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Increments of Uncertainty

Kevin Stevens

My Father’s Tears, by John Updike, Hamish Hamilton, 288 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-0241144596

 

Midway through the novella Rabbit Remembered, John Updike’s coda to his Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy, Rabbit’s son Nelson dreams he sees, through his bedroom window, a tall man practising chip shots in the moonlight. Though Nelson is terrified that the golfer is going to turn and look at him, the man remains bent over in “patient concentration, as if on a task he has been assigned for eternity”. Neither in his dream nor when woken does Nelson admit what the reader knows – that the homeless man in the back yard is the ghost of his father, dead ten years, his spirit untethered, his house and wife usurped by his lifelong friend and nemesis, Ronnie Harrison.

 

Since Updike’s death last January, there have been times when, opening the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books, I’ve had a waking dream of finding a piece written by his ghost – an account of a Stygian passing to another realm perhaps, or a short story set in whatever afterlife he’s landed in, observed, of course, with lapidary detail, gentle humour and revealing irony. Over many decades, I’ve grown used to seeing Updike turn his worst experiences – a failed marriage, health problems, the onset of old age – into exquisite fiction. How could he stop now? What else would he be doing for eternity?

 

It’s hard to accept he’s gone. Like his finest creations, Updike was larger than life, and his death came as a shock, not because he was young (he would have been 77 last March), but because his literary voice, so easeful, so urbane, so informed, which had probed the American quotidian in fiction, poetry, and criticism with unmatched skill and sympathy for more than fifty years, sounded as if fit to continue for another fifty. His great subjects were sex, death, religious faith and the mixed blessings of love and life, and variations on these themes flowed from his desk with a kind of exponential wisdom, evolving alongside timelines personal and national, shaped by each stage of his experience and infused with the distinctive social flavour of the decades in which they were written, from the suppressed libido of the Eisenhower fifties to the aw-shucks hysteria of the Bush II years. Postwar and now post-millennial America does not seem complete without him.

 

His output was titanic. Twenty-six novels and thirteen collections of short stories, evenly spread across the years 1959 to 2009. Eight volumes of poetry. A large body of generous and insightful literary criticism that covered nearly every major writer of the twentieth century. Essays on American art, published mostly in the NYRB, that steered clear of jargon and exhibited deep curiosity and discernment. And marvellous writing about sports: pieces on golf that, though full of technical detail, captured the game’s pastoral magic and “soaring grandeur”, and a 1960 New Yorker essay on baseball, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”, that is probably the most anthologised piece of sports writing of the twentieth century.

 

Such volume overwhelms, and it will take some time to assess his legacy fairly. The flush of critical good will following his death is ruddy with hypocrisy: in recent years a significant current of mainstream literary opinion had begun to treat him like an aging boxer, an old school heavyweight who didn’t know when to retire, whose deft feints and sublime footwork, while still effective, no longer produced the knockouts that had marked his heyday. He was a victim not just of his durability (it was as if some critics resented his longevity and work ethic), but of his talent, his dazzling style and the apparent ease with which he captured in words, over and over again, the manifold shades of ordinary experience and the subtlest patterns of individual choice and social behaviour. Someone this elegant and this voluble, detractors implied, couldn’t have much depth.

 

A decade ago, the novelist David Foster Wallace famously branded Updike, along with Norman Mailer and Philip Roth, as a “Great Male Narcissist” and the “voice of probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV”. (This the same David Foster Wallace who, when asked to list what he believed were the ten greatest works of literature of all time, included novels by Stephen King, Erica Jong and Ed McBain.) Though Wallace had a habit of perverse overstatement, his epithet nevertheless caught on, summing up as it did the attitude of a group of younger American writers who believed that Updike’s preoccupations and formal strategies had not kept pace with the times. The way he wrote about women, and the way men treated women in his fiction, made some readers uneasy, though Updike often pointed out that his characters never acted in ways that were inconsistent with their backgrounds.

