I was reading the New Yorker this afternoon and suddenly got the crazy idea that I should actually read the new Updike story. Don't get me wrong--I like Updike. But the Updike I like is the Updike of book reviews, incidental (and highly erudite) essays, the Henry Bech stories, and Of The Farm. That's about it. I tried the first Rabbit book three times and got hung up in the same place every go-round: when women first appear.
That's the thing I don't like about Updike, when I don't like Updike. I've never read a memorable woman character in his stuff. They might be in there--I've hardly been through the whole oeurve--but by and large, they are not his forte.
This new story looked pretty good to me at first--an old man is taking his ritual drink of water one evening, and he reflects upon the concept of fullness--the times in his life when he has felt full. He begins with memories of water itself, and these are interesting, and seem to be leading up to something.
And then the something comes--it's an affair!
I certainly don't object to this topic in fiction. It's a common life experience, I suppose. But when Updike does it, it's always with this sense...not of privilege, exactly, but of inevitability. His characters talk about their affairs as though having an affair is an expected, even required, rite of passage in a man's life; there are always some earthy and poetic little riffs about fuckin'; and the women--both the mistress and the wife, who here is always referred to as "the wife"--are boring as shit, and ultimately pathetic.
And this "the wife" thing. Updike's narrator is an asshole--we're not supposed to love the guy--but the defiant way he weilds his little slights is terribly precious, and it bugs me how much Updike enjoys making his flawed men coddle their masculine foibles. When Philip Roth does philandering, it's big, wild, funny, creepy, and explosive. When Updike does it, it's masturbatory and redundant.
I guess what I'm complaining about, ultimately, is the way Updike's characters are men and women first, human beings second. I find this approach tiresome. The gender wars were over before he even started growing hair in his ears--can he find a new hobby horse already? When Updike doesn't have sex on his mind, he's as good as they come; when he does, he's the worst. I can't think of another writer like this, whose attention to a single topic so completely saps his usual artistic vitality.