For a long time I’ve meant to write something about John Updike. It’s not like I’m an expert or anything. I haven’t even read that many of his books (just Marry Me, Rabbit Run, short stories, and the collected Maples Stories.) That’s not a lot at all considering his output. And his work isn’t even my favourite. I have to say, some of it I didn’t even like (not that liking or not means anything, per se.) What I’m trying to say is, his writing has had a profound effect on me.
Last year I read the Maples Stories and was astonished. I wish I owned a copy so I could include some of my favourite quotes. But anyway, that would be misleading. It’s not the wittiness of it. It’s something much deeper. It took me ages to figure out what.
John Updike was to his death a Christian believer. It’s quite ironic really. Adulterous episodes are studded throughout his work like raisins in a Christmas pudding! Despite this, there is something abidingly spiritual about his work, and it is the thing I admire most. I would describe it as the kindness he shows toward his characters. I admit, don’t know quite how he accomplishes it. I feel it when I’m reading, this love he has toward them. And I mean, all of them. It’s all so even-handed. And of course it is most noticeable with the main characters, laid bare in all their keenly observed weaknesses and selfishnesses. I would go as far as to say the tone of it is a God-like magnanimity.
Did you ever read (or write) something in which certain of the characters were “set up” to be the bad guys? Deliberately exaggerated, exposed, put in a corner? I’ve noticed it feels kind of ugly to write/read these now. It seems unjust. Dishonest, even. It’s like the writer is that kind of God-on-High many have as their default-setting God, the old long-bearded guy, who loves flinging thunderbolts of judgement in our directions.
Right now you’re thinking “Is this lady a kook or what? We are talking fiction here!” Yes, it is fiction, true. But what I’m saying is, I think John Updike demonstrated there is a higher way of telling a story. If we’re completely fair, benevolent, generous, and open to all our characters, we offer the gift of seeing the world and its citizens in that same way to our readers. Even if just during the experience of reading. And, besides that, it feels so good to read. It’s like a little gift of grace. And the nice thing is, you don’t even have to be a Christian to get the effect. So anyway, that’s what I got from John Updike. And I want to finish by saying, Thanks John, for all you did.