Let us now talk of famous phallocrats

A friend posted that 1997 David Foster Wallace piece on Updike on Facebook, and what a gem it is.

[N]o U.S. novelist has mapped the solipsist’s terrain better than John Updike, whose rise in the 60’s and 70’s established him as both chronicler and voice of probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV.

That is what eventually put me off Updike – the fact that he was always writing about himself. And the fact that he didn’t seem to realize that women existed, except as things for having sex with.

His friends, especially his women friends, did not like Updike, at all.

[I]t’s Mr. Updike in particular they seem to hate. And not merely his books, for some reason-mention the poor man himself and you have to jump back:

“Just a penis with a thesaurus.”

“Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?”

“Makes misogyny seem literary the same way Limbaugh makes fascism seem funny.”

These are actual-trust me-quotations, and I’ve heard even worse ones, and they’re all usually accompanied by the sort of facial expression where you can tell there’s not going to be any profit in arguing or talking about the esthetic pleasure of Mr. Updike’s prose. None of the other famous phallocrats of his generation – not Mailer, not Frederick Exley or Charles Bukowski or even the Samuel Delany of Hogg – excites such violent dislike.

I wonder if that’s because you’d think he would know better. He seemed thoughtful and non-macho, so shouldn’t that kind of writer be able to avoid the commonplace blindness about women? I think that’s how I felt about it, at least. Mailer, meh, what do you expect, but Updike? But misogyny is way more pervasive than that. It took me a long time to understand how pervasive (and I still probably don’t fully understand it).

Updike, for example, has for years been constructing protagonists who are basically all the same guy (see for example Rabbit Angstrom, Dick Maple, Piet Hanema, Henry Bech, Rev. Tom Marshfield, Roger’s Version ‘s “Uncle Nunc”) and who are all clearly stand-ins for the author himself. They always live in either Pennsylvania or New England, are unhappily married/divorced, are roughly Mr. Updike’s age. Always either the narrator or the point-of-view character, they all have the author’s astounding perceptual gifts; they all think and speak in the same effortlessly lush, synesthetic way Mr. Updike does. They are also always incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous, self-pitying … and deeply alone, alone the way only a solipsist can be alone. They never belong to any sort of larger unit or community or cause. Though usually family men, they never really love anybody – and, though always heterosexual to the point of satyriasis, they especially don’t love women.

Those characters palled in the end.

Maybe the only thing the reader ends up appreciating about Ben Turnbull is that he’s such a broad caricature of an Updike protagonist that he helps us figure out what’s been so unpleasant and frustrating about this gifted author’s recent characters. It’s not that Turnbull is stupid-he can quote Kierkegaard and Pascal on angst and allude to the deaths of Schubert and Mozart and distinguish between a sinistrorse and a dextrorse Polygonum vine, etc. It’s that he persists in the bizarre adolescent idea that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants is a cure for ontological despair. And so, it appears, does Mr. Updike-he makes it plain that he views the narrator’s impotence as catastrophic, as the ultimate symbol of death itself, and he clearly wants us to mourn it as much as Turnbull does. I’m not especially offended by this attitude; I mostly just don’t get it. Erect or flaccid, Ben Turnbull’s unhappiness is obvious right from the book’s first page. But it never once occurs to him that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.

That’s always the first place to look.

H/t Cam

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