Sunday, February 01, 2009

Bookcases and John Updike

In order to give myself the sense of having achieved something during this period when I can't write because of my un-well-ness, I tidied, at long last, our enormous bookcase. This is just novels - short stories, non-fiction, science, other sections are in other rooms. Alphabetically arranged. It is so tall I had to get on a ladder to get to the A - E sections.
It is now beautifully arranged, and dusted. And while I was sorting it all out I found that we have four John Updike books so I decided to make one of them my Shabbat reading as a tribute to the man who wrote, among other things, twelve short story collections between the years 1959 and this year. The book J picked out for me, The Afterlife and Other Stories, was published in 1994 and the title seemed fitting.I have read Updike's stories over the years in the New Yorker, as well as his essays and criticism, but have never considered him to be a favourite of mine. As I started reading it I wondered why on earth I hadn't read more. Hese stories illustrate exactly the point I was trying to make to my short story workshop participants about not giving a reader any excuse, any reason to stop reading your story.

My thesis is that a short story rarely comes along in isolation: it is either in a literary magazine, an anthology or a single author collection. Which means that a reader is always thinking, Well, if I don't like this story I'll go and find another one to read. So, especially at the beginning of a story but as a general rule: grab the reader by the coattails (shirttails? collar? neck?) and don't let go. Don't give them any excuse - boredom, confusion - to leave your story and find another one.

John Updike is a master at this. His prose is such that not only does he not give you a single point at which you could even contemplate pausing to think about stopping, his economy of words is so excellent that you can't even skim for fear of missing a vital detail.

Of course, by this collection, his tenth, he had been writing for 35 years. This kind of mastery doesn't come overnight, it is a product of experience, experimentation, and most of all, I think, supreme confidence. As with Alice Munro, another short story master, none of these stories wrap up neatly, none of them go in the direction you expect.

I wanted to talk about one story in particular: The Journey to the Dead, because this seemed to me, while reading it, a clear window into what the author himself may have felt about death. I say "may have" because it is always the temptation to ascribe a character's desires and traits to the author themselves, and as an author I know how frustrating that can be. However, it is what we have, and at the very least it is astonishingly good writing, stirring and thought-provoking. The story is about a man who becomes friendly with the dying friend of his ex-wife.

Arlene was not the first dying woman of his own age that Fredericks had known. In the suburb where he and Harriet had lived together, a mutual friend, the merriest wife in their circle, had a breast removed in her early forties. For years, that seemed to have solved the problem; then she raucously confided to them, outside the doors of the local supermarket, "The damn stuff's come back!" The last time they saw her it was at a small barbecue lunch that all the guests tacitly knew, though none would admit aloud, to be a farewell to their hostess.

Fredericks is parking and tries to avoid driving over the garden hose. The hostess, cheerful, doesn't seem to care, and he wonders "how these appurtenances to our daily living, as patiently treasured and stored and coiled and repaired as if their usefulness were eternal, must look to someone whose death is imminent. The hose. The flowers. The abandoned trowel... Their value was about to undergo a revision so vast and crushing Fredericks could not imagine it."

After her death, he says:
The dying, he marvelled, do not seem to inhabit a world much different from ours. his elderly neighbours in the suburb plucked with rakes at the leaves on their lawn, walked their old lame dogs and talked of this winter's scheduled trip to Florida as if in death's very gateway there was nothing to do but keep living, living in the same old rut. The gossiped, they pottered, they watched television. No radical insights heightened their conversation, though Fredericks listened expectantly.
Updike, on the other hand, left us with many radical insights. The stories in The Afterlife illuminate the ordinary with such sharpness and skill, they took my breath away. Not only couldn't I stop reading one story, I couldn't stop reading the book. A new collection is due to be published shortly. I cannot wait for what astonishments Updike will continue to bring us from wherever he may be now.


Lauri said...

Thanks for that Tania. Very nice. I haven't read Updike as an adult, read Rabbit's Run as a teen. Must get some of his short stories.

I've never trusted this 'live for the day' attittude they say dying brings you to. I've always hoped I wouldn't be put in that position since I know I won't manage the status quo. I'd be still submitting to The New Yorker hoping my big break was just around the corner. :)

Love your book shelf. I took my recent move as an opportunity to alphabatize my fiction section- it took hours, but I'm very pleased with myself.

Sorry you're still feeling unwell.

annie clarkson said...

What a wonderful bookcase, wow, oh how I would love to have a rummage to see what books you've got. I have a real fetish for other peoples' bookcases, as there is always so much to inspire me.

I have never in my life read any John Updike. I have even stopped reading novels (mostly) to try and read all the short stories out there. I still can't keep up...

Lane said...

I'm ashamed to say I haven't read any Updike for years but having read your post, I certainly will now.

I'll tell you what I have just read though. What was it called again? Ah yes The White Road. Excellent!

Nik's Blog said...

Great job on the bookcase - that's a whopper (and rather lovely).

I've not read any Updike. It's an easy excuse I've got in that, with such a body of work, I don't know where to start; sounds like I know now!