How do you describe Wes Anderson’s characters? By invoking John Updike

In “The Definitive Ranking of Every Single Wes Anderson Character,” superfans Mark Asch, Charles Bramesco and Jesse Hassenberger took on the gargantuan job of considering how “Anderson collects things and people” and trying to assess the “many traits that make a Wes Anderson character memorable or quintessential to the filmmaker’s project—intellectual curiosity, reckless rambunctiousness, melancholy that clings like a fog, lovable selfishness, epigrammatic wit, sartorial fastidiousness, facial symmetry—” and rank the characters.

“One recurring theme of these blurbs will prove to be family; another will prove to be the lure of the past for Anderson and his characters. Meanwhile, a recurring theme of all the horrible A.I. art generated from a ‘[X] directed by Wes Anderson’ prompt that you may have seen chumming your Twitter feed recently is visual symmetry. In ‘The Guardians,’ a 2001 short story by John Updike, the protagonist, raised by two parents and two grandparents, ‘felt the four adults as sides of a perfect square, with a diagonal from each corner to a central point. He was that point, protected on all sides, loved from every direction.’ We meet many of Anderson’s characters already in mourning, sensing love’s enveloping geometry thrown out of balance, and seeking a return to the symmetry of their once-intact families. Everything is in its right place in every one of Anderson’s shots, but these ghosts [The Dead: Chas’s wife in The Royal Tenenbaums, Auggie’s wife in Asteroid City, Max’s mom in Rushmore, the Whitman patriarch in The Darjeeling Limited; Esteban in The Life Aquatic, everyone, eventually] remind us that this, too, is a temporary state.”

Updike cited in political column

America is more politically divided than ever, but it seems ironic that John Updike, who had been accused of being not political enough in his writing, recently turned up in a political column.

Writing for the blog PowerLine, Scott Johnson invoked Updike for an ed-op piece titled “Six Theses on Hunter Biden’s Plea Deal.” In a wryly written column, Johnson wrote, “We can see why President Biden is proud of his son. He’s not only the smartest person he knows—he’s smarter than President Biden, anyway—he has unbelievable skating ability. Having declared his knowledge of Hunter’s innocence of wrongdoing for several years now, President Biden can now praise Hunter’s endurance in the face of this great injustice. In the same sense, President Biden is innocent too! Only more so.

“One of John Updike’s stories about his alter ego Henry Bech is titled ‘Bech Third-Worlds It.’ (The story is collected in Bech Is Back.) The United States has been Third-Worlding it for a while now. With the federal indictment of President Trump pending in the documents case, the Hunter Biden case reminds us that our system of justice has devolved into a ritualized Third World farce. It is useful in that sense.”

Ann Beattie speaks to Updike’s descriptive powers

In a March 2023 interview with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell, Ann Beattie talked about her new collection of essays, More to Say: Essays and Appreciations, which contains an essat on “John Updike’s Sense of Wonder.” Beattie was the keynote speaker at the 1st Biennial John Updike Society Conference in Reading, Pa., back in 2010, and a version of her talk—and this chapter—was published by The John Updike Review in 2011.

The Lit Hub-hosted interview series noted that in the interview Beattie discussed “her recent LitHub essay about Donald Barthelme’s short story ‘The Balloon’ and the Chinese spy balloon. She also talks about her recently published first collection of essays, More to Say: Essays and Appreciations, in which she writes about the work of authors, photographers, and artists she admires, including Elmore Leonard, Sally Mann, John Loengard, and her own husband, visual artist Lincoln Perry.

“Beattie explains why as a nonfiction writer, she prefers close looking and reading; considers defamiliarization in the hands of Barthelme and Alice Munro; analyzes former visual artist John Updike’s depiction of the natural world; and reflects on developing increased comfort with writing about visual art. She also reads excerpts from both her Lit Hub piece and the essay collection.”

Here’s the link to the Lit Hub interview.

Updike on the Beer Can

In spring 2023, Jay Brooks of the Brookston Beer Bulletin celebrated “John Updike’s Paean To The Beer Can” and included Updike’s often-anthologized Talk of the Town mini-essay on the Great American Container.

