John Updike's novels are loaded to the ever-loving gills with invocations of the most evanescent and ephemeral manifestations of "popular culture." I can't think of another writer who is so relentlessly fascinated by the most trivial of things. If his novels are to be read in a hundred years, they will not be fully understood unless encrusted with extensive and elaborate footnotes.
"Roy has been carefully shaping can his Total mush into a kind of a pyramid with the back of a spoon." Who will understand the meaning of this sentence. "Total mush?" I imagine a footnote: "'Total' was the brand name of a fibrous dry packaged breakfast food which, when liquids such as milk were added, could be formed into a paste."
Here's another example. Rabbit is musing. "Biblical names. Rachel, Esther. Not always. Barbra, Bette." And here's the putative footnote. "In this passage, Harry muses about the names of Jewish women. "Barbra" (sic) refers to Barbra Streisand, a popular Jewish-American singer and actress of the period. Professor Harvey Wrongbody's assertion that "Bette" refers to Bette Davis is clearly uninformed, as Miss Davis was not Jewish. "Bette" as Professor Wrongbody should have known, references Bette Midler, a performer famous in her day for impersonating Janis Joplin (see Index) in The Rose."
In the first few pages of Rabbit at Rest -- which is perhaps the most consistently fine of Updike's novels, there are dozens or scores of allusions that will test a future annotator's learning. It's highly unlikely that with the passing of generations anyone but specialists in late twentieth-century Americana will be able either to identify or grasp the significance of "this guy Bundy who murdered dozens of women in dozens of states." (Bundy? Is that King Kong Bundy? McGeorge Bundy? Al Bundy?) Or have the least idea what is meant by a "Cabbage Patch doll with its bunchy beige face" or the possible thematic significance of "Cara Lott Gets Hot" or "Winn Dixie" or "Ekerd Drugs" or the National Enquirer or "Planter's Peanut Bar" or "Melanie Griffith" or "Deion Sander's recent arrest." It's only twenty years since Rabbit at Rest was published, and I was there, paying reasonable attention, but frankly, I'm already becoming a bit vague about some of the details.
If I were a novelist of Updike's talent, I would think twice about loading up on trivia that cannot help but barricade the novels from future readers. But perhaps Updike doesn't care. Perhaps he's only interested in the moment and in readers of his own generation. To me, it seems as though he doesn't give a royal fig for the future.
Shakespeare, a writer not for his age alone but for all time, occasionally included references to fleeting phenomena. I rather like it that he did so. I'd be intrigued to learn, once and for all, who was that "red-nosed innkeeper at Daventry" to whom Falstaff refers. But neither Shakespeare nor any other writer with whom I'm familiar so saturated his work with multitudinous and forgettable popcultch trivia.
But perhaps Updike has made the right choice. Perhaps the density of reference makes the novels so credible, so real, that scholars will be happy to annotate and readers will revel and glory in the footnotes.
It's a gamble. My guess is that it's a losing one, but time will tell.