 

His own generation could be no less harsh. Gore Vidal, Alfred Kazin and Harold Bloom, among others, accused him of irrelevance and absence of substance. Fellow narcissist Mailer called his prose “stale garlic”. As Updike’s word count mounted, so did the rancour. The New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani, considered by many the most powerful literary critic in America, regularly savaged his work. Over the last decade she accused his novels of being “bogus in every respect” (Seek My Face), “shopworn” (Terrorist), “cringe-making” (The Widows of Eastwick) and “claustrophobic” (Villages). Indeed, the regularity of her vitriol was such that that when she gave the posthumously published My Father’s Tears a favourable notice, literary blogger Shane Barry commented: “We now know what Updike had to do to get a good review out of Kakutani.”

 

Yet more than an impulse to topple the mighty lay behind the barbs. Those who, like Clive James, attacked Updike’s “fatal propensity for reveling in skill” missed the mark – as time went on his skill was generally more precisely applied – but Updike’s book-a-year industriousness did not always serve him well. The four novels Kakutani slates above are all, by their author’s standards, second-rate. As James Wood has said, Updike’s good novels might have been better “if they were uninterrupted by bad ones, and took him four silent years rather than two noisy ones”. Yet this Puritan productivity was not, as Wood seems to maintain, a late-period fault; wide reading of Updike’s novels reveals a consistent, career-long tendency to expend talent on lesser material, to shift into literary cruise control between the major works, which appeared at more or less regular intervals across the half-century of his writing life.

 

Updike’s guard may have dropped on occasion partly because he allowed himself to experiment more in the long form; his novels employed multiple endings, fractured narrative voices, and stylised mythic and literary overlays. The locations were often exotic: the great chronicler of suburban America also set novels in medieval Denmark, an imaginary African socialist republic, magical-realist Brazil and a futuristic, post-apocalyptic New England. But he was a risk-taker who succeeded most when he was not taking risks. His finest novels are those that explore small-town, Protestant, middle-class America: the Rabbit series, Couples, In the Beauty of the Lilies. This complex, extended cycle of masterwork and missed opportunity was like the bubble of a spirit level, always searching out a balanced centre. “I like middles,” he once said. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”

 

Updike’s short stories tend to be more consistently strong than the novels, perhaps because they, too, take fewer formal risks. The short fiction more closely parallels his own life and consistently returns to familiar settings: his hometown of Shillington, Pennsylvania, presented in his fiction as Olinger (pronounced with a hard g to create a resonant pun); Boston, where he attended Harvard and lived as a single man between his two marriages; and the mainly white, mainly prosperous communities of Massachusetts’s North Shore, where he lived for most of his life after retreating, in 1958, from Manhattan and a plum job at the New Yorker to become a full-time writer.

 

The situations and narrative strategies of his short fiction also tend to recur, looping back on the key moments of his experience with the relentlessness of obsessive memory. And Updike’s memory was transformative if not transcendental. The same phases of his life were filtered repeatedly through his aesthetic consciousness, yielding fresh insights and expanding circles of feeling as he grew older: the artistic only child growing up in a rural Pennsylvania house with parents and grandparents; the precocious young man escaping to Harvard; the first failed marriage, the single interlude, the successful follow-up; the lifelong physical challenges of psoriasis and a stammer; the serial attendance at high school reunions; the older man with a tendency to lose his way … and so on.

 

His fictional swansong, My Father’s Tears, revisits these mnemonic touchstones for a last time. Though the characters in its eighteen stories wander from Spain to India, most of the stories are set in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Yet the interior landscape is always Updikean; the success of these fictions tells us once more that the origins of his material are less important than what he does with them. New perspectives rather than formal innovation are offered, explorations in a variety of post-millennial settings of what Updike calls “the slow-motion tumult of decay”. Moving they must have been to write, and moving they are to read, both in themselves and in the context of his recent death.

