MORE MATTER: Essays and Criticism.

Updike, John.

Published by Alfred A Knopf,, 1999
ISBN 10: 0375406301 / ISBN 13: 9780375406300
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Synopsis: John Updike's fiftieth book and fifth collection of assorted prose, most of it first published in The New Yorker, brings together eight years' worth of essays, criticism, addresses, introductions, humorous feuilletons, and -- in a concluding section, "Personal Matters" -- paragraphs on himself and his work. More matter, indeed, in an age which, his introduction states, wants "real stuff -- the dirt, the poop, the nitty gritty -- and not . . . the obliquities and tenuosities of fiction."

Still, the fiction writer's affectionate, shaping hand can be detected in many of these considerations. Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, Sinclair Lewis, Dawn Powell, Henry Green, John Cheever, Vladimir Nabokov, and W. M. Spackman are among the authors extensively treated, along with such more general literary matters as the nature of evil, the philosophical content of novels, and the wreck of the Titanic. Biographies of Isaac Newton and Queen Elizabeth II, Abraham Lincoln and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Benchley and Helen Keller, are reviewed, always with a lively empathy. Two especially scholarly disquisitions array twentieth-century writing about New York City and sketch the ancient linkage between religion and literature. An illustrated section contains sharp-eyed impressions of movies, photographs, and art. Even the slightest of these pieces can twinkle.

Updike is a writer for whom print is a mode of happiness: he says of his younger self, "The magazine rack at the corner drugstore beguiled me with its tough gloss," and goes on to claim, "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."

Review: Ever since he made his two-pronged prose debut in 1959 with The Poorhouse Fair and The Same Door, John Updike has delivered approximately one work of fiction per year. Few modern novelists have approached this level of productivity, which suggests a kind of late-Victorian stamina and linguistic lust for life. Even fewer have simultaneously churned out, as Updike has, a constant stream of reviews, essays, reminiscences, and occasional pieces. His custom is to collect this abundance every decade or so, disguising the substantial nature of these volumes with throwaway titles like Picked-Up Pieces and Odd Jobs. The latest such cornucopia is More Matter--and, like its predecessors, this 928-page behemoth reminds us that Updike is among our most discerning and omnivorous critics.

His title, this time, echoes Queen Gertrude's editorial advice to Polonius: "More matter, with less art." Only reluctantly does Updike assent to our age's appetite for facts, facts, and more facts, with fiction relegated to a kind of imaginative finger bowl:

Human curiosity, the abettor and stimulant of the fiction surge between Robinson Crusoe's adventures and Constance Chatterley'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 genitals, of Presidents and princesses.
Strong stuff, that last line, especially from the man whom Nicholson Baker called "the first novelist to take the penile sensorium under the wing of elaborate metaphoric prose."

But if Updike's critical investigations tend to stay above the belt, they remain as wide-ranging and elegant as ever. In More Matter, he takes on Herman Melville and Mickey Mouse, Abraham Lincoln and the male body--not to mention the cream of modern cosmology. His formulations on almost any subject seem ripe for the commonplace book. Here he is on sexual appetite: "Lust, which begins in a glance of the eye, is a searching, and its consummation, step by step, a knowing." On the short story: "The inner spaces that a good short story lets us enter are the old apartments of religion." On the austerity of biblical narrative: "The original Gospels evince a flinty terseness, a refusal, or inability, to provide the close focus and cinematic highlighting that the modern mind expects." And finally, on the raw intimacies of John Cheever's published journals:

His confessions posthumously administer a Christian lesson in the deep gulf between outward appearance and inward condition; they present, with an almost unbearable fullness, a post-Adamic man, an unreconciled bundle of cravings and complaints, whose consolations--the glory of the sky, the company of his young sons--have the ring of hollow cheer in the vastness of his dissatisfaction. Comparatively, the journals of Kierkegaard and Emerson are complacent and academic.
These sentences neatly unite the author's literary and theological concerns--although the latter topic takes something of a back seat in More Matter--and remind us of the compound pleasures of his prose. In his preface, Updike refers to the book as "my fifth such collection and--dare we hope?--my last." We very much hope not. --James Marcus

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Title: MORE MATTER: Essays and Criticism.
Publisher: Alfred A Knopf,
Publication Date: 1999
Binding: Paperback
Book Condition: Very Good

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