“He grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town that I did—Shillington—and we both escaped to a life of writing,” Brooks wrote. “Though I think you’ll agree he did rather better than I did with the writing thing, not that I’m complaining. I once wrote to him about a harebrained idea I had about writing updated Olinger stories from the perspective of the next generation (his Olinger Stories were a series of short tales set in Olinger, which was essentially his fictional name for Shillington). He wrote me back a nice note of encouragement on a hand-typed postcard that he signed, which today hangs in my office as a reminder and for inspiration.”

Brooks then shared Updike’s very short musings on the “Beer Can” and noted that “essentially, he’s lamenting the death of the old style beer can which most people considered a pain to open and downright impossible should you be without the necessary church key opener. He is correct, however, that the newfangled suckers were sharp and did cut fingers and lips on occasion, even snapping off without opening from time to time. But you still have to laugh at the unwillingness to embrace change (and possibly progress) even though he was only 32 at the time; hardly a normally curmudgeonly age.”

In Updike’s defense, he did end his mini-essay by saying, “What we need is Progress with an escape hatch.”

Influential German musician cites Updike as an influence

A Time News entertainment piece spotlighted Bernd Begemann, a “‘boy from the provinces,’ as he never tires of emphasizing, from East Westphalia to be more precise. He was also the first punk in Bad Salzuflen. Tocotronic and all the economic champions of the Hamburg school would be unthinkable without Begemann and his urban folk-electro album called Rezession, Baby! from 1993. He is a pioneer and also a bit of a knight of the sad figure, he gallops through the musical landscape with his own unshakable personality, always a tip of his nose ahead, often a gallop too far.”

“In more than 20 albums and over 400 songs, he sings of love, preferring to be ‘twice second choice’ to being content with the monotony of monogamy. . . . The man in the gold silk shirt is a charmer and a crooner wild at heart and somehow, thanks to generosity, also a feminist, because he leaves women spoiled for choice in song and life. He admires Bert Kaempfert and offers Berlin, Passing, Barmstedt and Ostfildern insights into what is not so loud and garish in life: a big heart, a noble spirit, drama and cappricci. He sharpened his senses as a reader of Balzac, Updike and, quite gallantly, Prince Valiant, as he explains . . . . “

On John Updike, he said:

“A brilliant writer who seems unread today, which is a shame. Maybe because the kind of relationship his books are about doesn’t seem to exist anymore. But of course the patterns in monogamous couple relationships are still the same, they are the sweet futilities embedded in the structure of a neighborhood, a city, an economic cycle. John Updike shows us this with ease. He’s basically the Blueprint for Jonathan Franzen and so on.

“I think 1968’s Couples is Updike’s first big hit book, before the Rabbit series. At the time it was a silent revolution. There are no loud things happening in the book, no big explosions, no train derailments. He says how we live – and that’s breathtaking and that’s very dangerous, even though it looks so ordered. I appreciate the book very much.”

Daiquiri recipe article cites a Rabbit, Run passage

Given an article about the daiquiri, it would be reasonable for a lover of literature to expect to read about Ernest Hemingway and one of his two favorite Havana, Cuba bars: La Floridita, “Cradle of the Daiquiri cocktail.” The Floridita is here as a vintage photograph, but the writer mentioned isn’t “Papa” Hemingway, who is commemorated in a statue at that bar. Instead, the writer is John Updike.

In “The Spirits #17: The Cardamon Daiquiri,” Richard Godwin offered the recipe and added, “If you haven’t ever made a basic Daiquiri, please do so immediately – follow the recipe minus the cardamon. I figure with winter, you either need to lean into it or run away from it. Run away run away run away run away run away!” Which, of course, led him to Rabbit Angstrom.

“There’s a memorable double-date scene in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, where our protagonist Harry Angstrom orders a Daiquiri in a Chinese restaurant because both of the girls have. He imagines it will taste like limeade…and finds it does sort of taste like limeade, ‘riding like oil on a raw transparent taste.’ He has a few more and when he emerges, ‘the pavement is a shadow of the Daiquiri’s luminous transparence; he is light-hearted, and skips once, to get in step with the girl he adores.’