 

Unfortunately, the volume begins on a wrong note. The opening piece, “Morocco”, is thirty years old, first aired in the Atlantic and republished here, it seems, to provide a middle-period and middle-aged contrast to the twenty-first-century stories that follow. It is a slight effort that reads at times like a travelogue, and the book would have been better introduced by the second story, “Personal Archaeology”, the protagonist of which, Craig Martin, wanders his hundred-year-old property, pondering age, identity, and place, and providing as he does so a fitting metaphor for the cast of his creator’s mind and art at this late stage. The potent moments of discovery so characteristic of the young Updike’s stories, brimming with religious and sexual potential, have yielded by now to a twilit sense of increasing isolation at the end of a life divided into eras, layered beneath an aging consciousness like the history of a house, a plot of land, a region.

 

Various other remnants of his boyhood world had washed up in the house: his grandfather’s Fraktur-inscribed shaving mug; a dented copper ashtray little Craig had often watched his father crush out the stubs of Old Gold cigarettes in; a pair of brass candlesticks, like erect twists of rope, that his mother would place on the dining-room table when she fed in-laws visiting from New Jersey. These objects had been with him in the abyss of lost time, and survived less altered than he. What did they mean? They had to mean something, fraught and weighty as they were with the mystery of his own transient existence.

 

Updike was ever a brilliant observer who found just the right particulars (and then some) to convey the heft and shimmer of the material world. But here the details have been endowed with another stratum of feeling, a sense of physical accumulation that mocks the diminished time and capacity of the sentient, fading animal trying to make sense of them. Updike’s characters have grown suspicious of the world; noting its richness is no longer enough, and the economy and density with which it is presented overwhelm, intensifying the ambiguity that helps make these revisitations fresh and poignant.

 

Women are also revisited, and not just in memory. “The Walk with Elizanne”, one of the high school reunion stories, has Updike’s literary alter ego, David Kern, meeting after fifty years a woman with whom he had shared a first kiss. Facing the memory for what it means, feeling layers of love and loss peel away, he looks into the eyes of a woman whose age has kept pace with his own, of course, and whose experience and sardonic comments drive home the obvious: that their important moment together is forever out of reach and thoroughly transformed by the interposition of the years. The story is cleverly structured so that the impact of the memory is first explored, leaving the kiss itself to conclude with typical power:

 

Cautiously he bent his face into hers, a little sideways, and kissed her. Elizanne’s lips took the fit snugly, warmly; she pressed slightly into the kiss, from underneath, looking for something in it. David felt caught up in a stream flowing counter to the current of everyday events, and began to run out of breath. He broke the contact and backed off. They stared at one another, her black eyes button-bright in the sodium streetlight, amid the restless faint shadows of the half-brown big sycamore leaves. Then he kissed her again, entering that warm still point around which the universe wheeled, its load of stars not yet visible, the sky still blue above the streetlights.

 

Here is Updike at his best, describing a critical personal event with utter precision before setting it, gem-like, in a matrix of metaphor that glitters with meaning. For the old man recalling the kiss, the sky is no longer blue; the stars, long visible, threaten to extinguish. Experience, its place in the mind, and its inevitable eclipse are carefully threaded into the fabric of the story in a delicate pattern of tenderness and regret.

 

“Free” returns to more typical Updike territory, the irony sharper, the sex less innocent. Henry and Leila are past adulterers who never made the break from their respective marriages. They meet up again in their sixties, after Henry’s wife has died and he is free to look up his old lover, now out of a third marriage and living in a condo in Florida. He discovers that she has “become vulgar, in the way of a woman with not enough to do but think about her body and her means”; discovers too that personal freedom and its requirements have altered expectations from the old days, when “fuck and run had been his style”. Game to resurrect their passion, she makes an offer, pointing out that he’s “free now”. His response, which closes the story, is a meditation on escape, made more complex by the nesting boxes of memory and the way old age has arrived in “increments of uncertainty”:

 

“Well, what is free?” he asked. “I guess it’s always been a state of mind. looking back at us – maybe that was as free as things get.”

