May 2016

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CASCADE_TemplateJohn McTavish, whom John Updike Society members know from past conferences, has published a book on Myth and Gospel in the Fiction of John Updike with Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

McTavish, a minister of the United Church of Canada, had previously published essays on Updike in such journals as Touchstone, Theology Today, The United Church Observer, and The Presbyterian Record.

Although the book is so new that it doesn’t appear yet on the Wipf and Stock website, we can share the back flap copy:

“Big on style, slight on substance: that has been a common charge over the years by critics of John Updike. In fact, however, John Updike is one of the most serious writers of modern times. Myth, as this book shows, unlocks his fictional universe and repeatedly breaks open the powerful themes in his literary parables of the gospel. Myth and Gospel in the Fiction of John Updike also includes a personal tribute to John by his son David, two essays by pioneer Updike scholars Alice and Kenneth Hamilton, and an anecdotal chapter in which readers share Updike discoveries and recommendations. All in all, weight is added to the complaint that the master of myth and gospel was shortchanged by the Nobel committee.”

Updike is the topic again at The Home of Schlemiel Theory: The Place Where the Laugh Laughs at the Laugh, and this time blogger Menachem Feuer writes “On Literary Pain: Comic and Tragic (From John Updike and Franz Kafka to Louis CK).” 

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 9.19.43 AMFeuer begins, “The feeling of pain (what Emmanuel Levinas calls ‘the little death’) and the existential onset of death are the most private experiences. It goes without saying that nobody can feel my pain or experience my death for me. . . . It can be argued that pain gives one a sense of selfhood. What narrative—as opposed to myth—can do is make the reader aware of pain and that all pain is not necessary. The innocent suffer. It can give us a view into the character’s private pain and contrast it to a public which cannot or refuses to see it. A thinker named Rene Girard argues that this perspective is what distinguishes monotheism from paganism.

“It is plausible to argue that this perspective on pain is a key ingredient of modern literature. The more we can see the literary pain of a fictional character in contrast to his surroundings or people, the more valuable a piece of literature can be for us. It can help us to understand the relationship of pain to selfhood and the world. However, there is another side to this coin. This perspective is tragic, not comic. Comedy isn’t interested in pain so much as in what Freud would call the release of tension (for Freud the psyche feels pleasure when it releases such tension). In modern literature, we also experience such a release from pain. It may not be complete, but its release does make things better. It may not be as deep but it means a lot to us. When we laugh at ourselves, we can live better. (To put it simply: pain is heavy; comedy is light.)

“John Updike . . . tends more toward a fiction that is about pain and sharing that pain as a kind of secret with his audience. I find his theology of pain interesting. His obsession with pain is affected by his belief that suffering has a religious quality (perhaps in a sense similar to Kierkegaard). In his novel, The Centaur, he takes a Kafkaesque premise (of a human turning into a creature) but instead of having the character turn into a bug he has the main character turn into a centaur. And instead of having this happen in the privacy of the home and within the space of the family, Updike has it happen in the midst of the public sphere (in front of a class). The subject is—immediately—a kind of Christ figure who is publicly ridiculed when he ‘turns.'”

Feuer posits, “Updike is telling his reader about how significant private pain is and how the inability to feel one’s own pain—as a result of humiliation—marks the ‘crush(ing)’ of selfhood. Updike’s close descriptions of the pain suggest that it is not merely a private affair. Its description takes on a kind of religious aura. . . .”

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 7.39.00 AMJohn Updike Society member Liliana M. Naydan, Assistant Professor of English and Writing Program Coordinator at Penn State Abington, has recently published a book on writers and religion that includes (not surprisingly) a chapter on Updike.

According to the Amazon.com description, Rhetorics of Religion in American Fiction: Faith, Fundamentalism, and Fanaticism in the Age of Terror (234pp., Bucknell Univ. Press) “considers the way in which contemporary American authors address the subject of belief in the post-9/11 Age of Terror. Naydan suggests that after 9/11, fiction by Mohsin Hamid, Laila Halaby, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, John Updike, and Barbara Kingsolver dramatizes and works to resolve impasses that exist between believers of different kinds at the extremes. These impasses emerge out of the religious paradox that shapes America as simultaneously theocratic and secular, and they exist, for instance, between liberals and fundamentalists, between liberals and certain evangelicals, between fundamentalists and artists, and between fundamentalists of different varieties. Ultimately, Naydan argues that these authors function as literary theologians of sorts and forge a relevant space beyond or between extremes. They fashion faith or lack thereof as hybridized and hence as a negotiation among secularism, atheism, faith, fundamentalism, and fanaticism. In so doing, they invite their readers into contemplations of religious difference and new ways of memorializing 9/11.”

The essay on Updike is titled “Emergent Varieties of Religious Experience from a Protestant Perspective: Fundamentalist, Fanatical, and Hybrid Faith in John Updike’s ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’ and Terrorist.”