1958, Books, Fiction

The Poorhouse Fair (1958) by John Updike

Updike is a great literary stylist. Even in this very early novel, he does an excellent job. His sentences are often beautiful. And even when they are not beautiful, they are so full of detail about the person and/or the scene that they leave a vivid picture in the mind. I am prone to imagining how novels would be shot as films – I guess because I have watched so many movies in my life – but reading Updike you sometimes don’t even have to imagine; it feels as though he has already done the work a screenwriter or storyboard artist would need to do. This skill of his, to render detail so well, should make him a great writer. So should his ability to sometimes create poetic beauty out of English prose

However I don’t love Updike. I have no read something like 4 or 5 of his novels and I haven’t loved a single one of them. As far as I can figure, it’s because he doesn’t move me. And once again, now that I’ve finished one of his novels, I’m trying to figure out why.

I don’t like his characters. I know we’re often not supposed to like the characters in the novels we read and I usually (though not always) don’t have a problem with that. But there’s something specific about the characters of his early novels I have trouble relating to. It’s as if they’re not old enough to get the benefit of the doubt of being characters of another time – say like the characters in early 20th century literature – but they are not modern enough for me to recognize as modern. In his early novels, nearly all of Updike’s major characters (basically everyone of them but the children) are older than my father and mother. I suspect that something about this is one reason why I find them all so unbelievably old fashioned. I guess one way of putting it is as if a modern writer is writing about pre-modern people. (They are not pre-modern, of course, but they sometimes feel as though they wished they were.) This is particularly true of the characters in this book who are, of course, mostly really old and therefore even more conservative and traditional.

Then there’s the thing I should appreciate about him but don’t: at this early stage, at least, Updike was very much concerned with significant moments in time – a day, a weekend, what have you – rather than with Plot. I am normally very open to this. I usually like this. But, for some reason, when I read his early books, I find myself desperate for some actual tragedy. Would it kill him to kill somebody?

Anyway, this is very well written. Especially for a first novel. But I found myself hoping that something – anything – would happen during the actual Fair only to discover that, of course, the climax had already passed, as I feared it had, when the minor incident after the rainfall occurred. And I was once again wondering why I should care so much about these small moments in peoples’ lives. Because I’m not sure he made me.

6/10 I guess

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