John Updike's Novels is a solid companion to Donald J. Greiner's The Other Updike, reviewed in this journal by this critic in the Winter issue of 1981-82, Vol. 27, No. 4. Like the earlier volume, it is thorough, knowledgeable, and straightforward—but not so straightforward as to be pedantic or without wit and imagination in its ordering and in its reading. Urging no thesis on the canon, Greiner simply offers "an informed and careful reading of the novels in order to isolate and discuss the qualities that make Updike a great writer."
Greiner's ordering of the novels is an interpretative act in itself. His opening section, "Created Landscapes," juxtaposes The Poorhouse Fair to The Coup; the Rabbit novels follow; his third section, "Home," treats The Centaur and Of the Farm; his fourth, "Faltering toward Divorce," Couples, A Month of Sundays, and Marry Me: A Romance; and his final one is "Bech: A Conclusion." Its thoroughness is indicated by an appended checklist of the novels, signaling those editions that have been revised or signed, and the notes themselves discuss some of the ramifications of the revisions.
Although he establishes some links among the books in the sections already indicated, Greiner's characteristic impulse is to discuss each novel as an entity, buttressing each reading with succinct reports on how the novel was initially received both here and in England, what Updike himself has said about each, appropriate nods to others' views of the novels (sometimes here, however, with less thoroughness than one would have expected), but with judicious use throughout, as one would expect from the author of The Other John Updike, of appropriate material from Updike's other writings.
The linkings, oddly enough, work better with the unpredictable than with the predictable. "Created Landscapes," for example, is remarkably good on both Poorhouse Fair and The Coup—and on the two together. The same is true of the novels treated in "Faltering toward Divorce." Far less, on the other hand, is made of the Rabbit trilogy as trilogy than might have been done. How is one's attitude toward the books individually considered changed when they are viewed as an entity? A related possibility: what is gained or lost by the continuities and changes in Rabbit Angstrom during the first forty years of his life when cadenced by the continuities and changes in Updike's own writing life between 1961 and 1981? [End Page 415]
Each reader of course will react differently to each of Greiner's readings. I, for example, thought him much better on two of Updike's most difficult novels—The Coup and A Month of Sundays—than he was on his "favorite," Of the Farm, in part his favorite, he confesses, because it is so Jamesian. I have other objections to this and that, but I also had many satisfactions. Most readers of Updike, I predict, will enjoy this book. It is, at any rate, clearly the most important of the three being considered in" this review.
Robert Detweiler's 1972 Twayne book on Updike was also reviewed by this critic in this journal, in the Spring 1974 issue, Vol. 20, No. 1. I described that first edition as a prize among the Twayne series; its revised edition is still a prize. Although now only one of some twenty-plus books written on Updike (its first edition was the fourth), it is still an excellent introduction to his fiction, especially his short stories. The revised edition adds three chapters, giving attention to eight of the nine volumes of fiction Updike has published since Rabbit Redux in 1971. Detweiler is still better with Updike's short fiction than he is with his novels, although I take great exception to his description of the short story "Problems" as "a negligible tale." Even so...