Binging on John Updike

Stunning Sentences

Pigeon Feathers led to Problems and Other Stories, to Trust Me, In the Beauty of the Lilies, Seek My Face, and The Widows of Eastwick. I didn’t set out to make a knick in Updike’s massive oeuvre; rather, I got sucked in, his writing mesmerizing me with one explosive image after another. Ultimately I was humbled—my writing felt anemic compared to his—and inspired to work harder, see more.

Most reviewers of Updike’s work feel compelled to say something about his exquisite details: “efflorescent in observed detail,” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick. “Richly textured,” said the Boston Herald. “[I]ncessantly observing art,” wrote the New York Times. Updike said about his fiction, “My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me—to give the mundane its beautiful due.”

In nearly every workshop, writers are told to use specific details. When I put myself on the receiving end of Updike’s avalanche of details, an interesting thing happened to me: his reality became more real than reality itself. I could see his story’s reality—the characters and setting and story world—better than the real world around me. And I wanted to stay in his world. If one of the jobs of a writer is to make the reader see anew, Updike accomplishes that, not by strangeness or otherworldliness or the fantastical, but by writing all the way down to the granular, to the gleam on the brass doorknob.

Some critics call out those instances when Updike overdoes it, “when the prolific becomes prolix,” and others name it indigestible self-absorption. But for me, the risk is worth it because of the many times when it does work. In his loose, flowing syntax and long sentences over-brimming with adjectives, the banal shines, and so does his love for the lived experience, for felt emotion.

Here’s Updike, describing one of his characters opening a car door in Seek My Face. In this novel, the main protagonist, Hope, is an artist, so Updike’s language is informed by her artistic eye and particularly laced with specificity.

Kathryn finds the door handle of Alec’s car; the dark and rain release the concussive pang of the driver’s side opening, spilling a wedge of light onto Kathryn’s square-toed boots, the patch of ground turning to mud beneath them, some flattened blades of grass here at the lawn’s edge, and a scattering of pebbles each with its sharp projection of shadow, like something Mr. Hartz would have wanted Hope to see.

This type of sentence, a mixed cumulative, is common in his work. Updike uses a highly adjectival style, adding modifying words, phrases and clauses, to create a longer, more detailed sentence. In the second independent clause, he puts the subject first, “the dark and rain,” followed by what the subject is doing, then the trail of free and bound modifiers. We hear the concussive pang of the door opening, see the wedge of light, the square-toed boots, the muddy ground, the flatted blades of grass, all the way down to the scattering of pebbles, casting a shadow.

In his essay “The Craft of Writing,” longtime Columbia professor of literature John Erskine noted, “When you write, you make a point not by subtracting as though you sharpened a pencil, but by adding. When you put one word after another, your statement should be more precise the more you add. If the result is otherwise, you have added the wrong thing, or you have added more than was needed.” Updike follows that sage advice to perfection.

Another technique of Updike’s is to let his adjectives proliferate. In this sentence from The Beauty of the Lilies, Updike uses a mid-branching sentence, breaking up his subject and verb to create suspense and include more description.

The image of the chairman’s broad, assertive face—the froglike, nimble, downturned mouth of Harlan Dearholt, a small silk-ribbon millowner, whose short blunt nose supported a pince-nez that gave off oval flashes of blind reflection—slipped in Clarence’s mind to the similarly pugnacious and bald-crowned visage of Robert Ingersoll, the famous atheist whose Some Mistakes of Moses the minister had been reading in order to refute it for a perturbed parishioner.

The sentence is populated with no less than 14 adjectives. For Harlan Dearholt’s mouth, Updike strings together three adjectives: froglike, nimble, downturned. They act like a magnifying glass, zeroing in on a character, and the result for the reader is a vivid picture of Dearholt. With so many adjectives, the reader feels an almost exuberant response to the physical world.

In “The Persistence of Desire,” a short story in Pigeon Feathers, we find a similar sentence, with the use of a parenthetical to add specific details:

She averted her face, leaving, in a sense, only her body—the pale, columnar breadth of arm, the freckled crescent of shoulder muscle under the cotton strap of her summer dress—with him.

Updike peppers his writing with metaphors and similes, adding more images and details. This sentence is from the Widows of Eastwick:

Yet out of politeness and pity toward the camel driver, whose missing teeth possibly made him look more pitiable than he really was, she held on unprotesting as the horizon pitched like an enraged sea, and sand got into her eyes, and the giant cubical stones of the Great Pyramid as they lunged closer seemed about to burst the bonds of gravity and tumble down upon her.

The other day, my teenage son came to me, his face a weave of worry and frustration, and pointed a long finger at his perfectly aligned front tooth. “What’s this?” he said.

“What?”

“This spot.”

A tiny white spot on his tooth. I said I’d look it up for him, but assured him it wasn’t noticeable. A calcium deposit, maybe. A reaction to fluoride. Whatever it was, when I sat down to write that day, I discovered one of characters noting with immense delight the tiny bright white spot on another character’s tooth, like a shining star.

Nina Schuyler’s latest novel, The Translator, was published by Pegasus Books. Her first novel, The Painting, was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

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