Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Philip and John: My two favorite writers

By Edward Copeland
Whenever anyone asks me who my favorite writer is, I generally have two answers. For writing alone, no one stands above John Updike for me. However, if the subject is broadened to novelists, then Philip Roth takes the prize. As luck would have it, both authors recently released new novels, a short tome called Everyman by Roth and a novel called Terrorist by Updike. I figured the occasion was a good enough reason for me to explore my reading relationships with both greats.


My reading relationship with Philip Roth got off to a rocky start. My first exposure to him came in high school when I read Portnoy's Complaint, which I found silly and immature. I never read anything else by him for several years, but about the time American Pastoral started earning acclaim, I decided to give Roth another chance — and boy was I glad that I did. He really grabbed me with American Pastoral and it encouraged me to seek out his older works. Soon, I was immersed in the many worlds of Nathan Zuckerman through the main trilogy, The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson, onto the many other works in which Roth's writer surrogate would appear. Some of my favorite Roths turned out to be ones that didn't involve Zuckerman at all — especially Sabbath's Theater, which may well be my favorite Roth novel, and the incredibly original and hard to describe Operation Shylock and the true-life memoir of his relationship with his aging and dying father, Patrimony. Roth is a great writer — he doesn't have the prose brilliance of Updike, but something about him just grabs you. Sure, some of his books that I've read have bored me, but I've completed every single one I've started. The same can't be said for Updike. What's most amazing to me is how he seems to keep getting better and better. When you think of his recent output such as American Pastoral, The Human Stain and The Plot Against America, it's quite amazing. As for his most recent novel, Everyman, it's a short, good exploration of mortality and a failing body, but it didn't grab me the way many of his other works have. Here is a list of the Roths I've read to completion, along with a three-grade assessment of fair, good or great. I'm not rating Portnoy's Complaint, because I feel I need to give it another chance and I never have.
  • Goodbye, Columbus: Good.
  • Portnoy's Complaint: Not rated.
  • The Breast: Fair
  • My Life As a Man: Good.
  • The Professor of Desire: Fair.
  • The Ghost Writer: Great.
  • Zuckerman Unbound: Great.
  • The Anatomy Lesson: Great.
  • The Counterlife: Great.
  • Deception: Great.
  • Patrimony: Great.
  • Operation Shylock: Great.
  • Sabbath's Theater: Great.
  • American Pastoral: Great.
  • I Married a Communist: Good.
  • The Human Stain: Great.
  • The Dying Animal: Fair.
  • The Plot Against America: Great.
  • Everyman: Good.


    My first brush with Updike came when he won the Pulitzer for Rabbit Is Rich. I was in junior high and I rushed out and bought the entire trilogy in paperback: Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux and Rabbit Is Rich. I attempted to start Rabbit, Run, but I guess I wasn't ready for it at that age yet. The next Updike I picked up was The Witches of Eastwick in high school. I bought the book because I knew a movie version with Jack Nicholson was forthcoming and because my junior English teacher rejected my choice of John Irving's The World According to Garp for a paper. It might be the biggest favor a teacher ever did for me. Once I read Witches, my thirst for Updike came to life. Around the same time, I ended up layed up (I think it was with wisdom teeth, but memory gets fuzzier with age) and my dearly missed friend Jennifer loaned me her copy of Updike's short novel Of the Farm, a beautiful chamber piece that really tossed me into the Updike universe unabated. His writing was a revelation — I don't remember ever reading a writer before him that made me gasp so frequently at the sheer power of his prose. Sometimes, he seemed to overreach, but mostly the sentences he constructed were things of wonder. After that, I threw myself back into the Rabbit Angstrom trilogy and I read all three in quick succession — a fascinating experience. Updike was great from the beginning, but by reading the three books, each written about a decade apart, in short order, you could really watch as his power as a prose stylist took hold. The trilogy, later joined by the fourth and final book, Rabbit at Rest, are considered Updike's crowning achievements and it's hard to argue with that. The four books really mark his most successful merging of his ample writing talent with his novelistic skills, which are sometimes lacking. With five Updike novels under my belt, I was a true Updike obsessive — and this was before Philip Roth had re-entered my reading life. If you've never had a chance, it's worth reading Nicholson Baker's fun book U & I, which describes his reading relationship with Updike and in many ways mirrors my own. He admits that there are some Updike novels he's just never finished and the same is true for me. His writing always is great, but some of the novels just don't hold you the way they should. There are some other great ones such as Couples, A Month of Sundays, Marry Me: A Romance (a personal favorite) and what I think may be his most underrated novel, which I worship, In the Beauty of the Lilies. In the Beauty of the Lilies represents a trend in Updike's work — the need to experiment with different subjects and forms. In the case of Lilies, it works magnificently. In other novels, such as The Coup or Toward the End of Time, I just couldn't get through them. I had intended to hold this post until I completed Terrorist, but that is taking longer than I expected due to circumstances in neither my nor Updike's control. So far, I like it. His prose is sterling as usual, though there are some digressions I've read already that don't quite seem to fit to me. I expect this is an Updike novel I'll finish, not one I abandon and once I do, I'll probably do a separate post just on it. Now, like with Roth, I'm gonna rate the Updike novels I've tried. I'm not including the myriad short story collections or books of criticism or poetry, I'm limiting it to the novels. He's just too damn prolific to go further, though technically the Bech books are collections. One other curious thing I'd like to note when comparing Updike and Roth: While Roth's characters are frequently writers, Updike seems to avoid them like the plague, aside from the Bech books. I wonder what that says about each of them.