 

Updike’s fiction is full of the need for escape and the search for freedom, sexual freedom in particular. There was a time when his name was synonymous with adultery. At the age of thirty-six his picture graced the cover of Time magazine (a poisonous apotheosis for a young writer) beneath the headline “The Adulterous Society”. His 1968 novel Couples, a blow-by-blow account of the sexual indiscretions of a set of Tarbox, Massachusetts couples caught up in what Time called “a black mass of community sex”, vaulted him to celebrity during the Summer of Love and fixed him in the firmament of popular culture as the chronicler of extramarital sex in the American “post-pill paradise”. Subsequent novels cemented the reputation: Marry Me, Rabbit Redux, A Month of Sundays. His own experience was interpreted, reasonably or not, as being on display in the stories of Richard and Joan Maple, published between 1956 and 1979 and collected in the volume Too Far to Go. Recording the decline and fall of an infidelity-plagued marriage, said to mirror his first, these stories unfold with a force and a passion that the novels often lack. The context feels more real; there seems to be more at stake.

 

For there is an unresolved ambivalence about sex in early Updike. The physical and emotional details are described with a sensuous particularity that last year earned him a lifetime achievement award at the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction prizes. He revelled in such descriptions, infusing them with almost religious fervour even as he warned that the substitution of sex for religion was a dangerous consequence of that period in American life, so consistently documented in his fiction, when loss of faith was replaced by material culture. Couples, as powerful and influential as it is, offers the reader too much unrestrained libido. The scale and variety of its adulterous behaviour strains plausibility, just as the characters, carefully differentiated physically and socially, end up sounding the same when they speak: witty, informed, clever, reliably able to turn the flat matter of experience into aperçu – which is to say they all sound like John Updike.

 

My Father’s Tears, on the other hand, leaves us with an end-of-life assessment of the adulterous impulse that is both more complex and more clear-eyed. In “Outage”, a power failure creates an opportunity for infidelity that is comically severed when the electricity returns and the house’s lights and appliances blaze and bleep back to life. In “The Apparition”, a retired professor, bored by a cultural tour of India and finding himself in “a default alliance of willful ignorance” with a younger married woman, chooses “to observe at a safe distance”, recognising that “she was beyond his means in every way”. “Delicate Wives”, darkest of the volume’s love tales, links adultery and disease in a perhaps too obvious chain of events and images. Les Merrill’s former lover, Veronica Horst, has a brush with death after a bee sting. Saved by her husband, she becomes an object of renewed desire for Les. “For what was more majestically intimate even than sex but death?” he asks, their past relationship burning “within him like an untreated infection”. Though his attempts at rekindling the affair are rebuffed, he allows the reignited passion to suck life from his marriage and forces his wife, Lisa, to agree to a divorce. Before the separation occurs, however, Lisa discovers a lump in her breast, a final complication that brings Les’s dilemma and the story’s theme into sad alignment:

 

This was the bee sting, the intimacy he had coveted, legitimately his at last; but he felt befouled by things of the body and wanted merely to turn away, while knowing he could not.

 

Like Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal, Updike’s last love stories examine the persistence of desire in the context of fading powers, illness, and the contradictions of the body. Death hovers over the narratives like a dark angel, ready to engulf all. Not that it wasn’t there before – Couples and other early works make the same link insistently. But this time we feel Updike really means it.

 

And what of religion, the other great Updikean theme? The grandson of a Presbyterian minister, Updike was raised Lutheran, joined a Congregational church with his Unitarian first wife, and after marrying his second wife worshipped as an Episcopalian. For good measure, he liked to add when describing his church-going life, his first girlfriend was the daughter of a Methodist chaplain. The belief underpinning this lifelong “tour of Protestantism” had its own evolution. A few years before his death, he described how his faith had “solidified in ways less important to me than when I was thirty, when the existential predicament was realer to me than now … I worked a lot of it through and arrived at a sort of safe harbor in my life.”

