09 June 2006

Updike in Person

John Updike has never been my favorite writer…my taste runs to styles less lapidary and more immediate—but I couldn't miss seeing him at the Harold Washington Library Sunday afternoon. While not my favorite, he's certainly a writer I've admired, and how could I not? He's an icon of contemporary fiction—I don't think anyone else is so consistently serious, prolific, and good.

So I took a friend to see the great man—elderly, as he called himself: raised in the Depression as my parents were. He talked a good deal about his new novel, Terrorist, and also spoke interestingly about writers of later generations than his own. It seems that younger writers lack staying power: they shoot their wad with their first book, which is usually extremely impressive in its ambition, and they typically fail to meet their early promise.

I find myself wanting to argue one side or another of this, but it's just silly: why argue a generalization?

Asked if writing is easier for him at this stage, Updike spoke of the challenge of finding fresh material. Indeed, a number of his recent books have felt to me like self-challenges: let's see if I can write a magic realist novel; what happens if I novelize Hamlet from his mother's perspective? Terrorist sounds like a similar writerly dare.

But when my friend expressed skepticism at this 70-year-old man's ability to convincingly portray a teenage Islamic fanatic ("I can't imagine it, how could he?") I pointed out (and reminded myself) that getting into other people's heads is Updike's job.

So Terrorist is probably a very good read and not necessarily worse for being the result of a thought experiment.

Still, it's not at the top of my list.

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