God Can’t Be Shocked

Some people criticize John Updike, saying he objectified women, portraying them as mere sex objects and so on.

I never saw it that way, even though I read Rabbit Run the summer of my 13th year and felt my world split open upon reading the sex scenes.

Grownups do this?’ I asked myself stunned. This is what they’re up to when they’re not buttering our toast or rotating the tires on the family car?’

My big sister Nan had tried to clue me in on the particulars of sex; by the time she was ten she had sent away for a thousand pamphlets on the subject.

And certainly her information was better than what the boy down the street said happens after you get married: He said they then take you into a secret room and tie you together by your underpants.

What Updike described was much more specific. And once you got used to reading the actual truth, anything but shocking.

No, he never objectified women, in my book; in my book he only loved and noticed them.

He is the person who singlehandedly opened my eyes to writing.

Three years he is gone now and it has taken me almost that long to read his final collection of short stories, slim as it is. I just didn’t want it to end, knowing there would be no others.

Here’s one thing he said that I love and agree with. He said his theory was that God already knows everything and can not be shocked.

In the same essay he also said,

Only truth is useful. Only truth can be built upon. From a higher, inhuman point of view, only truth, however harsh, is holy. The fabricated truth of poetry and fiction makes a shelter in which I feel safe, sheltered within interlaced plausibility in the image of a real world for which I am not to blame. Out of soiled and restless life, I have refined my books.

I love that last sentence: Out of soiled and restless life I have refined my books. And I understand exactly the part about the shelter his creative writing made for him, remembering a description earlier in this book of the place he loved best as a child: it was the spot on the side porch of his first home where he would upend and then hide under the wicker furniture to become the observer unobserved.

It’s what I wanted to be since my own baby days, only my spot was under the dining room table. Now I lurk in my car or on the park bench, listening to the old men and yelping teens and the women together talking. It’s what I have been since the dawn of the Reagan years when I began writing my column. For all these years I have written every week for the papers and now, here on this blog, I write every day.

Seeing and then telling what you have seen is for me what I think it was for him too: merely a way of saying thanks for it.

13 thoughts on “God Can’t Be Shocked

  1. “sheltered within interlaced plausibility in the image of a real world for which I am not to blame”
    There you go, right there. All the limitations implicit in that clause. That’s the bone I have to pick with Updike. Nabokov, a writer he admired, once wrote that the word reality is meaningless unless it appear in quotation marks – an observation so obviously true that one wonders how no one observed it before. I don’t think Updike ever did. He knew reality. It was what transpired at the used car lot down the road. And plausibility? Please.

    1. I agree about the limitations. Everything depends on whose reality the world exists. They really are not to blame; it‘s just their perspective, their limited perspective. Then it is plausible. However, truth and reality are two entirely different things. In the real world we don’t wear dresses made out of meat, but sometimes we go outside in the snow in just our night shirts and bare feet. Updike says it quite well.

      1. dresses made out of meat ha ha! Still, she’s pretty cool that Lady Gaga. when we were kids we’d go to church in our pjs on under our coats, just to see what a thrill we could get doing it… I like thinking of you out barefoot in the snow !

  2. Re: “sheltered within…”,etc. That is AWFUL. Yes, I understand it, but it is not well said. Please admit it, T., even though it is Updike. (Emperor’s clothes…)

  3. Allow me introduce myself. I am a professor emeritus of English from Lehigh University who has published four books on John Updike. This year I serve as the first John Updike Scholar in Residence at Alvernia University, where in October, 2010, I served as Program Director for the first John Updike Conference. I am a director of the John Updike Society and serve on the editorial board of the John Updike Review. I have been contracted by the University of Alabama Press to compile remembrances of John Updike from fellow authors, friends, relatives and associates, as part of Professor Jackson Bryer’s series, “American Writers Remembered.” The compilation of remarks about Updike will disclose the affection, esteem and admiration felt by a people who knew him and his work. The book will therefore provide an historical volume of great interest to future Updike readers and it will preserve his memory and extend his significance for future generations. Among fifty persons who have contributed to the book thus far are Joyce Carol Oates, Terry Gross, and Updike’s family.

    As one who has written a spirited and honest note about the impact John Updike made upon you, your contribution would be a delightful addition to this book. Would it be possible to provide, gratis, “God can’t be shocked”? . I hope that you will join in honoring John Updike.


    Jack De Bellis
    Professor emeritus in English, Lehigh University
    John Updike Scholar in Residence, Alvernia University

  4. Thanks Terry. Chuck read all the Rabbit Run series just before we moved to Winchester. I’m decades behind, but ever more eager to dive into Updike.

    Many blessings.

    1. Hey nice to hear. Your man must be a great reader. It was he who got me to send away for Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln and start in on it! You’d like the Rabbit books but skip the one with the Viet Nam war in it. Depressing with a lot of angry arguing . xxxx

  5. Yes, Terry, writing or telling what you’ve experienced is a way of saying thanks for it. How true and perfect an observation!

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