It's hard to imagine that John Updike is dead: he was so patiently prolific, right up to his latest book, The Widows of Eastwick, and in his regular reviews and stories in the New Yorker, and had made no public mention of his illness. But people have been imagining the event for some time: the New Yorker posted today a famous passage from John Cheever's Journals, in which he gets a false-alarm phone call in the middle of the night that Updike has died. He makes the kind of sweepingly elegiac statements about the supposed deceased that one makes at a time like that, but is more memorable for the bitter and generous asides about his own family life that make those journals so incredible:
And one of my favorite one-of-a-kind books, Nicholson Baker's U and I, is constructed entirely around the conceit, inspired by the death of one of Baker's literary heroes, Donald Barthelme, of writing an obituary for another hero, Updike, while he is still alive. (In fact, in a perfect Bakerian moment, I had conflated the two--I had remembered U and I as beginning with that false alarm about Updike's death when it in fact begins with Barthelme's. Incredibly to me, since it fits so well into his subject and theme, Baker doesn't mention the Cheever anecdote, or even Cheever's name, as far as I can tell, anywhere in his book.) Here's a bit of his charge to himself:
And he does. It's the best thing I've ever read on the actual relationship a writer (or a reader) has to the books he reads and authors he admires, including his refreshingly honest list of all the Updike books he has hardly begun or never finished, despite being "obsessed" with him. My own relationship with Updike is a few steps removed from obsessed. My strongest association with him is that he was one of the writers my dad, who reads a lot but not a whole lot of contemporary fiction, was interested in, I think mostly because they both grew up in small-town Pennsylvania, not too far from each other. My dad's favorite of his books, I think, was The Centaur, that early autobiographical novel.