“Like Updike’s midcentury hero, the Daiquiri (rum, lime, sugar) is simple and direct but capable of the greatest lyricism. When its constituent parts are held in perfect harmony, something amazing happens. The dogs lose their bark; the eels cease to reel; oil paintings come to life. And then everything resets and goes back to normal and everyone forgets that ever happened. There is a luminous transparence around, though, if you care to look.”

Martin Amis’ Updike tribute recalled

Lisa Allardice of The Guardian wrote a profile of Martin Amis (“‘Damn, that fool can write’: how Martin Amis made everyone up their game”) that was published on May 22, 2023 and featured an anecdote involving Amis’ response to John Updike’s passing.

“Back in 2009, I called Amis – as editors all over the world would have been calling or emailing leading writers on Saturday night – to ask if he might write a tribute to the American novelist John Updike, who had just died. Time was tight and we were aiming high, but as with every major (and not so major) event at that time, Amis was the writer everyone was after. And on Updike, the last postwar American literary giant? It had to be him. Happily, he felt a duty to contribute to what Gore Vidal called ‘book chat.’ ‘Call me back in 10 minutes,’ he said in his unmistakable transatlantic drawl (he hadn’t yet made America his permanent home). . . .”

“OK, so he had written at length about both Updike and Ballard before. And he was routinely invoked as a successor to both. . . . But to go back to 2009 and Amis’s closing words on Updike: ‘His style was one of compulsive and unstoppable vividness and musicality. Several times a day you turn to him, as you will now to his ghost, and say to yourself, “How would Updike have done it?” This is a very cold day for literature.’

“And so it is today. Younger writers will ask: ‘How would Amis have done it?’ He was exceptionally sui generis.”

Amis, who died in 2023, was best known for his novels Money, London Fields, and Time’s Arrow.

Fairway Philosophy blogger focuses on Updike the golfer

Fairway Philosophy blogger Matthew Chominski had Updike on the mind this past week. Two of his posts were devoted to Updike the golfer.

In an April 27, 2023 post, “Golf and the Shortness of Life,” Chominski wrote, “The great American author and golf devotee was once in the presence of a young woman who informed him that life was too short ‘for crossword puzzles and for golf.’ His responsory ruminations are worth quoting at length:

“‘The nature of humankind must be considered before we decide what life is too short for. Is it too short for sex, for instance, or is sex its business? Men and women need to play, and it is a misused life that has no play scheduled into it. Crossword puzzles, even, have a fit place in some psychological budgets. With them, as with golf, we set ourselves to solve a puzzle nature has not posed. Nothing in natural selection demands that we learn how to beat a small ball into a hole with a minimum number of strokes. . . . The great green spaces of a golf course remember the landscape in which the human animal found his soul. Certainly the sight of our favorite fairway wandering toward the horizon is a balm to the eyes and a boon to the spirit. Our mazy progress through the eighteen is a trek such as prehistoric man could understand, and the fact that the trek is fatiguingly long constitutes part of its primitive rightness.'” Read the whole post.

Then, on an April 29, 2023 post titled “Golf’s Peculiar Bliss,” Chominski reminded golfers and Updike fans of a video clip in which John Updike was filmed on his home course, Myopia Hunt Club, intercut with footage and a voiceover of Updike reading from his golf essays.

Inquirer spotlights John Updike Childhood Home

When John Updike was still alive, writer William Ecenbarger convinced the famed novelist to drive with him through Berks County to visit childhood haunts. That account first appeared in The Inquirer Sunday Magazine on June 12, 1983, and was reprinted in part in the first chapter of Adam Begley’s biography (Updike, HarperCollins 2014) and in full in John Updike’s Pennsylvania Interviews (Lehigh University Press, 2016).

Recently Ecenbarger returned to Shillington to write about Updike again—this time to see for himself how Updike’s beloved childhood home looks now that it has been turned into a museum.

