John Updike died this morning. He was pretty old (76) and sick (lung cancer). Is it callous to say I’m not a fan? Perhaps. Anyway.
His death brought to mind the words of a great American writer who died less than a year ago, David Foster Wallace, who, in reviewing Updike’s 1997 novel Toward the End of Time, made a pretty solid case against Updike’s ungenerous solipsism. Wallace starts with a line from Mailer’s 1969 poem “Midpoint” — “Of nothing but me … I sing, lacking another song,” (I assure you, gentle reader, Updike’s song of himself is hardly as inclusionary, loving, or democratic as Whitman’s) and continues:
Mailer, Updike, Roth-the Great Male Narcissists who’ve dominated postwar realist fiction are now in their senescence, and it must seem to them no coincidence that the prospect of their own deaths appears backlit by the approaching millennium and on-line predictions of the death of the novel as we know it. When a solipsist dies, after all, everything goes with him. And no U.S. novelist has mapped the solipsist’s terrain better than John Updike, whose rise in the 60′s and 70′s established him as both chronicler and voice of probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV.
Although Wallace cops to being “probably classifiable as one of very few actual sub-40 Updike fans,” his treatment of Toward the End of Time is pretty scathing, and I think he makes a pretty good (implicit) case for why the fictions of the “Great Male Narcissists” will probably be ultimately considered mere period pieces, and not stand the test of time. But it seems like I’m speaking ill of the dead.
Wallace was a great writer and his young death still pains me. Read his full assessment of Updike’s novel here. It’s funny.