Is John Updike the Shakespeare of Our Time? (The Centaur) (and a touch of Seinfeld)

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It seems like every piece of literary criticism I read lately uses Updike’s work as some sort of benchmark for great literature in the 20th Century. (X is the new Updike…; as Updike and X replaced Faulkner and Joyce…; there isn’t a clear figure from the latter part of the century whom you can point to like you could point to X and Updike…; etc.) Sure The Witches of Eastwick is a fun movie and all, but when I tried to read Rabbit, Run once I only got to about page 40 before putting it down.

One time I was shooting pool in a bar in Seattle with Andrew Handlesman, (whose favorite writer was Woody Allen). He was trying to tell me that Updike was better than Faulkner, and solicited the opinion of this old drunk guy sitting at the bar. The guy said something like “hell no” or “of course not” adding that Updike wrote books “for guys with good jump-shots.”

Anyway, I thought I should give him another try. So I bought The Centaur, which is supposedly one of Updike’s best books, and sounded interesting.

In a small Pennsylvania town in the late 1940s, schoolteacher George Caldwell years to find some meaning in his life. Alone with his teenage son for three days in a blizzard, Caldwell sees his son grow and change as he himself begins to lose touch with his life. Interwoven with the myth of Chiron, the noblest centaur, and his own relationship with Prometheus, The Centaur is one of John Updike’s most brilliant and unusual novels.

Well, if that is what the book is about, then why would you use both the father and the son to narrate? Especially when you get to the end of the book, and it becomes clear that the son’s point of view has been fairly irrelevant.

Perhaps you have the son looking back, years later, not fully understanding George at the time, but then coming to realize later in life that his father (perhaps like all men) was a centaur trapped like Chiron.

Or, perhaps, you just tell the story in third person, and let the reader impose his or her own perspective.

In any event, pick one.

Which brings us to the narrative itself.

With a faint rending noise the tires came loose from the frozen earth of the barn ramp. The resistance of the car’s weight diminished; sluggishly we were gliding downhill. We both hopped in, the doors slammed, and the car picked up speed on the gravel road that turned and dipped sharply around the barn. The stones crackled like slowly breaking ice under our tires. With a dignified acceleration the car swallowed the steepest part of the incline, my father let the clutch in, the chassis jerked, the motor coughed, caught, caught, and we were aloft winging along the pink straightaway between a pale green meadow and a fallow flat field. Our road was so little traveled that in the center it had a mane of weeds. My father’s grim lips half-relaxed. He poured shivering gasoline into the hungry motor. Our gallant black hood sailed into the sharp little rise of road, gulped it down, stones and all, and spat it out behind us. On our right, Silas Schoelkopf’s mailbox saluted us with a stiff red flag.

Who the hell is talking here?

Certainly not a sophomore in high school.

The son, Peter, is clearly older, looking back. (He even says at some point “as I would discover later” or something along those lines.) But the story is, for the most part, told as if it’s taking place in the present. So I’m not really sure what the advantage is. There’s not really too much useful insight, or perhaps flawed perspective, to be gained.

Yet, returning to the voice: Not even adults talk, or think, or recall things, like that.

It’s the type of voice that’s only found in places like The New Yorker.

I don’t mind “lyrical” or “literary” or “poetic” language. In fact, I am generally in favor of sacrificing clarity for something that “sounds” better. (I even tend to do this in legal briefs, often to my co-counsels’ chagrin.)

But, (at least in my view), it can’t be done in the first person. At least not credibly. Because people don’t think, or talk, or relate things in that way.

Second of all, and perhaps more importantly, I would question whether this is really very lyrical or poetic.

I mean, at least to my ear, it’s not like Coleridge or Tennyson or Yeats or something. A Child’s Christmas in Whales. I don’t think I would read it simply for the pleasure of the words. It’s not really lyrical, in the sense of a song.

A lot of the effort seems to be for its own sake. How can I say this “better”?

Well, sure, “The writer displays a virtuoso’s command of the language.”

But is it really pleasing to the ear?

“Maybe not, but it communicates so much.”

Really? That the hood was “gallant”? That the motor was “hungry”? That the gasoline was “shivering”?

Yeah. Sure. Nice imagery if you take the time to think about it. But really, who cares? What is the significance?

Yeah, sure, it might expand the way you think about something. View it in a fresh light.

But, of course, you have to be familiar with the scene for it to really mean anything. That’s the weakness of the metaphor. To expand your understanding of X, you have to know what X is. In 500 years, you think anyone will have any idea what he is talking about?

They’re just words. Bigger words. Better words. More diverse. Great vocabulary.

But to what end?

They are filling a car with gas and driving off down a rural road.

Then they pick up a hitchhiker. If you distill the dialogue, it’s a great scene. But instead of allowing the reader to get the picture, or perhaps get the wrong picture, (or perhaps form his or her own picture), Updike’s boy Peter has to give us the play-by-play.

I dimly appreciated that my father had conjured up Heaven and my mother as a protection for me, as a dam against the flood of vile confidences with which our guest was brimming; but I vividly resented that he should even speak of me to this man, that he should dip the shadow of my personality into this reservoir of slime. That my existence at one extremity should be tangent to Vermeer and at the other to the hitchhiker seemed an unendurable strain.

Blah blah blah. More useless words. So pretentious. The conceit. And completely unnecessary, because, after pages of this stuff, Peter says to his dad in a few sentences absolutely everything that needs to be said. (“Really great. You’re in such a hurry you won’t let me eat a rotten bite of breakfast and then you pick up some rotten bum and go three miles out of your way for him and he doesn’t even thank you.”) (Get the picture?)

All that being said, you have the instinctive feeling, by the end, that you have read a “good” book. Perhaps because of the classical allusions. Perhaps because of the characters, so real and familiar, universal and yet not stereotypes. Perhaps because of the familial literary coming-of-age type of plot, without much suspense or drama. Perhaps because George’s story is not the simple portrait of a centaur, with the heaven-aspiring apollonian torso chained and bound to the dionysian animal below; (I think it was described in one article referencing The Centaur as “Kierkegaardian” who, from what I recall, drew the image of man as a tower in the desert who can see for miles and miles but cannot move; another image which I recall is Mr. Hammer’s description of the dragon as a projection of man, a serpent that crawls along his belly, but with the power to lift itself up on the wings of imagination); but the more subtle and complex story of Chiron, a modern-day everyman, innocent yet wounded and burdened, and alone.

One other thing I noted was a passage from an auditorium, with different conversations going on all at once.

“He’s his own best lover if you ask me.”
“Box lunch – schluurrp!
“I’ll put it this way to you: infinity equals infinity. Right?”
“So then I heard that she said….”

I have always been intrigued by this type of “dialogue”.  It’s so common in real life and yet so little used dramatically.

In fact, I always found it interesting that none of the Seinfeld imitations imitated what was truly unique about the show. That is, rather than the typical sitcom “cooperative” structure, in which each character’s lines build upon the former’s, culminating in the punch line, the Seinfeld characters frequently engaged in “competitive” banter, talking right past one another, each with his or her own agenda, thinking out loud, or trying to be heard.

So, anyway, is John Updike the standard-bearer for 20th Century literature?

I don’t know.

But he’s no Faulkner, that’s for sure.

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