Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Tom Wolfe or John Updike?

Previously here on the site: Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?

Today: Tom Wolfe or John Updike?

In what turned into a running feud, Tom Wolfe once called Norman Mailer and John Updike "two old piles of bones." The insult was not unprompted. When Wolfe's A Man in Full appeared in the winter of 1998, Updike, in the New Yorker, described it as "entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form."

Later, John Irving joined the fray. "I think of the three of them now--because there are now three--as Larry, Curly and Moe," Wolfe said in 2000 after unflattering remarks about his writing by Irving. "It must gall them a bit that everyone--even them--is talking about me."

My opinion?

I've read only Wolfe's A Man in Full and I Am Charlotte Simmons and a very few of his essays. I've read much more Updike, both novels and essays, though probably a smaller portion of his prodigious output than of Wolfe's.

The first thing I should say about the two Wolfe novels is: I couldn't put them down. They're thick books, but I read them in very short order, diving into the pages whenever I had a spare moment.

Besides getting wrapped up it, the main thing I recall about A Man in Full was that Wolfe seemed to have a hard time ending it.

My memory of I Am Charlotte Simmons is clearer. It has many faults--it feels like a "message" book*, Wolfe is inordinately (and, though he gets a lot correct, unjustifiably) proud of what he thinks he knows about contemporary college life, and there are many passages where the writing made me wince--but all that has been well-aired elsewhere. Anyway, as I say, I couldn't put it down. That should be enough for any author.

I think Updike is a much better writer, hardly an "old pile of bones." I don't race through an Updike novel--because I too often stop to reread a page or paragraph, to marvel at his artistry. There never seems to be word out of place, a sentence that might be written in any other, better, way. He's a magician.

And, like Tolstoy, he brings me into the experience of his characters so that I understand what their world is like. I know next to nothing about the life of 19th century Russians or middle-aged married/philandering Northeastern suburbanites, but these writers open those worlds to me. When I read their books I think: Yes, of course, it must be exactly like that for these characters.

Villages (2004) is Updike's 21st novel and the one I recall best. There are too many reviews available just a click away for me to offer my own. Here are links to two of them, Michiko Kakutani's blistering dismissal and Walter Kirn's more favorable appreciation, with which I'm pretty much in accord. And here is a passage from Fay Weldon's review:

This book gives great pleasure. Some writers get more boring with age, but John Updike just gets more perspicacious. The wealth of connections and imagery increases with the years; the practice of literary expression makes the prose yet more perfect. ....

[N]o other novelist creates his alternative universes with such a delicate grace, recreating the smells and textures of other places, other people, other times, tracing the remembrance of sexual desire with such melancholy relish, granting significance to the everyday and ordinary.


--Marshal Zeringue

*The message I refer to is the fuddy-duddy one about how things aren't as good as they once were. There is a much more subtle argument in the novel about neuroscience, a subject that Wolfe researched in some depth. I don't think he's solved the mind-body problem or should even have as much confidence about it as he seems to, but he certainly deserves a lot of credit for weaving that philosophical issue into an entertaining novel. Be on the lookout for the political philosopher Eduardo Velásquez's brilliant essay (forthcoming) on I Am Charlotte Simmons and the question of the soul, the source of much enlightenment on the issue.