  • Rabbit, Run: Great
  • The Centaur: Good
  • Of the Farm: Great
  • Couples: Great
  • Bech: A Book: Good
  • Rabbit Redux: Great
  • A Month of Sundays: Great
  • Marry Me: A Romance: Great
  • The Coup : Unfinished
  • Rabbit Is Rich: Great
  • Bech Is Back: Good
  • The Witches of Eastwick: Good
  • Roger's Version: Good
  • S. : Unfinished
  • Rabbit at Rest: Great
  • Memories of the Ford Administration: Fair
  • Brazil : Unfinished
  • In the Beauty of the Lilies: Great
  • Toward the End of Time : Unfinished
  • Bech at Bay: Good
  • Gertrude and Claudius: Fair
  • Seek My Face: Fair
  • Villages: Fair
  • Terrorist: I'll let you know

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    This is a really interesting post. I remember my friend Lenny Dalrymple making all the cherry pits for the scene in Witches. I never realized until now it was an Updike book...Thanks!
    While the book and movie of Witches are both good in their own ways, the movie bears little resemblance to the novel.
    WITCHES is my favorite Updike. I always loved this line: "Being a divorcee in a small town is a little like playing Monopoly, eventually you land on all the properties."
    I enjoyed this one - especially since I bought both Rabbit, Run and American Pastoral along with another bunch of books last week. I came this close to reading Rabbit, Run, but I opted for Don de Lillo's Underworld at the last minute. I know what I'm reading next now though.

    And if you have any other favourite writers, I insist that you devote a post to each of them too.
    Funny you should mention DeLillo -- he's one of my favorites too. Underworld is good, but long. My favorites of his are White Noise, Mao II and Libra.
    I love On the Farm, that's probably my favorite, but I'm also a big fan of Updike's nonfiction. Zuckerman Unbound is my favorite Roth. I see what you're saying about Updike's trouble as a novelist. Somewhere I read Ann Tyler say that reading Updike's prose was like looking at miniature paintings; that when you stare at them they grow and take over the whole room. So when I read a book like Couples, I always get bogged down in beautiful descriptions of the little details.
    I've been reading Underworld for well over a week now at quite a decent rate and I'm still not even half-way through. This would ordinarily be discouraging, but it's a compelling book. I'm not sure how he manages it, but DeLillo has a way of turning matters of things like waste disposal and bowel movements into riveting, thought-provoking passages. I respect this in a writer.

    Libra was also in the same shopping cart along with Underworld, Rabbit Run etc. so I hope to catch up with that one soon also. Based on its jacket and blurb, I'm picking up a bit of an In-Cold-Blood vibe, which automatically leads to big expectations since Capote's is one of my all-time favorite books.
    I'm reading Rabbit is Rich right now!

    Peace, Maxine
    Rabbit Is Rich is my favorite of the Rabbit books, just barely edging out Rabbit at Rest.
    Of younger authors, Michael Chabon is one of my favorites and of course you can never go wrong with Dickens. When I was younger, I liked King, but I got tired of him eventually.
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