Intimacies and Intimations
If the term reckless brevity can be so readily used towards Milan Kundera's work, and would seem equally apt for Borges's, John Updike's stories indicate a writer of the lazy dawdle. In the story collection Your Lover Just Called, we see an often fine stylist of the parenthetical detail, of the observation that doesn't further the story but allows the detail to hang momentarily in transfixed perception. The beginning of 'Waiting Up' provides a good example, as Richard Maple puts the kids to sleep. "After 9.30, when the last child, Judith, had been tucked into bed with a kiss that, now that she was twelve and as broad-faced as an adult, was frightening in the dark - the baby she had once been suspended at an immense height above the warm-mouthed woman she was becoming - Richard went downstairs and began to wait up for his wife."
Some critics find Updike's style curiously trivial, noting that the writer prettifies the irrelevant, as he asks the reader to ignore the superficiality of observation, and admire the sensitivity towards the sentence. James Wood for example says in The London Review of Books, "Updike is unduly fond of a certain literary register - that of the mandarin essayist - and certain gauzy words." Yet while there are many prose stylists who seem to do no more than turn a common-place around with a gift for metaphor and simile, at his most interesting Updike's stylistic skills offer penetrating shrewdness. In 'Snowing in Greenwich Village', Updike describes one of the two main characters, Joan Maple, from the husband Richard's point of view as he worries over her health. "Her face was pale, mottled pink and yellow; this accentuated the Modiglianesque quality established by her long neck and oval blue eyes and her habit of sitting her full height, her head quizzically tilted and her hands palm downwards in her lap." Updike doesn't want merely to turn a phrase, but to prise open the nature of someone's personality through a few details. Initially Updike informs us of Joan's immediate health through her visage, and then examines her more general demeanour through her posture. There is a Jamesian aspect to Updike, but where in Henry James so often the external appearance is merely a symptom of the psychology it hides, Updike, who may admittedly lack James' psychological subtlety, arrives at astuteness through his preoccupation with the physical.
A writer who merely turns phrases, however brilliantly, remains a meagre thinker; but Updike's achievement, and a necessarily contemporary one, lies in the capacity to detail the myriad attributes of the physical self. When Martin Amis nicely observed that Updike's work took us beyond the bedroom and into the bathroom, could Updike do so because of his endless interest with the body in all its manifestations? Updike wasn't a scatologist interested in toilet humour, but someone fascinated by the intimacies of the flesh and the demands of the body: he could write well of the fret of folds, the wonders of wheatgerm and the intricacies of anal sex, all pertinent to his third novel in the Rabbit tetrology,Rabbit is Rich. If certain writers are correct in claiming that this is the age of the body, exemplified theoretically by the writings of Foucault, Updike is his conservative antithesis - but hardly irrelevantly so. When Philip Hancock says in The Body, Culture and Society, "by the close of the twentieth century the body has become the key site of political, social, cultural and economic intervention in relation, for example, to medicine, disability, work, consumption, old age and ethics..." Updike exemplified this shift in fictional form.
But here we aren't especially concerned with Updike's oeuvre; merely a handful of the numerous stories he wrote throughout a long and fruitful writing life that included more than thirty novels and what seemed like thousands of book reviews, essays and poems. Updike is the exemplary prolific writer, a figure apparently who had four studies to work in, and someone who perhaps more than most could glean from his own immediate environs the stuff of fiction. While many writers need a story, Updike would happily explore a minor event: a rally as in 'Marching through Boston', a plumber's visit in 'Plumbing'. No occasion is too small for Updike's microscopic eye, and the devilish, as well as the godly, lies in the detail. In the story collection alluded to earlier, Your Lover Just Called, and from which all the aforementioned stories come, and the collection on which we will concentrate here, the pieces are based on the same couple, Richard and Joan Maple, often seen from Richard's point of view, though every one of the stories is in the third person. Whether it is Richard cynically observing various marchers, or taking a trip with his wife, Maple is the closest to a consistent perspective in the tales. It is one not too far removed from Updike himself we might assume, or better, one that allows for the Updikean to come through.
