In some critical circles, John Updike is disparaged as merely an aging apologist for outmoded literary and political assumptions. An irreverent review of Updike's 1994 novel Brazil, for example, termed him a "future dead white male." But such glibly reductive assessments are too facile by far. A novelist, short story writer, poet, dramatist, and essayist with more than forty volumes to his credit, Updike remains an imposing presence on the contemporary literary scene. And he continues to command the attention of less trend-bound critics, as evidenced by the publication of five book-length treatments since 1992. While not equally successful, these very different studies reflect the breadth and complexity of Updike's oeuvre, and for the most part contribute significantly to our understanding of this important writer.
Certainly the most thesis-driven of these volumes, John Neary's Something and Nothingness:The Fiction of John Updike & John Fowles is also the most scholarly. Neary argues that Updike and British novelist Fowles typify opposing philosophies, Updike embodying the "kataphatic" tradition of the via affirmativa and Fowles the "apophatic" tradition of the via negativa. Updike, the social realist, embraces Kierkegaard's "Christian celebration of faith beyond nothingness . . . founded on presence," Fowles, the post-modern metafictionist, reflects the existentialism of Sartre, "an atheistic celebration of nothingness-as-freedom . . . founded on absence." To demonstrate this dialectic, Neary conducts intertextual discussions of what he considers parallel works by the two novelists. He maintains that despite their differences these writers are both influenced by romanticism and existentialism alike, that both can be seen as deconstructionists, and that "Fowles's commitment to the negative is neither philosophically more sophisticated nor aesthetically more daring than Updike's commitment to the affirmative." Updike enthusiasts will find this heartening, and will also welcome Neary's close and insightful readings of the several Updike novels under consideration.
He argues that Updike has been influenced by the French phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas, who quarreled with Heidegger and Husserl concerning the nature of alterity and asserted that "the other" can be an [End Page 379] avenue to "The Other." This is consistent with Updike's oft-cited enthusiasm for the theology of Karl Barth. Neary contends that in Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman and Updike's Couples, the central role of sexual activity subverts the conventions of the Victorian novel. Echoing Robert Detweiler and a number of earlier critics, Neary explains the relationship between Updike's ideas on love and those of DeRougement. For protagonist Piet Hanema and the other characters, lovemaking serves as a stay against mortality, an attempt to forestall decay. Thus Couples becomes "not just Updike's literary presentation of DeRougement's ideas, it is also Updike's answer to DeRougement. . . . Updike suggests that eros can be life-affirming." In effect, Neary manages to have it both ways; Couples is not a novel but an antinovel, yet it bolsters the claim that Updike's way is the via afirmativa.
In his final chapter, Neary likens two pairs of more recent books: Mantissa and A Maggot by Fowles, and Roger's Version and S. by Updike. Describing Roger's Version and Mantissa as "novels of ideas" that highlight the writers' affinities, Neary compares Updike's "religious existentialism" to the "heavily qualified spirituality" he perceives in Fowles's recent works. Similarly, S. and A Maggot are akin in their "narratively eccentric examinations of religious movements." In short, "as if to validate . . . linking . . . them, the novelists have drawn closer together thematically and ideologically." But...