Illustration by Jeremy Bruneel
John Updike illuminated experience like no one else.
When the news of John Updike’s death came on January 27, 2009, I was in a room on the fifteenth floor of a hotel in Ottawa. I walked over to the window and looked out at the city, the onyx gleam of the office tower opposite, its obsidian windows gone blind for the evening. It was 16-below and a scrim of ice crystals had frozen across the glass in a snowflake pattern. A lone figure hurried down the frosty sidewalk and turned the corner out of sight. I switched on the television and surfed the news channels, catching the scroll at the bottom of the screen. His name, his death at seventy-six that day from lung cancer. His face, mottled with age yet more distinguished than in his youth, with the abundant white hair; the prominent nose once awkward, now patrician; the glowing smile hinting at a surfeit of good humour. It was all wrong—Updike should be on the news because he had at last won the Nobel, his eyes flashing with delight at the achievement, instead of dissolving in a slow fade from the screen as Peter Mansbridge intoned his passing.
I wondered what time it had happened that day, a Tuesday. Was it while I was sitting in arts council meetings, perhaps at the very moment when I was praising a piece of writing as being almost Updikean? Or scurrying past the Parliament Buildings in the shocking cold, the blood in my body seeming to congeal to a kind of slurry, clothes crunching and crackling with every step? Or wandering the shops in ByWard Market, scrutinizing the souvenirs—ice wine tea, soaps in the shape of maple leaves? It amazed me that I hadn’t felt the moment when he left the world, that there hadn't been a shudder in the air like a minor earthquake, that things had continued on as they do—the federal budget had been handed down to much discussion, a man in California had shot his wife and five children before committing suicide, a group of tired but thrilled doctors were fielding the media’s questions about the delivery of octuplets the day before.
To say Updike was my favourite writer doesn’t come close to conveying the position he occupied in my life. Yes, the pleasure I took in reading his sculptural sentences bordered on the ecstatic, the pleasure of watching a master at the height of his powers. His influence on me and myriad other writers was incalculable—the prodigious output, intellectual range and unparalleled eye for detail were models for what we hoped to accomplish when we sat down at our own desks. Updike was the bravest of writers, the one who never censored his most reprehensible thoughts or indelicate observations; he was capable of illuminating experience like no one else, reproducing moments most authors could only clumsily sketch.
But more than all that, he was my constant companion of the past two decades—while relationships sparked and fizzled, friendships formed and dissolved, technology took over and the world changed, Updike’s body of work continued to grow. I considered it a tremendous stroke of luck that we were occupying the planet in the same span of history, and never took for granted the privilege of reading his prose so soon after it was written. Lying in bed on a desolate morning, rain battering the windows, I would attempt to rouse myself by ticking off a list of things to be grateful for, and Updike’s writing would make it into the top ten. When I crossed the border into the States at the start of a road trip down the coast, I’d prop my naked feet on the dashboard and think happily, I’m heading into Updike’s country! His books are a love song to America. In the midst of some personal or collective experience, however mundane or unusual, I’d find myself thinking, How would Updike describe this? Is he observing the same news item I’m watching at this moment, the same political scandal or natural disaster unfolding? What does he think of it, how is it going to figure in his work?
I realize now that I always assumed our paths would cross one day, even if, as in the case of my partner’s colleague, words were never exchanged. Years ago, standing in front of a painting in an art museum in Washington, she glanced over at the man next to her, and there, pondering the same painting, was John Updike. It was a moment I looked forward to, perhaps an entirely private moment of joy, because I couldn’t imagine actually speaking to him. What on earth would I say? “Mr. Updike, I’m your biggest fan!” I imagined myself in the same room with him somewhere, at a reading or lecture, or passing him by coincidence, the air electric, tongue-tied in his presence.
Once, our lives did intersect, in a way. I had dedicated my first novel to him, and a publicist at Random House impulsively placed a copy of it in his hotel room when he travelled to Toronto for a reading in 1996. He signed one of his books for me in return, thanking me for the “most gracious and surprising dedication.” Now I hold it in my hands, press a finger to the place where his pen scrawled the page. It is inconceivable to me that his readers will never again eagerly riffle the pages of The New Yorker in search of his byline, to see what he thinks of a new book or work of art—that his great self-consciousness has vanished, and the last thing he wrote will be the last thing he ever writes.
I remember a prank that was played on the eminent writer John Cheever, in 1976—someone called him in the middle of the night, claiming to be a journalist from the CBC, informing him that John Updike had perished in a car accident. Would he care to comment? A distraught Cheever wrote in his journal, “I think him peerless as a writer of his generation; and his gift of communicating—to millions of strangers—his most exalted and desperate emotions was, in his case, fortified by an immense and uncommon intelligence and erudition . . . his loss is indescribable.”