The New Yorker, March 12, 1960 P. 49
A husband (the writer) & his wife sit in front of the fire eating hamburgers & French-fried potatoes. Two of their children sit between them; the baby sits opposite, in an Easybaby. The husband looks at the wife and finds her as desirable as she was 7 years ago when they were first married. After the children are in bed, they sit around for a while, and then, to the husband's delight, it is time for bed. But he is disappointed - the wife falls asleep reading a book about Richard Nixon. Next morning she no longer appears desirable. Next night, she is ready for him - but "An expected gift is not worth giving."
In his 1960 story, The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother’s Thimble, and Fanning Island, John Updike’s narrator expresses the challenge of capturing life in words. “[W]e would-be novelists have a reach as shallow as our skins,” he writes. “We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves. From the dew of the few flakes that melt on our faces we cannot reconstruct the snowstorm.” In a lecture given 16 years later, Updike described himself as a person “whose chemistry must daily secrete a written page or two”, and the expression of writing as a natural process was wholly appropriate: for him, living was writing. In fact, the thread he secreted was enormous: 63 books in 50 years, including more than 20 novels and more than a dozen short-story collections.
William Maxwell, Updike’s first editor at the New Yorker, described him as a “conspicuously autobiographical writer”, a trait that, coupled with his longevity and prolificacy, gives his complete works the shape of an entire life. Teenage narrators in semi-rural Pennsylvania give way to young professionals in New York, marital strain, the death of parents, child-rearing and adultery in suburban Massachusetts, ageing and affluence, wistful longing for the energies of youth and, finally, an obsessive return to one’s beginnings (half of the stories in the posthumous collection My Father’s Tears are set in Olinger, Updike’s fictional version of his childhood home).
In Updike’s earliest stories, Salinger and Hemingway occasionally jut from the text. The narrator of A&P (1961) is unmistakably a Salinger type, while in Pigeon Feathers (also 1961), the teenage protagonist confronts an incipient fear of death in distinctly Papa-like fashion: by turning that fear outwards and visiting death on others. As he massacres pigeons in the family barn the prose becomes terser, culminating in lines that could be Hemingway’s: “He climbed down, and was struck by the silence in the barn. The remaining pigeons must have escaped out the other hole. That was all right; he was tired of it.”
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These influences were soon overlaid and overtaken: by Henry Green, whom Updike’s biographer Adam Begley believes encouraged in the author “a looser, more flowing” syntax, and more striking metaphors; by Proust and Joyce, two writers expert at mining their own lives for fiction, and by Nabokov, whose fine-tooled descriptive talent clearly appealed. The Russian’s taste for metafictional games also left a mark, inspiring Updike’s Jewish-American alter ego Henry Bech: a humorous offshoot from his vast literary project.
Elizabeth Hardwick called Updike “[a]s productive of print as a Victorian”, describing his work as “efflorescent in observed detail, prodigal in image, brashly knowing and accomplished in the rhythms of current dialogue, and steaming with the orifices and bodily fluids of many fluent copulations”. Some see Updike’s voluminousness as irrepressibility, others as indigestible self-absorption. “Does the son of a bitch ever have an unpublished thought?” David Foster Wallace reported “a friend” asking, while Frank Kermode wrote about those instances “when the prolific becomes prolix”. But where they saw clutter, Cynthia Ozick saw “busy Bruegelian amplitude”; and Alfred Kazin judged – with only slight ambiguity – that: “John Updike writes as if there were no greater pleasure than reconstituting the world by writing.” They are each right, in a sense: there is enough Updike, with enough difference in quality, that you could plausibly read a lot of him without encountering a dud, and read just as much in another, unluckier direction without encountering anything particularly good. Few writers are more in need of a well-chosen collection of selected stories.
In lieu of one, some signposting is required. The best place to begin is in Olinger, as these stories probably represent the best of all his work, including the novels. The aforementioned Pigeon Feathers, rich in symbol and metaphor, is the most powerful of them. The Happiest I’ve Been (1958) is a superb evocation of a young man at manhood’s border, when the world simultaneously opens yet remains unfathomable (and how that implicitly despairing title subtly inflects the story!). Flight (1959) gives prominence to the strong mother who appears in many of Updike’s stories, and studies the ways in which one generation imprints its hope, frustrations and disappointment on to the next.
These stories, sprawling acts of memory, are about family, ambition and first love, but their common, fundamental theme is time. Updike writes a great deal about families, but while the elements of his typical family unit – child, parents and grandparents – suggest continuity through time, it is a sense of death and oblivion that dominates his stories. Updike might state, in his introduction to his collected Early Stories, that his aim was to “describe reality as it had come to me – to give the mundane its beautiful due”, but his work often struggles with an apprehension of death that undercuts the wistfulness of this definition.
