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More Matter: Essays and Criticism (1999)

by John Updike

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One of the most annoying things about many of the reviews that accompanied the publication of More Matter in the fall of 1999 was the ungrateful tone of reviewers who complained about the heft, the bulk, the sheer immensity, the allegedly self-indulgent inclusiveness of Updike's most recent collection of prose. Containing — by my count and including the preface — some 191 separate items, the size of this assemblage of "Essays and Criticism" (as Updike subtitles the volume, despite his protestation on page 810 that "I write not criticism but book reviews") would seem to justify such complaints. But such carping must really have been due to the understandable and forgivable (albeit unprofessional) readerly fatigue of grubstreet reviewers laboring against a deadline. Their griping is as absurd as nieces and nephews complaining that some rich uncle has left them too much money. The grace and insight that have marked Updike's prose since he became a professional writer almost fifty years ago distinguish every page of this collection.

The volume is arranged in four parts. About 100 pages address "Large Matters"; it would be well if every American read the first piece, on freedom and equality. Five hundred pages consist of "Matter under Review," mostly book reviews but including some articles that a candid Updike would have to admit to be genuine criticism, since they go far beyond the "matter under review." Especially good are essays on Mickey Mouse, Edith Wharton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, Camille Paglia, and the Titanic, as well as collective reviews on (1) the novel per se, (2) five books on evil, (3) sex and fashion, and (4) the new edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage. (Other readers will have their own favorites, of course.) The third part, entitled "Visible Matters," contains about 100 pages, mostly on movies and art. Here I especially liked a personal essay on a 1941 photograph, a piece entitled "Descent of an Image" on the famous Iwo Jima photograph, a review of a book of 19th-century photographs of the dead and dying, and a historical exploration of the relationship of Daniel Webster and a portrait painter named Sarah Goodridge. More Matter concludes with about 100 pages on "Personal Matters"; leading off is a Borgesian teaser entitled "Updike and I" that will doubtless become an anthology piece, and further in lies Henry Bech's hilarious account of interviewing Updike. As he grows ever more eminent, the author of Self-Consciousness takes increasing delight in satirizing himself.

John Updike's first serious ambitions were, it seems, directed toward the visual arts. What is sometimes a weakness in his fiction — the obsessive, voyeuristic need to see — is, when he turns to non-fiction, almost always a strength. Is this because he can then spare himself the effort of conjuring up his subject before his mind's eye and devote all of his discriminating intelligence to the task of understanding and seeing into the matter at hand? Updike believes that "devotion to reality's exact details . . . characterizes literary masters" (p. 697) — a category in whose first rank Updike will, surely, long remain. If you love literature, you'll be grateful for More Matter. ( )
  jensenmk82 | Oct 26, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 044900628X, Paperback)

Ever since he made his two-pronged prose debut in 1959 with The Poorhouse Fair and The Same Door, John Updike has delivered approximately one work of fiction per year. Few modern novelists have approached this level of productivity, which suggests a kind of late-Victorian stamina and linguistic lust for life. Even fewer have simultaneously churned out, as Updike has, a constant stream of reviews, essays, reminiscences, and occasional pieces. His custom is to collect this abundance every decade or so, disguising the substantial nature of these volumes with throwaway titles like Picked-Up Pieces and Odd Jobs. The latest such cornucopia is More Matter--and, like its predecessors, this 928-page behemoth reminds us that Updike is among our most discerning and omnivorous critics.

His title, this time, echoes Queen Gertrude's editorial advice to Polonius: "More matter, with less art." Only reluctantly does Updike assent to our age's appetite for facts, facts, and more facts, with fiction relegated to a kind of imaginative finger bowl:

Human curiosity, the abettor and stimulant of the fiction surge between Robinson Crusoe's adventures and Constance Chatterley's, has become ever more literal-minded and impatient with the proxies of the imagination. Present taste runs to the down-home divulgences of the talk show--psychotherapeutic confession turned into public circus--and to investigative journalism that, like so many heat-seeking missiles, seeks out the intimate truths, the very genitals, of Presidents and princesses.
Strong stuff, that last line, especially from the man whom Nicholson Baker called "the first novelist to take the penile sensorium under the wing of elaborate metaphoric prose."

But if Updike's critical investigations tend to stay above the belt, they remain as wide-ranging and elegant as ever. In More Matter, he takes on Herman Melville and Mickey Mouse, Abraham Lincoln and the male body--not to mention the cream of modern cosmology. His formulations on almost any subject seem ripe for the commonplace book. Here he is on sexual appetite: "Lust, which begins in a glance of the eye, is a searching, and its consummation, step by step, a knowing." On the short story: "The inner spaces that a good short story lets us enter are the old apartments of religion." On the austerity of biblical narrative: "The original Gospels evince a flinty terseness, a refusal, or inability, to provide the close focus and cinematic highlighting that the modern mind expects." And finally, on the raw intimacies of John Cheever's published journals:

His confessions posthumously administer a Christian lesson in the deep gulf between outward appearance and inward condition; they present, with an almost unbearable fullness, a post-Adamic man, an unreconciled bundle of cravings and complaints, whose consolations--the glory of the sky, the company of his young sons--have the ring of hollow cheer in the vastness of his dissatisfaction. Comparatively, the journals of Kierkegaard and Emerson are complacent and academic.
These sentences neatly unite the author's literary and theological concerns--although the latter topic takes something of a back seat in More Matter--and remind us of the compound pleasures of his prose. In his preface, Updike refers to the book as "my fifth such collection and--dare we hope?--my last." We very much hope not. --James Marcus

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:44:39 -0400)

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