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Workshop: Blog

David Bergen on imitating Updike

The Giller Prize-winning author of The Time in Between 
alks about his Rabbit-like tendencies. 

I have always admired John Updike, except perhaps for his politics and for the last book he wrote, The Terrorist, a jingoistic parody of a tract. Regardless, Updike seduced me in his earlier work with his fervent explorations of marriage, domestic chaos, the ubiquitous crisis of faith, and graphic coupling. I discovered him in the New Yorker. There was a liberty in his writing, a pushing away of those who would look over the writer's shoulder. There was also tremendous curiosity for how things worked, for the jobs his characters toiled at, and for the shapes and texture of objects in the world. What he wanted, he wrote, was 'To give the mundane its beautiful due.' His novels aim for everlasting life. 'Art,' he wrote, 'hopes to sidestep mortality with feats of attention, of harmony, of illuminating connection,' though he also said that his many published books were beginning to feel like a too-long tail. 

My first attempt at imitating Updike was to imitate a story of his called 'Wife-Wooing,' an interior monologue at which I failed horribly. It was rubbish. I was twenty-two. I had no idea what I was doing; I was too aware of my own prudishness, and of copying. My next attempt, twelve years later, was the Rabbit character. I knowingly used Rabbit as a model, both grammatically (the present-tense-free indirect style) and viscerally. My character Johnny Fehr would be crass and politically incorrect and lost: a fornicator caught between heaven and earth; a born-again Christian who keeps falling down. 

A number of months after I published A Year of Lesser, my neighbour called out to me one sunny afternoon as we were raking our lawns, and he said that he'd finished my novel and then he called Johnny Fehr 'an Anabaptist Rabbit.' Who knew that I would be caught so easily and so quickly; and by my neighbour, no less, a Marxist history professor who slides easily between Howard Zinn and Updike and Roth. I took his comment as a compliment. I admitted to the imitation. And why not? I was not alone in the world. If you're going to be compared to someone, why not someone really good?"


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