It seems safe to infer from his now majestically large oeuvre that John Updike’s ultimate ambition is to get the whole of America, its geography as well as its history, the fluctuations of its spiritual as well as of its material well-being, into his books. The contribution of the four Rabbit volumes to the realisation of this plan (one volume per decade since 1960) is easily recognised, but many other novels, though less clearly devoted to the annotation of historical change, have a similar purpose. Here is another double-length historical novel, profusely recording the vicissitudes of four 20th-century generations. Its familiar abundance, its detailed accounts of past places, customs and technologies, as well as of individuals and their interrelations, familial and sexual, are as usual impressive (a comparison with Arnold Bennett comes, uninvited, to mind, only to be dismissed unexamined, as almost certain to be deceptive). But here there seem to be occasional lapses, moments even of bathos, so that neither in conception nor in execution can this book match the last of the Rabbits (1990) or the exhilarating assurance of Roger’s Version, four years earlier. Yet it can still astonish, though less by its boldness than by its almost infallible competence.
LRB 21 March 1996 | PDF Download