Books

John Updike Gives the Mundane Its Beautiful Due

Photo: An icy cold Tanqueray martini, dirty, with habanero-stuffed olives and some John Updike. (Saucy Salad/Flickr)

Depending on whom you listen to, God, or the devil, is in the details, and that's exactly where John Updike's talent lies, too.


The Collected Stories

Publisher: Library of America
Length: 1872 pages
Author: John Updike
Price: $75.00
Format: Hardcover, boxed set
US Publication Date: 2013-09
Amazon

A funny thing happened to me last month on the New York City subway, as I was reading Volume One of the Library of America's massive new two-volume collection of John Updike's short fiction.

I had started, and quickly became engrossed in, "Transaction", a notably explicit 1973 story about a middle-aged john who takes a prostitute back to his hotel room. As the sex scene got underway, and paragraph upon paragraph of lush, adjective-laden prose flowed by in a humid torrent, I dimly recollected the notoriety that once surrounded Updike's 1968 novel Couples (one of the last major dirty-book scandals prompted by a straight male author), and remembered further the currency that his poem "Fellatio" enjoyed among the litterateurs who sat at the back of the high school bus. I also started to cast covert glances around me while on the train, half-convinced someone in the immediate vicinity must have been psychically attuned to the invisible cloud of precipitation slowly spreading from the book open in front of me.

And then: at the precise moment in the story when heavy-duty oral got underway ("when she would swing her crotch around to his face its spread wet halves would swamp his consciousness like a star map of both hemispheres"), a cascade of lukewarm water poured from a vent above my head directly onto the page I was reading.

The interruption was both startling—rattled, barely suppressing an exclamation, I leapt up from my seat—and somehow apt. In the 7 October 2013 issue of The New Yorker, Philip Roth was quoted as saying of Updike, "It's apparent everywhere in his work… the sensuous apprehension of whatever's near at hand." Sensuous apprehension? What I experienced on the subway was more like John Updike in Sensurround! (To make an appropriately ‘70s-themed allusion.)

Well, to get us back safely onto dry land, Roth's phrase "sensuous apprehension" is effective shorthand for Updike's famous gift, the precise, painterly flair that let this onetime art student from small-town Pennsylvania capture the minutiae of everyday life in America for more than a half-century. It's a gift that reveals itself as early as the first story in the new Library of America collection, 1953's "Ace in the Hole":

He extended the rattle toward his daughter, shaking it delicately. Made wary by this burst of attention, Bonnie reached with both hands; like two separate animals they approached from opposite sides and touched the smooth rattle simultaneously.

That image of the baby's grasping hands clicks like the shutter sound on an iPhone camera, preserving a moment in time. Coming when it does at the start of a two-volume, 1,872-page compilation, it also offers an initial clue as to why so many of these stories are so vivid, and why they stay that way, even after you've plowed through 186 of them.

Depending on whom you listen to, God, or the devil, is in the details, and that's exactly where Updike's talent lies too; the man who was famously, even notoriously never at a loss for words was just getting started with that arresting image from 1953. It's an ability that doesn't always translate into satisfactory novels, with their need for dramatic unities, momentum, et cetera, but it's one that seems uniquely fitted for the smaller form of the short story.

Smaller, I should say, but no less potent or intense. Comparisons to still lifes and string quartets may not be out of place here; or better yet, think of 45s as opposed to albums. Because for well over a decade, from the late '50s into the '70s, Updike was regularly knocking out classics as if they were so many hit singles. These are the stories where he pushes past his habitual charm and eloquence—past his almost stupefying facility for conventionally well-wrought, entertaining, satisfying reads, of which there are too many here to name—and breaks through into something deeper.

It's hard to overstate, for example, the almost magical properties of "The Happiest I've Been". This is a story of two college boys attending a New Year's Eve Party the night before they drive from Pennsylvania to Chicago. It captures an extraordinary amount of what it's like to be young in all of 17 pages. A more ambiguous coming-of-age tale, meanwhile, is the perverse epiphany that concludes "Pigeon Feathers", in which the slaughter of defenseless birds reaffirms another Pennsylvania teenager's religious faith.

Philip Roth once earlier lauded Updike as America's "second Hawthorne", and two stories in particular bear out that judgment: "The Hermit", the tragedy of a genuine nonconformist who wants to be left alone in the woods, and "The Indian", in which a Native American haunts, perhaps literally, a Massachusetts seaside town. To evoke another paleface, the portrait of an affable yet tragically incomplete American tourist on a Nile River cruise in "I Am Dying, Egypt, Dying" pulls off a combination of surface charm and underlying pathos that wouldn't embarrass mid-period Henry James. (In 2013, meanwhile, the trio of urbane, cosmopolitan Egyptian supporting characters in that story are their own source of fascination.)

