If you had to choose a writer to report from the afterlife, could you do better than John Updike? Death needs no exaggeration, after all. I can imagine Updike — who died on Tuesday at age 76 — going to work joyously and methodically to describe his new surroundings. Those posthumous works would tell us something as round and substantial about the afterworld as Updike’s Rabbit books did about a certain time in a certain place called Pennsylvania.
John Updike may well turn out to have been America’s Anthony Trollope. This is high praise. They both wrote dozens of novels — including interlinked sets — and both worked at writing as if it were a kind of cobbling, a sometimes magical job to which they went deliberately each day. What we remember best from both Trollope and Updike is not so much the struggles of individual characters but the social and cultural webs in which their characters are caught.
Trollope never tried to capture the drama of his own self-consciousness. Updike did, and gloriously. (What Updike leaves us brooding about, in fact, is how he managed his own brooding.) Only a writer who could temper his self-consciousness and, in some cases, snuff it out entirely, could have published so much and so often. America likes its writers struggling. And if it’s been at times puzzled by Updike, it’s because his grace and his facility made him a little suspect in a culture that expects its writers — Hemingway, Mailer — to duke it out with the language and themselves.I like Updike’s nonfiction best, especially the volumes of criticism that added up like sand in a river delta. Reading those books, you never know what you’re going to find. The reason is this: No matter what Updike’s books accomplished, he was, above all, a maker of sentences, one of the very best. You can read him for his books, but it’s better to read him for his sentences, any one of which — anywhere — can rise up to startle you with its wry perfection.