Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike and the Short Story

I was saddened yesterday to hear of the death of John Updike, a writer whose short stories I have been teaching since my first year as a college instructor. I am appending below a review I did of his The Early Stories: 1953-1975.

One of the marks of the complete professional writer is that he or she tries not to waste anything. John Updike is a complete professional writer. As he says in the amiable opening to these 103 pieces composed in the first two decades of his career, any story that manages to make it into print has a certain “valor,” so his “instinct,” is not to “ditch” it but to “mount it anew.”

Updike has mounted many of these stories several times in the past. This omnibus collection opens with the Olinger Stories, (1964), consisting of autobiographical pieces based on Updike’s childhood in Shillington, Pennsylvania, which in turn is made up mostly of stories that originally appeared in his first two collections, The Same Door (1959) and Pigeon Feathers (1962).

This hefty tome (the first in a series?) also contains most of the stories about Richard and Joan Maples in Too Far to Go (1979), many of which appeared earlier in The Same Door, Pigeon Feathers, The Music School (1966) and Museums and Women (1972). Packaging is an important part of being a professional writer.

Another aspect of Updike’s professional parsimony is that everything he does, sees, reads, or thinks about seems to get transformed into language. As you enjoy these pieces, you not only get all the usual themes of fiction—coming of age, falling in love, having sex, getting married, getting divorced, etc.—you also get a little archeology, biology, astronomy, religion, philosophy, etc.

And because of this compulsion to fashion language out of everyone and everything, Updike’s stories blithely blur generic lines. Most of these pieces are indeed short stories, but some are meditations, sketches, memoirs, descriptions, experiments, etc., various “odd jobs,” (the name of a 900-page collection of Updike essays and reviews); one of the pieces here, “The Tarbox Police,” was actually previously included in still another 900-page collection of essays and criticism entitled Hugging the Shore.

You can’t read too many short stories at one sitting. They need to be savored after each separate serving. To make it possible for readers to tackle larger helpings and satisfy the soap opera desire for continuity, Updike has organized the stories into linked sections—“Out in the World,” “Married Life,” “Family Life,” “The Single Life.” It is curious, therefore, that his most closely related stories—about the marriage and breakup of the Maples—are scattered throughout the book.

A number of Updike’s early stories have appeared in so many textbooks that they have become canonical clichés. You don’t even have to be an English major to know “A&P,” that clever, adolescent take on chivalric romance. And “Pigeon Feathers” is probably the classic case of adolescent religious conviction, while “The Christian Roommates” is the prototypical mysterious stranger rite-of-passage story.

Updike, of course, has been so closely associated with The New Yorker for so many years that the old cliché of The New Yorker story—replete with smooth, slick, surface sophistication--has usually evoked his name as the star specimen. Thus it is a perverse pleasure to note that Updike’s first published story, “Friends from Philadelphia” (in The New Yorker, of course), had as its final revelatory punch line the name of a very rare and expensive vintage that only sophisticated New Yorker readers would know.

However, as with most masters of their craft, Updike cannot easily be pigeonholed. He may often be the predictable professional, but he has never been blasé about trying to construct perfect sentences and pleasing parables about subtle human mysteries.

In pace requiscat

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