A benefit of the Library of America's strictly chronological presentation is that it highlights the vagaries of Updike's inspiration, so that a haunting major story like "The Hermit" can be immediately followed by "During the Jurassic", an engaging goof about dinosaurs enjoying a suburban cocktail party. Also, the wit of these early stories could be the subject of a separate appreciation. Weeks after reading "A Madman", I still haven't been able to dispel from my head this image of a young American couple, at Oxford for a year of study, adjusting to English academic housing: "In the morning, dressing, my wife and I skipped in and out of the radiant influence of the electric heater like a nymph and satyr competing at a shrine."

In the introduction to a 2003 collection of his early short fiction, Updike declared, in a phrase that has become all but canonical, "My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me, to give the mundane its beautiful due." That's a succinct summary of his artistic credo, of course, but it doesn't quite do justice to the experience of reading all these stories, in order, over the course of several weeks. For starters, there's a curious fact about the mundane: given the passage of enough time, it gets transmuted into a kind of exotica. It's an effect that registers as early as the second story in the collection, 1954's "Friends from Philadelphia", with this matter-of-fact courtesy:

Mrs. Lutz shook a wrinkled pack of Herbert Tareytons at him. "Smoke?" she said.

The unfamiliar brand name only adds to the piquancy of a middle-aged woman's offering of a cigarette to her daughter's teenage visitor. (It's a trope in the early stories: everybody lights up.) A few years later, the hero of "Unstuck" (1961) is trying to shovel his "1960 Plymouth SonoRamic Commando V-8, with fins" out of the driveway the morning after a blizzard; after marveling at the name of the car, which sounds like something out of The Jetsons, my immediate reaction was to think, "With fins? No wonder he can't get it out of the snow!"

As the years pass, though, and the stories march steadily toward the present day, this tantalizing strangeness mutates into something different, a time-warp quality all the more potent for being conjured out of such everyday talismans and totems. For me, the definitively head-spinning Proustian moment arrived with a batch of stories from the early ‘70s in which Updike evokes, within just a few pages, orange Rexall drugstore signs, "Superballs under the radiator," and the "heavenly blue" of a backyard swimming pool. These things, you begin to realize, are utterly familiar and at the same time irretrievable—which accounts for the elegiac quality that at first seeps into the later stories and then becomes their overarching subject.

In a 1969 story Updike can already acknowledge that he and his contemporaries belong to "their own, strange, in-between generation—too young to be warriors, too old to be rebels." Theirs are lives initially shadowed by the Depression and World War II that come to full maturity with postwar prosperity. (Think of Don Draper and some of the other Mad Men characters, before their arteries and their consciences had started to harden.) Perhaps what's most striking about these young Americans of the '50 and ‘60s, from a 21st-century perspective, is how quickly they assume the full mantle of adulthood, marrying and having kids right out of college. Decades later, Updike will acknowledge how much the culture has changed when the middle-aged protagonist of "Wildlife" (1986) reflects on his grown son's procession of live-in girlfriends:

None of them lasted, none of them apparently excited that romantic wish so common to men of Ferris's generation, the wish to marry ... The romance that, for Ferris, had... made him want to marry not once but repeatedly had quite vanished from American culture—a casualty, perhaps, of co-ed dormitories or the impossible prices of starter housing.

But there's trouble ahead for the young couples of the ‘50s and ‘60s stories, as that "marry not once but repeatedly" in the above excerpt hints. Adultery and divorce will ripple through this generation with seismic force; the resultant shocks and dislocations will so consume Updike's imagination that it's almost impossible to imagine what shape his career would have taken if some combination of personal experience and a feel for the Zeitgeist hadn't led him to this essential subject. (In April 1968, when Couples came out, he appeared on a Time magazine cover bearing the headline "The Adulterous Society.")

The decisive break arrives in 1962-63, with three stark stories all composed within a year of one another -- "Solitaire", "The Stare", and "The Morning" -- that sound a new note of anguish. From there, for the next 45 years, Updike will spin a seemingly infinite number of variations on the same basic themes, and while there were later times when I grew bored with his adulterers ("Don't you people have anything better to do?" I thought, reading "A Constellation of Events", from 1975), more often than not my reaction was to marvel at how faithfully this particular muse kept bringing him the goods. Updike's fidelity to infidelity, you might say, is part of the secret that allowed him to remain so productive for so long.

What becomes especially poignant in Volume Two of the collection, when the stories take on a more retrospective cast, is a recurring sense that these survivors of divorce are never quite whole after those initial ruptures. As the convalescent hero of "The City" (1981) reflects, "there was no disguising our essential solitude." While it's true that the later stories exhibit a narrower imaginative range than the first volume, Updike's deepening preoccupation with the passage of time offers substantial compensations. A fascinating time-travel effect steals into the collection as exquisitely rendered recollections of trolley cars and ten-cent movie theaters vie for space, sometimes in the same story, with later bric-a-brac like fax machines, personal computers and Dunkin Donuts. (1990's "A Sandstone Farmhouse", where a Manhattan ad man finally comes to terms with the rural Pennsylvania upbringing he spent half a lifetime putting behind him, justifies the second half of the Library of America set all on its own.)

