December 1999

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More Matter:
The Essayist as Pearl Diver

by Charlie Onion

More Matter:
Essays and Criticism

John Updike
Alfred A. Knopf
902 pp.
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The title of John Updike's new collection of essays--More Matter: Essays and Criticism--comes from Gertrude's exhortation to Polonius in Hamlet: "More matter, with less art." To Updike, she sounds "like a modern magazine editor" because

The appetite in the print trade is presently for real stuff--the dirt, the poop, the nitty-gritty--and not for the obliquities and tenuosities of fiction. A writer is almost never asked to write a story, let alone a poem; instead he or she is invited to pen introductions, reviews, and personal essays, preferably indiscreet....Human curiosity, the abettor and stimulant of the fiction surge between Robinson Crusoe's adventures and Constance Chatterly's, has become ever more literal-minded and impatient with the proxies of the imagination. Present taste runs to the down-home divulgences of the talk show--psychotherapeutic confession turned into public circus--and to investigative journalism that, like so many heat-seeking missiles, seeks out the intimate truths, the very genitalia, of Presidents and princesses. It is as if, here at the end of the millennium, time is too precious to waste on anything but such central, perennially urgent data.

A grim thought, perhaps, but Updike readily admits that, no matter what the form, he had from an early age "set out to be a magazine writer...and I like seeing my name in what they used to call 'hard type.'" So in the 1990s, Updike writes in More Matter's preface, "instead of devoting myself wholly to the elaboration of a few final theorems and dreams couched in the gauzy genres of make-believe," he did the editors' bidding: he wrote essays. Quite a lot of them, actually.

Middle-brow, suburban, self-absorbed--say what you will about Updike. One thing you can't call him: laconic. In the course of a stunningly productive career, he's produced nineteen novels, ten short story collections, five collections of essays (More Matter is the fifth), five books of poetry and five books for children--fifty books in all, including the various compilations. And somehow, in the last decade, he's dabbled in the hard type frequently enough to run More Matter up to nine-hundred-pages--enough to put all overworked freelance writers to shame. Writing on everything from Mickey Mouse to old movie palaces to photographs of writers' desks, Updike seems intent on producing his own eclectic encyclopedia of the twentieth century (the index alone runs to forty pages). Or, alternatively, it could be an even more impressive attempt to commit to paper every thought that's passed through his mind in the last decade, give or take a few errant wanderings.

Of course, it's quality, not quantity, that matters--particularly when it comes to essays, because the essayist must find new ways of amusing the reader over and over again, across the course of the book. But readers who like to say what they will about Updike may be pleasantly surprised by this new collection. He is, in fact, a wonderfully versatile essayist, and the best essays reprinted here show that he's still in top form. Indeed, he's more consistently a good essayist than he is a good novelist, I think. (Of course, novels can be terribly large, complicated things, and most essays--in a word--aren't. Constraints--an editor's unyielding word count, a narrow range of assigned subjects, relentless deadlines--focus a good essayist's mind, and the tricks of the essay trade are more easily learned than the arcane, frighteningly various rules that guide good novels, albeit invisibly.)

The problem with finding new ways to amuse the reader over and over again grows exponentially when a collection contains one hundred and eighty-five essays, as More Matter does. But More Matter works as a whole because Updike's penchant for writing about a breadth of subjects in which he is not expert--actively encouraged by both Wallace Shawn and Tina Brown at The New Yorker--lends his essays a rejuvenating freshness and variety that makes each new section seem almost like a new book altogether. (Ironically, it's precisely this quality that specialists find so hard to evoke. Too often, it seems, they are so immersed in the minutiae and the inevitable political wars that are conducted in every field that it's hard for them to back out of the maze and address a popular audience; their tendency is to write to their fellow, narrowly focused professionals.)

This is an important distinction, I think. In essay after essay, the reader of More Matter feels that Updike is exploring and assimilating virgin material even in the process of writing--and it's an exhilarating sensation: to feel the writer beside you, nodding his head with you at some new, unexpected idea. The notion's not lost on Updike, I think. In More Matter's preface, he writes that "An invitation into print, from however suspect a source, is an opportunity to make something beautiful, to discover within oneself a treasure that would otherwise have remained buried." (In the name of treasure-hunting, Updike accepts assignments from a surprising array of sources, suspect or otherwise; one of the essays included in More Matter, "Bodies Beautiful," was written for the official souvenir program for the 1992 Olympic games. Surely, he must turn somebody down--but who? It would make a good essay topic for Updike, actually, should he run out of topics at some point: "The Four Assignments I've Turned Down in Fifty Years of Writing.")

This is what makes the best essays so fresh, I think--this feeling that Updike is so actively working at these essays, not merely to find the perfect turn of phrase but to find out what precisely he thinks about the subject. One definition of a good essay might be that it teaches the reader something he might never have learned otherwise. But a definition of an even better essay might be that it teaches the writer something he might never have learned otherwise. And the fact that Updike seems to learn as much from his essays as we do makes More Matter a strong collection indeed.

But the sorts of things to be learned from this collection seem to come in two distinct forms. On the one hand, we have the essays in which Updike works as a professional, even academic critic--that is, in the literary and art essays (and, to a lesser extent, in the book reviews, though they sometimes offer considerably less valuable insights, I think). Here, Updike gives us clear-headed, patient criticism enlivened by a well-trained novelist's eye for telling detail. Updike on Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, Henry Green and (perhaps most winningly) Mickey Mouse--these are the pieces most likely to teach us something new and substantial. (Trust me: read Updike on Melville and you'll probably come out with enough material to put yourself in good stead at the next English professor's dinner party you stumble into.) And the reason for Updike's success in these essays is obvious: the subjects are inherently rich, and we should consider them veritable pearl beds for a patient diver like Updike.

The second form, perhaps best labeled the ephemeral pieces (the subjects range from suntans, haircuts and burglar alarms to the carefree life of beachgoers in the 1960s) rely more on Updike's skills as a stylist to make them come off. Here, Updike seems to change personas, shifting from the professional critic (who seems to write with one eye on his source text and the other on his pen) to a fellow bystander pointing at something odd, absurd or sadly gone from our own day-to-day lives. In these essays, it's his perceptive ability, more than his breadth of knowledge, that distinguishes him from the others on the street: he notices more--colors, textures, a gesture that seems suddenly obvious, once it's noticed. (This talent helps him as an art critic too, of course.) In the end, the ephemeral essays leave you more with a keener awareness than anything else. Let's face it: you're not going to get far with the tweed-clad crowd with the facts to be culled from Updike's supercilious rant on burglar alarms. That doesn't make them bad, of course; they're simply different altogether from the more academic pieces. At his best, Updike approaches the ephemeral subjects with a decadent miniaturist's attention, and the essays come across as intricate, carefully worded confections whose verbal fecundity belie their simple, everyday subjects. Yes, the subjects are suburban, middlebrow and self-absorbed. But hey: they're also funny, poignant and smartly observed.

Of course, More Matter isn't dud-free. Some of the shorter book reviews are too brief to merit anthologizing, I think, and a few of the ephemeral pieces are such thin exercises that their subjects collapse under the weight of Updike's fevered word-play. ("Print: A Dialogue," which imagines a conversation between Bill Gates and Johannes Gutenberg, is particularly egregious.) But the overwhelming bulk of the book--and remember: we're talking about a book that weighs in at three pounds--is remarkably strong, and it should stand as a testament to Updike's skills as a highly perceptive observer as well as a multi-talented (even elastic) writer. Click here to find any book!


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