Essays and Criticism
By John Updike
Knopf. 900 pp. $35
Steady, precise, like some piston-driven juggernaut from the glory days of machine engineering, John Updike produces, week in, week out, the largest quantity of scintillating prose of any living American writer. It's staggering to contemplate, really, and for any practitioner of the craft of the sentence, downright depressing. Most of us breathe, then write. Updike inhales oxygen and exhales, so it would seem, camera-ready copy.
More Matter: Essays and Criticism, his fourth omnium gatherum, shivers the ground when you drop it. Aside from confirming the man's high-test industry, though, it also begs indulgences that other writers are not in a position -- either with their publishers or readers -- to beg. Updike is the only writer I am aware of who ventures to publish -- that is, re-publish -- every public line that has ever leaked from his pen. It's all here -- I mean down to the slightest verbal doodle, be it a one-paragraph response to some magazine questionnaire or a preface to some obscure translation of one or his works.
"My excuses for this methodical narcissism," explains Updike in his preface, "are that all authorial activity is egoistical anyway and that close students of my work -- there are a few -- will be interested." I wonder if there are that many. In any event, those Updikeophiles could leg it a bit on the Internet and save the rest of us mere admirers a good deal of eyestrain, not to mention the heaving and grunting of transport. But I think that Updike rather likes to contemplate all of the quanta of energy expended on his behalf -- by laboring paper mills, clattering presses, and then by bookstore clerks and readers, most of the latter not especially developed through arms and upper torso. I make people sweat, therefore I exist.
There. Having registered my size complaint, I can turn to the main question: What do we have here? We have, really, an enormous grab-bag, featuring impressionistic reveries on topics as recondite as the ins and outs of packaging (strapping tape, airline peanut bags, etc.); extended literary think pieces (Kierkegaard, the short novels of Herman Melville); ordinary literary reviews (these culled mainly from the pages of the New Yorker); charming reflections on movie idols (Lana Turner, Gene Kelly); photographs; selected works of art . . . One searches the index for "kitchen sink."
To which the reviewer responds (this one anyway): This is too much. Can I say this without coming across as ungrateful? Probably not, but let me try. Even as I will grant ungrudgingly that there is not a page in this entire behemoth that offers prose less than masterly, I would also argue that the book -- and the reader's experience of the Updike sensibility -- would be improved significantly if at least half of the contents had been allowed to languish in the limbo of uncollected ephemerality.
What to keep, what to drop? Every reader will judge the matter differently. For my money, Updike is unexcelled as a reflective essayist, and his musings, whether on golf or winter clothing or the psychology of the male sex organ, offer pure delight. The man writes most brilliantly when lyrically stimulated, and when he can linger over the details of the world. Give him the purchase of the specific -- something, anything, manifest to the senses -- and he is off.
A reflection on "The Cold," for example, written for a Brazilian newspaper, elicits the following: "Cold is always working, it seems -- busy freezing water in the ponds and rivers, knitting intricate six-sided snowflakes by the billions, finding cracks around the walls and windows of your house, forcing furnaces in the cellar to roar away." I cite this not as an extraordinary but as a representative Updike sentence -- crisp, perfectly balanced, clarifying the world for us just slightly. There are thousands of comparable expressions compacted between these covers.
The reviews and prefaces -- of which there are many -- are a harder sell. As Updike tells us himself in his preface, "My reviewing habit, hard to break, was to quote extensively; just as the ideal map would be the same size as the territory mapped, the ideal review would quote the book in its entirety, without comment." Winningly put, but the fact is that the reviews do quote too much. They don't rise to essay status through the absorption and transformation of materials. They are smartly written reports on specific literary works and as such have served their short-term function.
Finally, I would cut out all of the little finger-snaps -- a good hundred pages of them. These are pure indulgence: I wrote it, it must be worth something. Every working writer has drawers full of this stuff and never imagines pushing it at the public. Too much coyness, too much self-basking -- or self-basting. Writing the forward to John Updike: A Bibliography, 1967-1993, for example, the eponymous one does the faux sheepish routine: "Bibliographer De Bellis's invitation to add to the already bulky front matter of his giant scholarly work meets in me a certain skepticism. Must I orate at my own interment?" Short answer: no.
Still, there is so much richness, such an abundance of life seen, felt, and brought to intensified inner resolution, that even if I eviscerated More Matter to make it less, much mattering would remain. We would still have a volume that could balance surely in the left hand, a touch heavier than one ideally likes, but each page compensating strain with its glimpses of the keen-eyed spirit pacing behind the grille of words.
Sven Birkerts is the author of five books of essays, most recently "Readings," published earlier this year.