In “Step inside Pulitzer Prize-winner John Updike’s childhood home in Shillington, Pa.,” which appeared in the Sunday, April 2 Inquirer, Ecenbarger wrote, “The house in Berks County, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has been professionally restored to look as it did during Updike’s days here but the ‘John Updike Childhood Home’ museum is still a work-in-progress. They just received an Olivetti manual typewriter that was used by Updike.”

Ecenbarger added, “There are 10 rooms of exhibits, many with explanatory storyboards: Items owned by the Updikes and original to the house. His high school transcript shows nearly all A’s except physical education. Copies of The Chatterbox, the high school newspaper to which Updike contributed many articles. . . . Smiling down from the living room wall is a portrait of Updike done by Ernest Hemingway’s grandson, Edward.”

Ecenbarger wrote, “Updike was inconsolable when, at his mother’s insistence, the Updikes moved from 117 Philadelphia Avenue to a farm owned by her family. He wrote in a poem, ‘We have one home, the first.'” This home, once a source of pride for Updike, is now a source of pride for the community. Thanks to the efforts of director Maria Lester, close to 800 Berks County students toured the house last year to learn about one of Berks County’s most famous and accomplished residents. But Ecenbarger was right: the museum still is a work in progress. Seven new exhibit cases of unique items will be added within the next several months—reason enough to visit and revisit the place where Updike said his “artistic eggs were hatched.”

Writer recalls golfing with Updike, wants less AI, more Updike

In an opinion column (“Take That, ChatGPT!”) written for Boston Magazine, John D. Spooner voiced his reaction to a new artificial intelligence writing program and cited Updike as an example of “some things that only a human can do well. Writing is one of them.”

“John Updike was one of my gods,” Spooner wrote. “In my view, Updike was the greatest man of letters in America from the 1960s through the 1990s. He wrote novels and short stories. He wrote poems and essays. When he was president of the Harvard Lampoon, there were times when he wrote the entire issue. And illustrated it as well. He had gone to Oxford to study drawing. One of his classic pieces described Ted Williams’s last baseball game. ‘The Kid’ would never tip his hat to the crowd after a home run. He just ran the bases, with no expression and his classic, easy stride. Williams hit a home run that last day. He never acknowledged the fans. Updike wrote, ‘Gods do not answer letters.’ One of the greatest lines ever to describe an athlete.

“Amazingly, this most erudite of authors loved golf. A mutual friend arranged a game at Updike’s course, where they both belonged. I was excited about what I could ask him about his books, his life, and his insights on writing. But on the course, Updike was all business. It wasn’t ‘a good walk spoiled.’ It was his focus on the game, his game, and not about my favorite sport, ‘shootin’ the breeze.’ It was a drizzly day on the North Shore of Boston. Updike was polite, a gentleman on the course, long pants in the summertime. His swing was a manufactured one as if he had spent a lot of money on a lot of lessons, and it produced a routine with a lot of parts—a routine he completely focused on. We played for a few dollars, two players against two. The rain came down harder and harder, with no chance to ask my hero anything related to writing.

“We kept playing in the rain. Updike seemed, on every shot, to be replaying the lessons he had taken. The friend who had invited me to play said, ‘John is a focused dude. He goes through his routine like there’s no one else here. And he wants to win.’ My glasses were fogged up from the rain. Now I know that Updike was not going to give me any creative secrets, which, of course, I resented. So I did not want to fork over any money to my hero. My host, who was a really good player, said to me, ‘If we lose, it’s your fault.’

“We came to the 18th hole all even. Updike had a three-foot putt to win the match. It curled around the cup. And stayed out. I won two dollars, carried over from the front nine.

“We all shook hands and had a beer in the clubhouse. I figured that now was my chance to ask him about his writing life. But he tossed down his beer, got up, and said, ‘Nice playing with you, gentlemen.’ Updike walked out of the club bar. Gods do not answer letters.”

Updike’s favorite typewriter, a manual Olivetti Linea 88 made in Great Britain circa 1968-69. It will soon go on permanent display in The John Updike Childhood Home, 117 Philadelphia Ave., Shillington, Pa.