It would be wrong to say that this book is nothing but pages and pages of evasiveness. Updike tells us how important his little Pennsylvania town of Shillington was to his imagination: ‘The street, the house where I had lived, seemed blunt, modest in scale, simple; this deceptive simplicity composed their precious, mystical secret, the conviction of whose existence I had parlayed into a career, a message to sustain a writer book after book.’ In fact, one could say, the two great themes of his copious fiction were a nostalgia for Shillington and an exploration of adult love. When he departed from these two, as in his great African novel, The Coup, he came up with some of his freshest, most imaginative writing.
The writing in Self-Consciousness is as superb as one might expect. He evokes the pleasures of teenage smoking: ‘Cigarettes, for example, were delicious: the sleek cellophane-wrapped rectitude of the pack, the suave tapping out of a single ‘weed,’ the chalky, rasping initial inhale, the little crumbs to be picked from the lower lip without breaking conversational stride, the airy pluming gesturingness of it all.’ He talks about striding through the streets of Shillington on ‘Proust’s dizzying stilts of time’,or of ‘a microphone cowled in black sponge and uptilted like the screened face of a miniature fencer’, although sometimes his eloquence devolves into nonsense – he compares the rain on wicker furniture to ‘a mist like the vain assault of an atomic army’, whatever that means.
Updike emerges as a man who thought he was monstrous because of his life-long battle with psoriasis, who felt ashamed of his bad teeth and his family’s poverty, who sensed in himself ‘some falsity of impersonation, some burden of disguise or defeat’, which may be nothing more than the reflexes of someone who lives through his characters and seizes on every moment of his intimate life as ‘material’.
Self-Consciousness by John Updike will be published on 13 March by Random House. An extract was previously published in Granta 19: More Dirt.
Photograph by Stories From Ipswich