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The elements of style
God and sex in Updike’s early stories
The Early Stories 1953–1975
By John Updike. Alfred A. Knopf, 864 pages, $35.

This, as far as the short stories are concerned, is the boxed set, the completist artifact of the first half of John Updike’s career, with no previously unissued material but some remastering, the author "deleting an adjective here, adding a clarifying phrase there." It’s the fiction equivalent of his daunting collections of reviews and miscellany, which seem to appear with greater frequency and increasing bulk as time goes by. Its 103 stories are divided into eight sections, some very specific ("Olinger Stories," "Married Life," "Family Life"), some vague and roomy ("Out in the World," "Far Out"), in a friendly attempt to make it all seem manageable. Updike also, in a similarly encouraging manner, points out that these stories, mostly written for the New Yorker, were and are meant to stand alone. So dip freely and don’t feel obligated to read the tome from beginning to end.

Updike is a conspicuous stylist — which to his detractors means a conveyer of empty calories and to his admirers a writer of rare sensitivity and poetic insight. In the introduction here, he credits Hemingway, the original minimalist, as a main influence, and if, as Updike says, "it was he who showed us all how much tension and complexity unalloyed dialogue can convey, and how much poetry lurks in the simplest nouns and predicates," then it’s Updike who took the revelation and ran with it. As he has a character put it in "Wife-Wooing" (1960), he feels "the curious and potent, inexplicable and irrefutably magical life language leads within itself," and if you’re not attuned to the music of his idiosyncratic usage of our shared vocabulary, then it’s going to seem like a type of obfuscation, a dazzling curtain draped over a drab landscape.

Even if you are attuned, you may feel, especially with these early stories, that micro-Updike (each phrase, each image, occasionally each word) is more interesting — more fabulous — than macro-Updike (his subject matter). Having committed himself to giving "the mundane its beautiful due," he doesn’t so much elevate his chosen topic as overwhelm it. Which is why the few film adaptations of Updike — e.g., Rabbit Run and Too Far To Go — are so dreary. But that overwhelming prose is an essential pleasure of reading Updike; either you swill in it or you don’t.

Updike sees his subject as being, in part, "what Freud called ‘normal human unhappiness,’ " though every generation is unhappy in its own way, and for those who spent their first decade of adulthood in the ’50s, marriage seems to have been a special burden. "We were simple and hopeful enough," he writes of his lot, "to launch into idealistic careers and early marriages, and pragmatic enough to adjust, with an American shrug, to the ebb of old certainties." I’ll get back to that American shrug in a bit — Updike could be quite snarky about the referred-to "ebb" — but the early marriages were often big mistakes, premature settling-downs that one was expected to honor as long as possible. "My friends are like me," says one of his fictional stand-ins. "We are all pilgrims, faltering toward divorce" ("The Music School," 1963).

Updike’s greatest delineation of his generation’s marital dilemmas comes in the stories about Richard and Joan Maple, a young married couple who get off to a shaky start in the ’50s and shakily stay together for 20 some years. "Few experiences so savor of the illicit as mounting stairs behind a woman’s fanny," thinks Richard Maple — or Updike the ventriloquist — in the first of the Maple stories, "Snowing in Greenwich Village" (1956). It’s an oddly inelegant moment (at least he didn’t say "keister"), but it hits a key note in the Maple series (whose installments are spread throughout the eight sections here), the idea that marriage is no tamer of male lust. It’s not his wife’s "fanny" that Richard’s savoring.

Each of the Maple stories centers on some triumph or failure of love over marital ennui, and as the strains on their marriage begin to deracinate their sex together, Updike seems to get more inspired. By the time of "Twin Beds in Rome" (1963) " . . . their lovemaking, like a perversely healthy child whose growth defies every deficiency of nutrition, continued; when their tongues at last fell silent, their bodies collapsed together as two mute armies might gratefully mingle, released from the absurd hostilities decreed by two mad kings." This is prime Updike — it’s a rich and complicated and faintly humorous image, from the healthy child of the Maples’ sexual desire to the mad kings of the social orientation that keep them together — but a little later in the same story he comes perilously close to sounding like one of those bad-writing-contest entries: "Their marriage let go like an overgrown vine whose half-hidden stem has been slashed in the dawn by an ancient gardener." Why "half-hidden?’ Why "ancient?" And why "slashed in the dawn?" Nice rhythm, though.

So sex can be a harsh taskmaster and love will tear us apart. A countering occupation (obsession? concern? he’s referred to it as his "hobby" . . . ) of Updike’s is religion, or faith, which is something that has to be seriously rethought in adolescence if one has any hope of hanging on to it. "Ah God, dear God, tall friend of my childhood, I will never forget you, though they say dreadful things. They say red roses in cathedrals are vaginal symbols," the narrator laments in "Wife-Wooing." In "Pigeon Feathers" (1960), a young boy’s sense of self and place in the universe are challenged by growing intimations of the indifferent past, "the insulting gulf of time that existed before he was born" and the lackadaisical faith of the adults around him. Given the job of killing some pigeons in the family barn, young David has, while examining their beautiful dead bodies, a flash of comfort: "he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever."

But faith, as something that can become a tangible feeling, grows rarer all the time, and when Updike chooses to think about it, the results can be somewhere between a screed and a satire, as in this description of modern suburban free-thinkers (computer experts, scientists): "With their sufficient incomes, large families, Volkswagen buses, hi-fi phonographs, half-remodelled Victorian homes, and harassed, ironical wives, they seem to have solved, or dismissed, the paradox of being a thinking animal and, devoid of guilt, apparently participate not in this century but in the next" ("The Music School").

Updike also has a cranky side, one that’s become more evident as he gets older (see the non-Rabbit stories in Licks of Love). He’s not one to greet change with a shrug, American or otherwise. Sometimes it shows itself as a kind of joshing condescension: "How much kinder, we urged upon our daughter, of your own generation to invent dances that require no skill, that indeed cannot be done wrong, and that therefore do not create hurtful distinctions between the ins and the outs, the adroit and the gauche, the beautiful and the un-" ("Daughter, Last Glimpses Of," 1973). And sometimes it reveals itself directly, especially when it’s attributed to a reactionary protagonist. Like Richard Maple in "Marching Through Boston" (1965): "All mass movements, of masses or of ideas supposedly embodied in masses, felt unreal to him." Or in "Nakedness" (1974): "There have been two revolutions in the last ten years. One, women learned to say ‘fuck.’ Two, the oppressed learned to despise their sympathizers."

But for a cranky religious guy with chauvinistic tendencies, Updike can be exceedingly graceful in his descriptions, casting anew the multitude of details in our everyday emotional lives and physical surroundings. We read him for things like this: "He had loved that shiver, that spasm she could not control . . . the involuntary, the telltale, the fatal. Otherwise, the reasonableness and the mercy that would make our lives decent and orderly would overpower love, crush it, root it out, tumble it away like a striped tent pegged in sand." ("Love Song, for a Moog Synthesizer," 1975). And this: where the air in an anonymous town has "enclosing it, like a transparent dome, an indecipherable murmur, like bees in the eaves or the continual excited liquid tremolo of newly hatched birds hidden in a tree trunk, waiting to be fed" ("How To Love America and Leave It at the Same Time," 1972). And that’s reason enough.

Issue Date: October 31 - November 6, 2003
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