Mr. Wizard

From The New York Times:

Cover500_3 John Updike is the great genial sorcerer of American letters. His output alone (60 books, almost 40 of them novels or story collections) has been supernatural. More wizardly still is the ingenuity of his prose. He has now written tens of thousands of sentences, many of them tiny miracles of transubstantiation whereby some hitherto overlooked datum of the human or natural world — from the anatomical to the zoological, the socio-economic to the spiritual — emerges, as if for the first time, in the complete­ness of its actual being.

This isn’t writing. It is magic. And it’s not surprising that the author who practices it should be drawn repeatedly to the other, darker kind, though it is often masked in droll comedy. In the 1960s, surveying the field in the literary rat race, Updike put a hex, collectively, on the Jewish novelists (Bellow, Mailer, Malamud, Roth) then looming as his chief competition. He invented a wickedly funny composite parody, Henry Bech, whom he entraps in a web of debilitating spells, from hydrophobia to sleep-anxiety. At one point Bech squanders the best part of a work morning on the toilet, “leafing sadly through Commentary and Encounter,” journals not often hospitable to Updike’s own fiction. Lest we, or his rivals, miss the drift, Updike afflicts Bech with the cruelest curse of all, writer’s block, which leaves him unable to begin, much less finish, his next novel. “Am I blocked? I’d just thought of myself as a slow typist,” Bech weakly jokes to Bea, his current emasculating Gentile mistress, who has supplanted her even more emasculating sister in Bech’s bed. “What do you do,” Bea sneers in reply, “hit the space bar once a day?”

More here.