Like Bellow, like Roth, Updike creates alter-egos that can reveal a certain type of observational acuity. When Richard meets one middle-aged woman in 'Marching Through Boston', he describes her as "ruddy and yeasty, she seemed to have been enlarged by the exercise of good will and wore a saucer-sized S.C.L.C button in the lapel of a coarse green suit." In 'Twin Beds in Rome', Updike introduces the story in an unbiased way as he comments that the Maples' "had talked and thought about separation so long it seemed it would never come" before they go off and take a holiday together in Rome. It is mainly Richard's observations Updike concentrates on however. While "they arrived late at night" it is Richard whose thoughts and feelings we are privy to. "Yet it pleased him to have her happy. This was his weakness. He wished her to be happy..." Later his stomach plays up "a light chafing ache at first, scarcely enough to distract him from the pain of his feet"
Is this a failure of feeling on Updike's part; that in a collection of stories based on a marriage, the angle taken is usually that of the man? Maybe it seems a limitation of the writer to offer so male a perspective, but often the relative failings of magnanimity is a victory for singularity. Taking into account what we said about the emphasis on the body, Updike's importance, here, resides on the sort of jaundiced male perspective that Bellow and Roth are also interested in, but with a greater emphasis on the flesh viewed by the observer internally, as we've suggested, and also that of the other observed externally, but ambiguously so. When at the end of 'Snowing in Greenwich Village' Updike shows Richard and the woman he has dropped off at her apartment on the point of a possible kiss, the suspense comes in the focus on Richard, while Rebecca's feelings must remain a mystery. But unlike so often in the clearly sex-obsessed male characters in Roth, Richard's feelings remain ever so slightly mysterious too. Now if the story had been more omniscient, then the tension between Richard and Rebecca would have been lost, but a perspective more first person, or at least more focused on the needs and categorical desires of the character (as we find for example in the seduction evident in Roth's The Dying Animal), would have created a very different emphasis. Roth it would seem is still interested in the nature of seduction, so that the body isn't quite the corporeal thing Updike presents it as, and Roth's characters are also more confident in the assertion of that seduction.
Updike's Richard is not much of a predator, on the one hand, and too much of a body on the other. Updike is the sort of writer who can undermine the potential in seduction not only by indicating that the character lacks the confidence to seduce, but that he also is too much in his own body for the seducing to take place on the plane of what we might call the corporeally seductive. This is where the body is sexualized but not anatomised: erotically semiotic but not quite physically revelatory. Indeed much of the tragedy of Roth's The Dying Animal lies in this peripety for the central character. Roth's professor sees the body in relation to art and seduction, a certain immortal beauty that his own fading flesh finds itself anxious over. However, though he worries over the youth of the young woman he falls in love with, it is she who will lose her breast and possibly her life to cancer. Such an approach initially requires a perspective that so discounts the woman as a body of cells, that it can come as a surprise when those cells turn against her. Updike one senses would be much more aware of the body of the other: it might be viewed in Your Lover Just Calledfrom the outside, but it is scrutinised from that place. True, Roth wrote a short novel where a man turns into a woman's breast (The Breast), but this is not concerned scrutiny of the other, but the horror of the other becoming part of oneself.
One wouldn't want to exaggerate Updike's empathy; indeed his strength usually resides in close observation rather than an approximation of feeling. His best work accepts the limitation of feeling but the need for observation; the sense that the central male figure wouldn't at all ignore someone, but he wouldn't empathise with them either. Instead, Updike's skill rests in a place in between the feeling and the ignoring. During a moment of crisis in 'Separating', where Joan and Richard Maple are telling the kids they are taking a break from each other, the narrator through the eyes of Richard describes one of his daughters thus: "His children tried to ignore his tears. Judith, on his right, lit a cigarette, gazed upward in the direction of her too energetic, too sophisticated exhalation..." In 'Eros Rampant' Richard is having dinner with a young woman with whom he claims to be in love, "a quaint little secretary at his office" called Penelope. As they eat he notes that her "face is small and very white, and her nose very long, her pink nostrils inflamed by a perpetual cold."
This is a typically Updikean observation, the sort of comment not offered as an introductory descriptive passage, but rather as an aloof scrutinising, the type of detail one notices when the person hasn't quite engaged us to the point that their face becomes merely the means with which to express themselves. Now some critics like Wood, in How Fiction Works, chastises Updike for an occasional lapse in empathic focus, evident when the writer uses free indirect style to follow his central character Ahmad in The Terrorist, and also Ahmad's thoughts as he passes through the streets. The free indirect style is where the writer aligns himself with the character's perspective whilst remaining in the third person so that, for example, when a character in Joyce's 'The Dead' "was literally run off her feet", Wood notes she was of course not run off her feet, and Joyce would know that such language is hopelessly hyperbolic exaggeration and a clich as well, but that it nevertheless captures accurately how the character he is describing would feel at that moment. The writer utilises the idiomatic to get closer to the character's consciousness, hence an example of free indirect style. It can work in reverse of course, and sometimes a character will use a completely original turn of phrase that while obviously requiring the full literary capacities of the writer, will remain consistent with the point of view of the character. Wood gives as an example a passage from Nabokov's Pnin, where someone is doing the dishes and the nutcracker slips from his hands and falls into the bowl, with Nabokov noting this 'leggy' thing that is slipping into the water. In Joyce's instance we have the hyperbolic idiom utilising stale language; in Nabokov the defamiliarised metaphor creating fresh language. Both are however consistent with character, and that is the point.
But Wood reckons the passage in The Terrorist fails not because the language is stale or brilliant, but that it doesn't quite work as Updike is too removed from character to make the scene believable. As Ahmad walks along the street he starts saying to himself that "he will not grow any taller, he thinks, in this life or the next. If there is a next, an inner devil murmurs." For Wood, a gap develops between Updike the writer and Ahmad the character, as Wood can't believe that a boy who has grown three inches in the past year is likely to worry about height at all, but that it allows Updike to effect an "uneasy transition" as the character starts thinking of Islam.
