surprising extent--that Mr. Updike passed away Monday. I'm sure I'm not old enough to say who my greatest writing influences are--the best idea is likely to not worry about this until I'm dead, and then if anyone's still interested, they'll have my collected works to study. Nevertheless, I *feel* like Updike's with me a lot when I write, although I don't know that it shows...yet. I can think of specific places in *Once* where there's that inside-outside doubling voice, but there aren't very many. Someday, I'm going to finish the book that really does show the influence...not soon, though.

Perhaps Updike is a strange heritage for me to claim, given his somewhat masculine worldview, and his often rarefied settings. Maybe he represented an age, if not a place, that my parents come from, and he felt a paternal figure to me as a writer. I imagine a lot of people felt that way, although maybe not of 30-year-old women who write mainly about people in cities with lousy jobs.

Maybe all I'll leave all this to whoever still interested after I'm dead, and just concentrate on the many books of Mr. Updike's I haven't even read yet. It's not like I'll miss hanging out with him, and books are eternal. But I don't get to scan the table of contents in the New Yorker hoping he'll be in this week, or hope he'll somehow get the Nobel eventually, or I dunno, just feel good about all his stories yet to come.

For lack of a better ending, rest in peace.

1 comment:

writer_guy said...

Thank you. This is the kind of tribute I had hoped to write about Updike, but mine was more scattered, hackneyed. I too will miss seeing Updike's name in the contents of the New Yorker. Thankfully, because of his prodigious output, I'll never run out of Updike to read.