I read David Foster Wallace’s collection of essays, Consider the Lobster, after finishing his A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again and being so inspired I wrote a 12,000-word essay about Van Halen using its title story as a model. I greatly looked forward to Lobster to continue my nonfiction trek with Wallace. I’d finished Infinite Jest a few months after learning of DFW’s suicide, a book that lack of time and jealousy and maybe a little good sense necessitated skipping until then. I wrote two separate reviews of Infinite Jest for its fifteenth anniversary in 2011, where I praised it up and down. I am a David Foster Wallace fan of that generation of DFW fans who couldn’t be bothered with him while he was alive.
So it annoys me that Wallace got so much wrong in his review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time, “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think.” In it, Wallace dismantles Time, and Updike’s character choices in many of his novels, and the “Great American Narcissists” (Updike, Mailer, Roth) for their “radical self-absorption” and “uncritical celebration of this self-absorption both in themselves and in their characters.”
Let me touch on what Wallace got right in this review. I couldn’t agree more with Wallace’s assessment of Time. I also found it to be “a novel so clunky and self-indulgent that it’s hard to believe the author let it be published in such shape.” If anything, I sympathize with Wallace for having finished the thing. I got about fifty pages into Time before plopping it down in my sell-back pile. This is saying a lot for me, for I’m the rare Updike fan of my generation, a group Wallace describes as under forty at the time of his review’s original publication (1997). I’ve read twenty or so of Updike’s novels, many more than once, and I loosely modeled my first novel, Stuck Outside of Phoenix, after his Rabbit, Run. Wallace too claims brotherhood in the small sect of Updike-philes our age, trying to separate himself from the “spleen-venting, spittle-splattering Updike haters one often encounters among literary readers under forty,” and points out specific instances of vitriol dumped on Updike by those of our generation. Most memorably Wallace mentions a friend who once exclaimed, “Has the son of a bitch [Updike] ever had one unpublished thought?” Wallace also concedes to “the sheer gorgeousness of [Updike’s] descriptive prose,” and specifically the “surprisingly moving” Updike novel Rabbit at Rest. Setting aside why a purported Updike fan would be surprised that a novel by the author is moving, I agree with the sentiment, and I suspect Wallace and I would have agreed on much more about Updike’s work.
But then Wallace goes astray. Specifically, his charges of Updike’s radical self-absorption are distracting from what’s wonderful about Updike’s work, and I suspect these charges will scare many of my and younger generations away from the writer. Wallace’s central charge is that Updike writes about one protagonist over and over again–all “clearly stand-ins for Updike himself”–and that the protagonist is “always incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous, self-pitying…and deeply alone, alone the way only an emotional solipsist can be alone.”
To which I say, “Yeah, so?” The literary canon is filled with writers who write about narcissists (Hemingway), and one character type over and over again (Austen), and characters who are self-pitying (Proust), and self-contemptuous (Beckett) and philandering (Miller). Surely Wallace isn’t against writers with these types of inclinations. What Wallace seems to mean is Updike’s characters are all of these things, and that makes them unsympathetic to him. And that’s where Wallace and I differ. I find all of Updike’s self-involved characters enormously sympathetic, often for the reasons Wallace mentions.
As an example, let’s look at one of Updike’s most reviled characters, Rabbit Angstrom from his Rabbit tetrology of novels. By anyone’s standards, Rabbit is a pretty self-involved character. In Rabbit, Run, Rabbit leaves his wife for another woman, which indirectly leads to the death of their infant child. In Rabbit Redux, Rabbit allows an eighteen-year-old runaway to stay in his family’s house, which leads to the runaway’s death when the house burns down. And the coup de gras, in Rabbit at Rest Rabbit has sex with his son Nelson’s wife. A pretty impressive chain of self-involvement, eh?
Contrasting these horrible traits is Rabbit’s instinctual belief that God or Fate or Whatever is looking out for him, and is indeed interested in him having a good life no matter what atrocities he commits. Yes, Rabbit is less contrite than most of us would be in the face of these sins, but I think that’s what makes him such a compelling character. As reprehensible as his actions are, he still walks around in this weird sense of grace. There’s something very American–and human–about Rabbit, if we’re willing to look closely consider him.
But Updike isn’t just presenting self-involved characters as a navel-gazing exercise. He mines these characters for insight into themselves and their world. In Rabbit Redux, at the end of the scene where Rabbit beds the eighteen-year-old runaway for the first time, Updike writes: “We make companions out of air and hurt them, so they will defy us, completing creation.” What a beautiful and complex sentence about self-involvement, which I’ll loosely paraphrase as: we try to make people conform to our ideals of them, which they of course rebel against, which makes us truly see them for the first time. Anyone who’s ever spent five minutes with a narcissist can relate to this. Updike isn’t creating flawed characters just for Wallace to loathe. He’s rendering complex characters that very much exist in our world, making us understand them (and us) a little more, and all in his trademark gorgeous way.
