John Updike's Early Stories, 1953ş1975 is an impressive flow of words, though it's only, the author says, a tributary of a greater river. "I could not but think, during this retrospective labor [of assembling the stories], of all those New Yorkers, a heedless broad Mississippi of print. . . . They serviced a readership, a certain demographic episode, now passed into historyˇall those birch-shaded Connecticut mailboxes, receiving, week after week, William Shawn's notion of entertainment and instruction." Instruction was gratefully accepted in Great Neck, Long Island, as well, by your then-seventeen-year-old correspondent, himself part of a flotilla of newly arrived immigrants to the upper middle class, greenhorns eager for the wisdom literature might provide.
The New Yorker taught me then not how to mix a drink or dress (there was the Playboy Advisor for that) but how to feelˇa sentimental education. Generally, the New Yorker story (similar to but not coextensive with Updike's efforts) implied that one should become a virtuoso of ambivalence and the loss or stasis that follows. One must properlyˇwith poignant beautyˇmourn one's life as it passes. That and irony would apparently get you out of most scrapes, supposing there was a way out, which there wasn't. But it's pointless to make fun of the old "New Yorker story." The tide has carried it away, and I miss it.
Whatever their similarities to the New Yorker archetype, Updike's stories have an exactitude of psychological registration (self-knowing but not self-aggrandizing) that makes for a very much heightened effect; they offer convincing epiphanies done without hyperbole. Updike's protagonists, unlike Joyce's, say, aren't exactly trapped; on the other hand, they aren't going anywhere either. The stories may not see the individual's failures as having the metaphysical weight they do in The Death of Ivan Ilych, and they may lack the overwhelming concern for the collective shown in Ward Six, but these suburbanites and their author have a bracing clarity about themselves, a chilling sense of the real limits of their compassion and their commitments. They don't even dream that they're assaulting heaven or storming imaginary Winter Palaces. And the stories know also that the absence of such tragic enterprises should probably be an occasion for relief.
The tales usually feature a male character, one whose age and career might differ from story to story but who retains a singular sensibility: a heightened sensitivity to the details of the sensual world and (a related matter) a heightened sense of dread. The stories in which this character orbits uneasily around his implacable mother or his weak and loving father remain closest to me, perhaps because I was nearly contemporary with him when I first read them. Or perhaps the biggest issues, even one's very life, seemˇperhaps areˇat stake at that young age. These stories, I feel sure, will weather all times and tides.
But in this sizable collection the stories of family and desperate escape are drowned in those tales featuring adult concerns that seem a little more mixed and pale. They are drowned in what becomes the overwhelming marital plotline, which in this case is not will "he" be unfaithful to his wifeˇthat's simply a givenˇbut will he leave her? Or will he instead leave his mistress to find . . . another mistress? Sometimes one wants to say, "Stop torturing each other. You just married too young." The stories, though, don't allow the quotidian to lapse into comforting clichÚs; instead each necessary conversation of a dissolving marriage is honestly, skillfully noted. Still, the Updike character remains a romantic, which is what is sometimes called a womanizer, though here that figure is given the fullness of his desperation.
The endless questˇthe beloved as a bonheur as valuable as the afterlifeˇseems a yearning more fully realized than the religious longings in Updike's first stories and novels, where the characters sought whatever comfort church or Kierkegaard might offer, enterprises that usually hadˇrealistically enoughˇa kind of "God, can't live with Him, can't live without Him" air about them. Then, somewhere along the way, God becomes like the dried grains of mucus in the character's eyes every morning as he turns over in bed toward his mistress. And when that character totals up the damage his affairs might cause, it is to his family, not to his soul, the children's hurt having a greater substantiality for him than hell's punishments.
The women the protagonist turns to in bed generally remain a set of demands and pleasures. If they offer insights, they are usually about the male narrator rather than the wider world. The Mistress is the Other without much more to her than a certain way of speaking, a turn of the head, a tightness in the cunt that seems to promise what God once did: relief from fear, a full acceptance of one's marred self, one's pocked skin.
Which is also, of course, what we readers can offer our suitor, the author. And the skin of Updike's prose is, of course, amazingly easy to accept. His sentences are usually both beautiful and appropriately shaped for the thing described. Still, sometimes the writing does almost disengage from the world. Take this, from "Leaves": "A blue jay lights on a twig. . . . See him? I do, and . . . I have reached through glass and . . . stamped him on this page. Now he is gone. And yet, there, a few lines above, he still is, 'astraddle,' his rump 'dingy,' his head 'alertly frozen.' A curious trick, possibly useless, but mine." The narrator saves the unsavable passing world but knows, too, that he's mostly preening, writing to reassure himself not of his own existence so much as of his own specialnessˇKilroy was here raised to the level of art. An artˇits demographic moment over, and lacking those big themes that make us all so unhappyˇmight sometimes come to this, the ego's flourishings of lovely prose, the vacant spirit in empty space.
For me, there came a time in the late '60s when Updike didn't seem to offer instruction anymore. He describes himself and his generation here as "repressed enough to be pleased by the relaxation of the old sexual morality . . . simple and hopeful . . . and pragmatic enough to adjust, with an American shrug, to the ebb of the old certainties." But once upon a time an uncertain mixture of drugs and sex and politics made my generation, as I'll define it (those who grew up in the '50s), feel that there was another, more mysterious world, and it was (as Rimbaud said) this one. And there was a war, too, that we felt at once powerless before and yet for which we felt responsible. Shrugging seemed an inadequate response. We stormed Winter Palaces (or administration buildings), all so many Hamlets who had to set the time aright, while Updikeˇmein Gott!ˇwasn't even against the war. As to the new morality he speaks of, well, we were no doubt playing at revolution, but it felt unseemly to see our suburban forebears playing at being . . . us.
Then that desperation and that hopefulness faded, leaving perhaps just dried mucus in the eyes. Updike's quandaries again seemed close to mine, and I was grateful for lessons in how to be unsentimental toward oneself, grateful for stories that were exact and beautiful. That is at once extraordinary and hardly enough, of course, even if, the grand themes gone, it is all there isˇwhich statement is a version of the very ambivalence and regret the stories embody. It must be noted, too, that Updike's stories, for all their copious wonders, don't exhaust what he has accomplished. The novels Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest present the reader with a hero less burdened by irony than the stories' protagonists. For Rabbit a moment of true feeling (and it does, indeed, ring true) comes when he and his wife briefly swap partners with another couple and Rabbit and his weekend mistress defecate on each other. Rabbit seems at first an homme moyen sensuel; and then a monster of appetites; and then a man who makes us feel how the homme moyen sensuelˇmon semblableˇis, in his suburban Sadean sensuality, a monster. For all one's tout comprendre, one shudders at Rabbit and at one's kinship with him. Does this twitch come from the cold left when God takes his heat away, or is it the shiver caused by (dare I say it?) a moral order inevitably written on the heart? Anyway, that moral world, or what's left of it, gives a shadow, a roundness, to the character not always found within the world of the short story, and it produces two unlooked-for masterpieces of American realism, of realism about America.
Jay Cantor's most recent novel, Great Neck, was published by Knopf this year.
THE EARLY STORIES, 1953-1975 BY JOHN UPDIKE. NEW YORK: KNOPF. 864 PAGES. $35. BUY NOW