Wood seems to have a point here, and Updike's weakness in this instance is often his strength elsewhere. If we return to that moment in 'Eros Rampant', though the narration is third person, it is not omniscient. Though the tale slips into Penelope's back story, it does so with the aid of dialogue that would make us think this is all information to which Richard has been privy. As the narrator tells us of various lovers, she says "I was to come and live with him [one particular lover] in this hotel in Dorchester but I was scared to go near the place, full of cop-out types and the smell of pot..." The perspective is Richard's and the story like others in the collection hangs on not an attempt to get inside other people's heads, but to view things mainly from behind Richard's eyes.
Now Wood says free indirect style is not simply about getting inside a character, about staying inside the world of a character, but often balancing the needs of that character against the needs of the writer. In Joyce's Ulysses the "exquisite perceptions and beautifully precise phrases are Joyce's, and the reader has to make a treaty, whereby we accept that Bloom will sometimes sound like Bloom and sometimes sound more like Joyce." But can the contract Wood talks of be made if the writer does not break it by moving beyond the limits of his sensibility? Updike is probably best known for three character creations: Harrry Angstrom from the Rabbit Books, Henry Bech from the Bech novels, and Richard Maple from the Your Lover Just Called collection. These are all men, all loosely middle-class and comfortably off, no matter Harry's earlier struggles, and all capable of an observational acuity at one remove from the immediate situation. Here is Harry playing golf in Rabbit Run. "Harry stops hating him, he himself is so awful. Ineptitude seems to coat him like a scabrous disease: he is grateful to Eccles for not fleeing from him." This is a passage from Bech is Back, "In the days when Bech was still attempting to complete Think Big, there came to him a female character who might redeem the project, restore its lost momentum and focus. She was at first the meagrest wisp of a vision, a 'moon face' shining with a certain lightly perspiring brightness over the lost horizon of his plot." In each instance, the characters might be different from Richard Maple, who is, of course, different from Updike, but they share a perceptual horizon that allows for a certain type of view on the world. In The Terrorist, Updike would seem to go beyond it and starts putting words into a character's mouth that are too Updikean for the character he is sketching.
One needn't see this limited perspective an attack on Updike - on his weakness as a writer - unless he moves beyond those limitations and into a character that is if you like not Updikean enough to benefit from the type of perceptions Updike makes. All writers are inevitably limited, and it is out of these limitations that the singularity arises. If for example, Raymond Carver is the master of deep inarticulacy, of an apparent clumsiness with words that actually reveals the impossibility of expressing oneself from a certain place, Updike, much more 'superficial', is a fine writer of the fussy observation that nevertheless often reveals essence of character.
In 'Gesturing', for example, Updike beautifully captures Richard's single life in a comment about the washing that he picks up from the launderette. "What an unexpected pleasure, walking home in the dark hugging to himself clean clothes hot as fresh bread..." In 'Giving Blood', the narrator observes at the hospital that an old man "was one of those old men who hold within an institution an ill-defined but consecrated place."
In the closing story in the collection, 'Here Come the Maples', with the couple getting divorced, Updike offers a moment not unlike the one Wood believes fails in The Terrorist. This time it is Richard walking along the road, thinking. "Why then has no one ever seen a quark? As he walked along Charles Street toward his apartment, Richard vaguely remembered some such sentence, and fished in his pockets for the pamphlet on the forces of nature, and came up instead with a new prescription for painkiller, a copy of his marriage license, and the signed affidavit." Drawing comparisons with quantum physics and life, he says "In life there are four forces: love, habit, time and boredom. Love and habit at short range are immensely powerful, but time, lacking a minus charge, accumulates inexorably, and with its brother boredom levels all. He was dying; that made him cruel. His heart flattened in horror..."
In each instance, Updike stays in character, and this isn't especially because he has worked so much harder, one suspects, in the Maple stories than in The Terrorist; instead that his sensibility aligns itself much more readily to the mores of the middle-class than the 'extremities' of religious faith. Richard Maple is a character going nowhere slowly, and that is exactly what gives Updike the space to offer the smallest of observations.
Interestingly in an essay on 'Literary Biography' in the non-fiction collection Due Considerations, Updike prefaces the piece with a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald. "There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn't be. He is too many people, if he's any good." Are we finally concluding that Updike isn't any good? Not at all; rather that the fallacy of fictional creation is that a great writer inevitably brings into being characters so numerous that the writer disappears under profligate creativity. However, that with so monumental a figure as Shakespeare we can still talk of the Shakespearean indicates that even in the most protean of creators there is a specific world they create and map out. Updike's may be very small indeed - basically the American male middle-class in the age of consumer prosperity, sexual liberation and women's rights - but it is a world of minor importance nevertheless.
© Tony McKibbin