He’s Still Giving Praise

John Updike, Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism
Knopf, 919 pages, $35.

 

Some time back, the editors of a book called The Meaning of Life asked John Updike to address the question: “Why Are We Here?” The gist of his answer – which may startle those more familiar with his sex scenes than with his theological interests – was gratifyingly unfashionable: “We are here to give praise.” The full reply, a mere paragraph long, is one of the 150-odd items – mostly reviews, but also essays, tributes, introductions, acceptance speeches, and contributions to symposiums – that make up Updike’s huge nonfiction hodgepodge, Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism.

To read this book – his 40th – is to realize that Updike is here to praise. He excels at appreciation. To be sure, he tends to appreciate authors of the past more than he does his contemporaries: He almost never reviews new American writers, and admits in his preface that “the critical considerations assembled here muster… their stoutest enthusiasm for the products of decades early in the century.” The current novelists he does write about tend to be either native luminaries like Philip Roth or foreign ones like Harry Mulisch and Zhang Xianliang.

Updike is a meticulous craftsman. Everything here, whether published initially in The New Yorker or Knoxville Magazine, is solidly built its paragraphs big and blocklike, its sentences firmly upholstered with high-toned vocables. He summarizes and paraphrases elegantly; and he gets off an occasional snappy (but tasteful) line: “Being on TV is like being alive, only more so”; the French turned Benjamin Franklin into “a knickknack of the Enlightenment.”

His reviews are rich in beautifully phrased insights, and he’s top-notch at charm and humility, writing about film adaptations of his work that “I feel embarrassed, watching the gifted and comely actors writhing and grimacing within my plot, heaving away at lines of dialogue I put down in a few minutes’ daze years before, and straining to bring to life some tricky moral or social issue that once bemused me.”

A believer in common sense, hard work and writing as a means of communication, Updike has little patience for sham, citing the “falsity” of the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and dismissing Norman Mailer’s The Executioner s Song as “a pumped-up piece of reportage.” He is especially funny and discerning on postmodernism, calling it “a kind of cartoon-cat version of modernism the cat keeps running even though he has only air beneath him.” For all his absorption in spiritual matters, moreover, nothing gets his goat more than “the imputation among writers that their shop talk is holy”; thus he is commendably uncharmed by Annie Dillard’s “flirtation with the absolute.” As for minimalism, here he is on Ann Beattie: “Take away the brand names, the slogans, the nicely worked-out costumes and postures, and you have blank tape.”

Yet such deliciously snide lines are relatively rare in the Updike oeuvre. He seldom goes on the attack; when he does, he tends to use a gentlemanly stiletto, not a cudgel. He damns with faint praise: Paul Theroux’s Sailing Through China, he writes, “has the charm of fragments. ” Frequently, rather than develop an uncomplimentary point, he pulls back and says something nice: After a dig at Joyce Carol Oates’s fecundity, for instance, he declares gallantly that “if the phrase ‘woman of letters’ existed, she would be, foremost in this country, entitled to it.”

Updike’s genteel aversion to the critical rough-and-tumble is, of course, in keeping with his role as dean of New Yorker writers. During his early years as a contributor, he recalls, “it seemed very obvious to me … that The New Yorker knew best, was best.” But has he gotten the magazine into perspective yet? In his preface, he announces that most of the pieces here “belong to an already slightly bygone era when Ronald Reagan reigned over the United States and William Shawn over The New Yorker.” The fact is that for all his discernment and metaphysical curiosity, there is about this tome a frustrating quality – an essential triviality, a skittishness in the presence of the profound — that one cannot help identifying with The New Yorker. That answer to the ultimate question – “Why Are We Here?” – gets one paragraph, less than a frivolous piece on the Red Sox or his answer to Harvard Magazine‘s question: “What is your favorite spot in and around Harvard?”

And so it goes here: Weighty topics alternate with silly ones, and Updike tackles each of them in the same blithe, efficient, all-purpose-literary-man manner. Readers may get exasperated at the sight of a peerless literary artist continually and contentedly biting off less than he can chew, weaving exquisite symphonies of language around themes that are barely worthy of Tin Pan Alley.

The more one reads this book, the more one wonders: What passions rule this man? What makes him fume? Do any young novelists knock his socks off? Why doesn’t he give us anything approaching a major statement on American culture, the direction of literary criticism, the state of the novel? There’s a lot of superb prose in these pages, but nothing as gutsy and ardent as his outspoken political essay “On Not Being a Dove” – whose first appearance was (significantly) not in the dovish New Yorker but in Commentary, the neo-conservative monthly. And this reader, for one, would trade a dozen of Updike’s refined appreciations of foreign eminences for one frank assessment by him of a first-rate younger colleague – Richard Powers, say, or Charlie Smith or Paul Auster.

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL