Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Self-Consciousness - John Updike

Bibliolatry asked me a couple of weeks ago about my impressions of this memoir. I'm having a devil of a time getting a coherent review together, so below is an attempt to organize my thoughts. It's just notes, though. Sorry.

Although I'm an Updike fan, I can't help but laugh and shake my head at what Florence King once wrote about him: Reading John Updike reminds me of Herman Melville and Jane Austen; it's like trying to cut through whale blubber with a pair of embroidery scissors.

Who? John Updike
What? Self-Consciousness: A Memoir
Where? Various places. Mostly Pennsylvania, where he spent his childhood and Massachusetts, where he spent most of his 30s and 40s. But mostly John Updike is his own setting.
When? This book was written in the mid-1980s when Updike was about 55.
Why? Updike heard that someone wanted to interview him so they could begin writing his biography. He was appalled at the idea of someone else handling his life, so he took on the project himself.
How? Updike wrote a memoir in the form of 6 semi-connected essays.

The essays:
1. "A Spring Night In Shillington". Updike loses his luggage when travelling to his hometown. He dispatches his family to the movies and walks around the town while waiting for it to be brought to him. He has to wait almost the entire length of the movie (Being There) and describes every building, every streetlamp, every crack in the sidewalk -- not only as it is now but as he remembers it growing up during the 1930s and 40s. Too much detail. Zzzzz. I was almost as glad as he when the luggage person arrived.

2. "At War With My Skin". From childhood, Updike suffered from psoriasis, which he inherited from his mother. He details his embarrassment over its unwelcome presence in the wintertime, and his relief when he could battle it with the help of the sun during the summer months. As he became a literary success and began making money, he could go to the Caribbean during the winter months and sunbathe. (I wonder if he's heard of Dr. Fish?) He ruminates on how this chronic condition helped to shape him into a writer. This is far and away the best essay in the book.

3. "Getting The Words Out." Updike also has a slight stammer that appears when he's nervous or stressed. Of course he also discusses how this shaped him as a writer. Other than that, I don't remember much about this essay.

4. "On Not Being A Dove". Updike discusses his slightly hawkish stance during Vietnam AND his dreaded and extensive dental work. The Vietnam part goes on way too long, which makes the dental part a relief to read. Still, it's a jarring combination that seems to clunk along. With impish good humor he pulls it all together in the last paragraph, but it feels like too little, too late.

5. "A Letter To My Grandsons". This begins interestingly, because his grandsons have a white mother from the United States (Updike's daughter) and a black father from Africa, and Updike touches on some of the cultural differences between these boys' two families. Then he meanders into his own family genealogy and seems mired there. Zzzzzzz. The best part of the essay is when he discusses a 1909 photo of the extended Updike clan, which is included at the front of the book.

6. "On Being A Self Forever". Updike is back in Shillington, visiting his mother again. It's like a bookend essay for the first one, except much more introspective. He discusses ageing quite a bit, both his mother's and his own. Much rumination about religion. Updike was brought up as a Lutheran, and married a woman whose father was a Unitarian minister. He seems crazy about Emerson, but with a strangely grim and deterministic humor that I associate with Lutheranism (perhaps unfairly) threaded throughout. Updike seems to believe -- or determined to believe -- in God because he feels that God is for people with imagination, which of course he prizes highly. In his view, atheism lacks this quality. [Edited to add: I enjoyed the part of the essay in which Updike muses that we shouldn't be afraid of death because we're changing all the time and the people we were in the past are, in effect, dead. He also talks about having favorites and unfavorites among your past selves, which was fun and whimsical.]

Recommendation: For hardcore Updike fans and Updike scholars. For others, check out Self-Consciousness from the library and read "At War With My Skin".

As far as the fiction goes, read the "Rabbit Quartet" for a neat time-capsule look at life in America in 1959, 1969, 1979 and 1989, and also for a compelling but often unsparing look at Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a man who hit his zenith as a high school basketball star and grew older and older but never really grew up.


Lisa said...

The Rabbit books have been on my tbr list for so long now. I'm not sure why I haven't gotten around to reading them. I actually like the format for this review. It seems to give a good synopsis of the book -- enough to know that I'll take your advice and check it out of the library and read the best essay.

Rebecca Reid said...

I haven't read any of the Rabbit books although I may read some Updike short stories. I'll have to give them a try!

Jeane said...

Never read Updike (or Austen) but I have read Melville and that image of blubber and scissors made me laugh out loud! It was such a tedious book. Can't say that makes me much want to try Updike, though.

Care said...

Looks interesting - I need to read some Updike before I'm curious enough to read this, methinks... your review was a delight, tho!

Sam said...


I need to ask a favor. Blogger has locked me out of Book Chase because some software program tells it that my blog is a spammer. I have requested a formal review by a real person, and not just the robot who booted me, but I have no idea when, or if, this will be resolved.

I'd appreciate you helping me spread the word among our community so that others will know that I haven't just disappeared and that I hope to be back.

Right now, I have absolutely no access to my blog and they tell me that it will be deleted in 20 days.