Over the past four decades, John Updike has richly earned a reputation as the most staid, baleful, misogynistic, and bourgeois writer to come down the American pike in a long time. Perhaps ever. Next to him, Nathaniel Hawthorne looks like a real radical. Anyone who has read his work with more than a passive eye understands. His novels regularly couch themselves in the languorous suburbs of Anglo America. His female characters consistently come across as little more than genitalia in pearls. And for the most part, his ideal of creative nonfiction seems to be essays about golf. And yet, America can boast few writers of any generation who bear such a natural and extravagant gift for style. Every one of his stories bears the obvious marks of a true craftsman; each of his sentences is pleasantly unpredictable. He has devoted more loving attention to a single description of a housewife’s nipples than today’s young novelists invest in an entire book. So maybe it’s little wonder that Updike has won the Pulitzer Prize twice, while still giving the impression that he hasn’t even untied the other hand from behind his back.
This bittersweet gift is exactly what you’ll find in More Matter, the latest and—the author half-heartedly threatens—last collection of work by John Updike. Consisting solely of nonfiction published in the past eight years, this anthology serves up both what we love and what we love to hate about our country’s most famous member of the old guard.
To give you some sense of just how prolific he is, first of all, More Matter is no less than Updike’s 50th book, not to mention his fifth anthology, almost all of which is made up of articles he wrote exclusively for The New Yorker. A specialized collection, for sure, but over its 800-odd pages, the book bears out that Updike is not only productive but honestly knowledgeable about far more than his pale, complacent fiction might let on. It’s parceled into sections covering politics, literature, photography, film, painting, biography and (gulp) gender issues, with each piece offering both real gems and real dross. His essay on suntanning, for example, is an object lesson in Updike’s uncanny ability to make the everyday seem truly significant, but it’s tarnished by odd references to “red Indians” and the suggestion that bikinis somehow caused the “hangover of feminism.” Similarly, Updike’s brief review of short stories by John Cheever offers more insight into that mysterious author than any study ever done; but it’s done up with prose so impenetrable that sometimes you have to wonder if Updike is daring you to understand (“the style’s naïveté is not always faux,” he writes at one point). And don’t even get him started on golf.
For those of you who know John Updike, you know what you’ll be in for when you heft this huge book into your lap. For those of you who don’t, you may want to start with something more roundly rewarding—namely, his better fiction. Anything from 1960’s brutally true Rabbit, Run to 1997’s psychotropic Toward the End of Time will do. They, as much as this, will help you understand how one man managed to elevate stodginess into an art form.