David Foster Wallace excoriates John Updike

Polansky reminds me what a loss David Foster Wallace was, with a New York Observer review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time from 1997:

I’m guessing that for the young educated adults of the 60’s and 70’s, for whom the ultimate horror was the hypocritical conformity and repression of their own parents’ generation, Mr. Updike’s evocation of the libidinous self appeared redemptive and even heroic. But the young educated adults of the 90’s-who were, of course, the children of the same impassioned infidelities and divorces Mr. Updike wrote about so beautifully-got to watch all this brave new individualism and self-expression and sexual freedom deteriorate into the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the Me Generation. Today’s sub-40’s have different horrors, prominent among which are anomie and solipsism and a peculiarly American loneliness: the prospect of dying without once having loved something more than yourself. Ben Turnbull, the narrator of Mr. Updike’s latest novel, is 66 years old and heading for just such a death, and he’s shitlessly scared. Like so many of the novelist’s protagonists, though, Turnbull seems to be scared of all the wrong things. . . .

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.

Read the whole, beautifully written thing.

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