A Sandstone Farmhouse (1990), an extraordinary story about the death of a parent, provides an example of the harsh wall that encircles Updike’s conception of the world. The narrator remembers a night in the old family home with his mother, towards the end of her life:
He was aware of his mother and himself, laying each in bed, as survivors of a larger party that had once occupied this house. It was as if, on a snowy pass, they had killed and eaten the others, and now one of the two remaining must perish next.
This apprehension appears elsewhere. In Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car (1961), the narrator lies in bed on his birthday and feels “death like a wide army advancing”. In Lifeguard (1960), a young divinity student admits that in the night he feels “my death rushing toward me like an express train”. In Pigeon Feathers, meanwhile, David Kern envisages death as “a long hole in the ground, no wider than your body, down which you are drawn while the white faces recede … Shovels pour dirt into your face”. A couple’s holiday with old friends in storm-struck East Anglia becomes a compelling metaphor for the violence and transience of life in The Afterlife (1986), and in Playing With Dynamite (1992), the nostalgia of the narrator, “living now in death’s immediate neighbourhood”, is deepened and darkened by the detail of a neighbour whose body lies undiscovered for days.
In 1985, Updike told an interviewer about the “sense of futility and of doom and of darkness” in his fiction. He perceived death “behind everything in life, a sort of black backdrop”, while in a later scrap of memoir he admits that in 1955, aged 23, he was already “fearful and desolate, foreseeing, young as I was, that I would die, and that the substance of the earth was, therefore, death”. On Desert Island Discs in 1995 he said: “I’m always aware of my own death in me like a baby, getting bigger every day.” All the cliches of Updike’s fiction – from adultery to middle-class mores to religious crises to golf – are figures played above this ground bass of death. His work is more a threnody for life than a celebration of it.
This spurs Updike to both cruelty and beauty. The self-consciously Joycean Wife-wooing (1960), from the extended story cycle about Richard and Joan Maple (a married couple whose affairs and eventual divorce are a precise recounting of Updike’s own first marriage), contains one of his most merciless passages. Sitting in front of the fire with his family, Richard regards his wife lustfully, and anticipates having sex after the children have been put to bed. But she would rather read about Nixon, and falls asleep reading. Richard’s resentment lasts overnight:
In the morning, to my relief, you are ugly. Monday’s wan breakfast light bleaches you blotchily, drains the goodness from your thickness, makes the bathrobe a limp stained tube flapping disconsolately, exposing sallow décolletage. The skin between your breasts a sad yellow. I feast with the coffee on your drabness. Every wrinkle and sickly tint a relief and a revenge. The children yammer. The toaster sticks. Seven years have worn this woman.
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Behind the harsh judgment of the spurned lover lies the conception that life’s prime is so brief as to almost be a dream. The previous night, in the romantic but also obscuring firelight, the narrator could see “the orange shadows on the ceiling sway with fresh life”, but in the pale light of day such illusions are stripped away.
The same, apparently revelatory, light of day ends Plumbing (1970), one of Updike’s most successful evocations of life’s impermanence. He habitually made the attempt to invest everyday moments with resonance – a task he failed to complete at least as often as he succeeded, but does so here beautifully. Through a conversation between Richard Maple and a plumber in the cellar of an old, newly purchased house, and Richard’s flow of thoughts about the house just departed – once busy with their lives, now silent (“I feel guilty that we occupied it so thinly, that a trio of movers and a day’s breezes could so completely clean us out”) – Updike establishes an intricate pattern, whereby every symbol of rebirth, from the new house and pipework to the memory of an Easter egg hunt, is revealed to be a fresh opportunity for something to end; stages on the journey to death. “‘Don’t you want to be a big girl like Judith?’” Richard remembers asking his youngest child. ‘“Then you can wear lipstick, and a bra, and ride you bicycle even on Central Street.’” But the child doesn’t want to ride her bike on Central Street. “Why not?” he asks. “Because then I will get to be an old lady and die.” At the story’s conclusion, Richard and the plumber leave the cellar. “We push out through the bulkhead, a blinding piece of sky slides into place above us, fitted with temporary, timeless clouds. All around us, we are outlasted”.
“I cannot greatly care what critics say of my work,” Updike said in 1968. “If it is good, it will come to the surface in a generation or two and float, and if not, it will sink.” Much of his work, despite the nearly unfailing presence of a memorable simile, or pitch-perfect phrase, will disappear in time. Some – a small amount by Updike’s standards perhaps, but more than many can hope for – deserve the permanence we ourselves are denied.
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