I’ve joined them in my mind somehow, these two, yet Wallace tilted against Updike in the pages of The New York Observer some years ago (and I tilted with him, writing a parallel piece that claimed that the Master was too prolix, too ready to come forward into print with whatever his pen produced). They represented different, in some ways opposing worlds. Wallace was, in a core part of his being, an unassimilated subversive, and what he subverted, over and over, in his exacerbated scenarios, his outlaw fugues, was the vast entrenched order, the what is that Updike chronicled with calm Flemish exactitude. Updike celebrated an assumption about reality that Wallace was in some defining way at odds with. To call it a father/son dynamic would be simplistic, of course, but there are certain elements of that conventional agon, including the son’s will not just to repudiate but to outdo the father. Considering the divergence in their aesthetics—Wallace’s complete lack of interest in the realism that takes surfaces as the outer manifestation of interior forces—the field of engagement would have to be the how as opposed to the what. Which is to say the how of language, style: the sentence. Is it farfetched to think of Wallace’s prose pitching itself in sustained defiance against the philosophical ground of Updike’s, its lightly ironized acceptance of things as they are? The bemused Updike smile endorses a reality, an outlook, that Wallace could not fit himself to, a failure that was bound up, I suspect, with his deepest suffering. Fathers and sons, but also order and chaos.
more from Sven Birkerts at AGNI here.