Here’s the funny thing: I suspect Wallace liked Updike’s self-involved characters–and for the exact reasons he claims to dislike them. Why would I suspect that? Because I could describe Wallace’s characters in Infinite Jest in much the same way he describes Updike’s. Sure, I might struggle to label what I’ll call the two main characters of Infinite Jest, Don Gately and Hal Incandenza, “narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous, self-pitying,” but I strongly sense they’re both “clearly stand-ins for [Wallace] himself.” Wallace’s experiences as a budding tennis pro and recovering drug addict no doubt informed his renderings of both characters. I also find these two characters “deeply alone, alone the way only an emotional solipsist can be alone.” Remember Hal’s obsession with Eschaton, or Gately’s preoccupation with moving all of the halfway house occupants’ cars from one side of the street to the other during a street cleaning? Their deep self-involvement I find empathetic, but I could also argue they’re basically lonely characters. (By the way, where would literature be without lonely characters? Bye bye, Bovary.) Part of the brilliance of Infinite Jest is its ability to render such complicated psyches, which I take as stand-ins for Wallace’s psyche.
So, I’m glad Wallace gets his Updike on and treads closely to autobiographical material in Infinite Jest. For fiction writers, there’s something valuable about the character we know best. It’s where many cull their best insights. Indeed, a writer’s examination of his fictional characters is often an examination of himself, as it no doubt was for Wallace. So why the sound and fury about Updike’s liberal use of his own feelings in creating his characters? Takes on to know one.
Updike’s departure into world-calamity fiction with Time is another of Wallace’s favorite punching bags in the review. Wallace dubs the futuristic elements of the novel “sketchy and tangential, mostly tossed off as subordinate clauses in the narrator’s endless descriptions of every tree, plant, shrub and flower around his home.” Like Wallace, I find Updike’s sojourns into less familiar worlds insubstantial–Updike doesn’t seem that interested in these departures when compared to his more domestic work–but Wallace is having it both ways with Updike. “Please quit writing about the same characters, and look how awful your work is when you branch out.” Of course Updike doesn’t nail the futuristic novel, but do we also lambaste him for not nailing haiku? Considering the way Wallace disparages Time, the best recommendation for Updike from Wallace–a fan, remember–would seem to be to stick with what he does well, like those self-absorbed Updikean characters in the “surprisingly moving” Rabbit at Rest.
But it’s more fun to go after the guy, especially when your generation will dumbly cheer you on. There’s something in this whole scenario of the new popular kid on the playground making fun of the old popular kid whom the rest of the kids are sick of. I can imagine the lessors waiting for this new guy to wound the pariah enough so they can pile on. To a certain sect, Updike was always damned no matter what he wrote, and Wallace, despite his purported fandom, sounds like just another damner–albeit a sharp-witted one–in much of this review.
Another of Wallace’s favorite sticking points with Updike is his (or his characters’, because what’s the difference, right?) “apocalyptic prospect of his own death.” Is it even possible, considering what transpired at Wallace’s end, he didn’t think–and think a lot–about his own death? “Apocalyptic” no doubt is Wallace’s key word here, Updike thinking his death was somehow cataclysmic to the rest of us. After reading much of Wallace’s work postmortem, I can only wish Wallace had thought of his own death in such terms.
And Updike’s characters don’t spend all their time thinking about death. They think about sex too! Wallace praises Updike’s beautiful writing while criticizing his characters’ concerns with chasing the ladies. But Updike’s writing to me, its particular tenderness, comes part and parcel with his interest in beautiful things, especially women. It’s hard for me to imagine the sensibility he displays in his prose without the sensibility he displays for the opposite sex. Hell, I don’t think I’d want to. They seem borne of the same romantic notion, perhaps a male one, but a real one too. And nobody complained when D.H. Lawrence did it…or maybe they did, but they were wrong too.
I’d be remiss not to add that Wallace’s review is funny. I was reminded of Mark Twain’s famous takedown of James Fenimore Cooper “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” in which Twain dismantles the popular writer of his time. I own an audio version of the Twain piece, and I listened to it over and over for years. Wallace’s skill at poking holes in the Updike blimp is in peak form here, and the piece belongs in Lobster as a example of how a great writer might criticize the work of another. But let’s be clear: John Updike is not James Fenimore Cooper, whose work is pretty nightmarish. John Updike beautifully rendered the grace and conflict of American domestic life in the latter half of the 20th century. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who did it as well. Great American Narcissist? Maybe. Great American Novelist? I don’t think even Wallace would doubt that.
About the author:
In 2011 my third novel, Badge, was a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s literary contest. I am a frequent contributor to The Writer, and my writing has or will appear in Salon, Writers’ Journal, The Los Angeles Review, Word Riot, The Collagist, PANK, JMWW, Pear Noir!, Bartleby Snopes, The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown.