I’m happy to announce that I have a review of Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike in the new issue of Open Letters Monthly. The Begley bio recently came out in paperback. My take on the book was . . . oh, I don’t know. It’s complicated. I can’t come up with a pithy re-cap. Just go read the review.
Anyway, as with all reviews, there were scraps of thoughts I couldn’t include. Here are some of them:
Updike as great compartmentalizer
It’s difficult to read a biography of a writer and not come at it with a self-help kit. There is always the banal but necessary question of how did he get the work done? Aside from the talent, from the special blend of circumstance, and the capacity for endless hard work, was there some special “trick” that this writer used?
I feel like this whole line of inquiry is shameful, like I should know better than to read a biography in this vampiric way, but I can’t seem to help it.
Anyway, Updike’s trick, if it can even be called that, was that he had a talent for compartmentalizing his life from his work — this in addition to all of the other myriad talents he possessed. He seemingly could work anywhere, under any circumstance, with no sense of procrastination or doubt.
While writing the review, I was tipped off about this video of Philip Roth, who briefly muses on Updike’s greatness. He says Updike “could find the sentences for anything.” And he’s right, I think. The one thing that’s missing in Updike is any real sense of doubt, or fear, or insecurity, or exhaustion, or mute perplexity, or cosmic paralysis that he was wasting his life amidst a pile of empty signification, that maybe he should have taken up something — anything — else, or any of the other routine gales of doubt that the contemporary writer is heir to. (Not me, not me, naturally.) Whatever doubt he felt, he filed it away and got to work, and this lifelong ruthlessness seems extraordinary.
Lorrie Moore as the anti-John Updike
Or the sequel to John Updike, or the contra-Updike, or Updike from the other side of the marital bed. In the review I muse about the possibility of a biography of Mary Updike, the author’s first wife and seemingly the true hero of his writing career. But in the meantime, while that book (hopefully) gets written, we will have to make do with the stories of Lorrie Moore, who I was re-reading coincidentally while working on the review.
If Nicholson Baker, in his inimitable way, continued the diamond-cutting progress of Updike’s prose, Moore continued the subject of his stories — the ruination of the modern American marriage, especially when its victims are well-educated and employed, that is, on the surface, winners in the lottery of first-world experience. (Call it “The Postwar Ruins of Prosperity and The Pill.”) Except the difference is that Moore creates the opposite protagonists, stories told from the point of view of the wry female who’s been sentenced to the domestic hell of dealing with men who are emotional terrorists.
Moore also, interestingly, even daringly, has not written any autobiography. Though many of her stories smell faintly of veiled memoir, and though she has one brilliant, famous story about a baby diagnosed with cancer that mirrors her own son’s diagnosis with cancer, she has not rushed into the contemporary trend of memoir writing, confessional essay penning, or “autofiction,” to use a term I read about just yesterday. (Why, sweet lord of the library, we must come up with yet more idiotic nonce words to re-decorate the endeavor of literature I’ll never know.) After first reading her latest book of stories, Bark, I toyed with the idea of writing an essay about Moore called “The Lost Memoirs of Lorrie Moore,” because though she had been through various “life material” (to use a crude phrase) that seemed ideal for memoir (a pediatric cancer fight, a subsequent divorce, a long-in-the-making but ultimately great novel), she chose to keep writing fiction, albeit fiction that dealt with some of the biographical ingredients that were easily visible from her author interviews and other bits of promotional flotsam. That is, she kept at the old Updike strategy of re-translating her lived experience into fiction.
Obviously, I haven’t worked all of this thought-soup out yet, but the point I’m moonwalking toward is that through this commitment to fiction, and the short story in particular, Moore’s work provides a rebuttal to many of Updike’s stories, not in a point/counterpoint way, but in a way that let’s the Mary Updike–like figures have their say against the blind, reckless, and remorseless force of the male ego-libido.
Postscript: I can’t bring all of this up without linking to this fascinating review she wrote for the New York Review of Books a few years ago.