Any collection of 186 stories by the same author is bound to have its share of duds. Updike was such a pro that even his minor efforts maintain the same meticulous finish; the misfires usually result from his experimenting with form or subject matter, and offer the inherent interest of a major talent testing its boundaries. "Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car" from the early ‘60s is one of two stories (the other one's title is even longer) that show him trying to use the short story as a kind of essayistic grab bag uniting disparate materials; neither one quite coheres, but both are tantalizing exercises that should goad other writers into exploring this idea further. In Christopher Carduff's excellent end notes, we learn that Updike wrote both pieces as a means of countering the writer's block that afflicted him at the time—not that I believe he ever seriously wrestled with writer's block as most of us conceive of it.

An even more striking anomaly is 1971's "The Beloved", a character sketch of a bisexual actor that might have needed to be a complete novel if it was even going to begin to work. The tipoff that Updike is out of his depth is that the characters speak in a brittle, unreal idiom quite out of keeping with the seemingly effortless naturalism of most of his dialogue. But even here, the early pages depicting the actor's alienated childhood have an eerie quality unlike anything in the collection except maybe "The Hermit", and it's fascinating to learn (again, from the end notes) that The New Yorker's fiction editor William Maxwell shrewdly quarried those pages off into a standalone piece for the magazine.

"Transaction", the story I got to experience as mixed media on New York City public transit, doesn't quite come off, either. As the scene goes on and on, like a John Updike letter to Penthouse magazine, the explicitness begins to feel like a kind of writerly aggression: from a stylist as fastidious as this one, the use of "swamp", as a verb, in an account of cunnilingus, can only be a calculated provocation. But all those exertions and all those adjectives build to an ultimately unconvincing epiphany, one that I won't spoil here; other people should read it and decide for themselves.

The one time I was embarrassed for Updike in 186 stories was 2002's "Varieties of Religious Experience", an attempt to encapsulate 9/11 through vignettes of four very different individuals, three Americans and, yes, one hijacker, as they relate to the fateful day. I respect the ambition here, but these imagined lives add little to what we already knew from coverage like the "Portraits of Grief" series in the New York Times. More than that, whether in fiction or in film, conventionally naturalistic renderings of 9/11 and its fallout like this one just don't seem adequate to the material: it may be decades before these upheavals receive an appropriate imaginative response, which is far more likely to be metaphorical than literal. Updike himself would be similarly tripped up in his 2006 novel Terrorist, another ill-fated foray into topicality whose by-the-numbers psychologizing exposes just how much this subject matter eluded him.

Terrorist might have been the critical nadir of the decade or more before Updike's death in 2009, when he seemed to have become everybody's favorite punching bag, the target of putdowns that quickly became semi-legendary even before the Internet taught us how to make such things "viral". James Wood, in the London Review of Books: "Dated, provincial and minor." David Foster Wallace, quoting a friend in the New York Observer: "A penis with a thesaurus." Nicole Krauss, interviewed in Esquire: "A boring old fart." Admittedly, the string of mostly minor works Updike published in those years didn't help his cause any, but in retrospect a lot of the brickbats hurled his way have a plainly exasperated quality to them, the piling-on a show of frustration with a body of work that had grown so prodigious and so unmanageable that probably nobody was capable of seeing it plain any more.

The provinciality charge ties in with a familiar line of attack on Updike, which holds that he was somehow too WASP and too middle-class to qualify as a major contender. With the middle class plainly on the run these days, that charge seems more than a little dated itself. Besides, the whole question of provinciality might be more subjective than a lot of us like to think. Updike's primary Russian translator Tatiana Kudriavtseva, who died in Moscow in September 2013, testified to his books' widespread popularity in the Soviet Union, and said of his character Rabbit Angstrom that Updike could be "writing about the Russian man in the street." (Meanwhile, with TV so much in the ascendant these days, someone also needs to point out that Rabbit is a critical antecedent for both Homer Simpson and Tony Soprano.)

To the Library of America's great credit, any real reckoning with Updike's stature now has to contend with his collected short stories at least as much as it does with the four Rabbit novels and his huge, and hugely ingratiating, corpus of literary criticism. In fact, it's no hyperbole to suggest that he may eventually be regarded as a great short story writer who also happened to write some good novels.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.


20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta



19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller



18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

Although Bonobo, a.k.a. Simon Green, has been vocal in the past about not making personality driven music, Migration is, in many respects, a classic sounding Bonobo record. Green continues to build sonic collages out of chirping synths, jazz-influenced drums, sweeping strings and light touches of piano but on Migration sounds more confident than ever. He has an ability to tap into the emotions like few others such as on the gorgeous "Break Apart" and the more percussive "Surface". However, Bonobo also works to broaden his sound. The electro-classical instrumental "Second Sun" floats along wistfully, sounding like it could have fit snugly onto a Erased Tapes compilation, while the precise and intricate "Grains" shows the more intimate and reflective side of his work. On the flipside, the higher tempo, beat driven tracks such as "Outlier" and "Kerala" perfectly exhibit his understanding of what works on the dance floor while on "Bambro Koyo Ganda" he even weaves North African rhythms into the fabric. Migration is a multifaceted album full of personality and all the better for it. - Paul Carr


17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr



16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image