 

This sense of safety, some critics have argued, could lead to complacency and political passivity in his fiction. Certainly it ran against the intellectual grain of the time. But except for those moments (and there were more than a reader would like) when he planted a priest or minister in a novel to ease a theological concept or two into the narrative, the religious impulse is a keen source of inspiration in Updike’s work. “Pigeon Feathers”, an oft-anthologised account of a fourteen-year-old’s religious crisis, written when Updike was still in his twenties, is a narrative response to the fear of death and the wonderment at one’s own existence that Updike would repeat in his later fiction like a refrain. At its close, David Kern, who has killed pigeons that were causing problems on the family farm, examines the dense, iridescent layering of their feathers and concludes “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”.

 

Updike’s repetition of this theme was shaped by his age and by his reading – of the gospels, of philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, of other novelists. Cynthia Ozick was one of many to note its development:

 

Among contemporary fiction writers, Updike is the most rootedly American … and the most self-consciously Protestant: the individual in singular engagement with God. The Protestant idea of God, which nurtured and shaped America (at least until Sept. 11, 2001), is the narrowed Lord of persons, not of hosts; he is not conspicuously the Lord of history. This may be the reason the Nobel literary committee, afloat on the turbulent waves of vast historical grievances, has so far overlooked Updike.

 

The mention of 9/11 is not casual; most American (and non-American) writers are aware of the aesthetic challenge of that day, which threatens to overwhelm the narrative impulse with its drama and scale, its audacity and consequence. For a mind as interested in the afterlife as in the material world, the tragedy poses a further set of questions. Updike’s initial response was “Varieties of Religious Experience”, first published in the Atlantic in November 2002 and included in My Father’s Tears. Like the novel Terrorist, which followed four years later, this story uses multiple points of view to examine the cauldron of incompatible beliefs and unavoidable juxtapositions that presage apocalypse in a globalised world. Unlike Terrorist, it takes on 9/11 directly, opening with sixty-four-year-old Episcopalian Dan Kellogg, who is staying with his daughter in Brooklyn Heights, watching the South Tower fall and realising in that instant that there is no God.

 

How could something so vast and intricate, an elaborately engineered upright hive teeming with people, mostly young, be dissolved by its own weight, so quickly, so casually? The laws of matter had functioned, was the answer. The event was small beneath the calm dome of sky. No hand of God had intervened because there was none. God had no hands, no eyes, no heart, no anything.

 

After an unsatisfactory trawl through the experiences of three other characters – a terrorist who flew one of the planes, a trader forced to leap from one of the towers, an elderly woman travelling on the fourth, downed plane – we return to Dan six months later to find that he has recovered his belief.

 

He was alive, and a shadowy God within him, behind him. Human consciousness had curious properties. However big things were, it could encompass them, as if it were even bigger. And it kept insisting on making a narrative of Dan’s life, however nonsensically truncated the lives of others – crushed in an instant, or snapped off on the birthing bed – had been.

 

It is a pity that the story in which this insight is lodged is not better (the different viewpoints never really coalesce), as these sentences sum up so well the triangulation of life, art, and religion so crucial to an understanding of Updike, who carries into most of his work this conviction that human creativity is imitation of a divine impulse.

 

In an interview with The New York Times not long before his death, Updike spoke of the American tendency to “valorize” youth, and of American writers to produce their best work before middle age. Of his own career he said this:

 

I’m not ashamed of my later work, but I do feel a certain unforced energy in the early stuff. It’s nice as a writer to be somewhat knowing but also somewhat naïve, because out of naïveté comes a sense of wonder.

 

He was being hard on himself. This final collection has many moments of wonder, often prompted by the anticipation of his end. There is a sense throughout this book of Updike saying goodbye to the world, and the title story and concluding piece, “The Full Glass”, are intensely valedictory. “My Father’s Tears” touches familiar themes: escape, failed marriage, religion, death, the pull of the past. The action begins at the train station of a small Pennsylvania town where, just as Updike did, the narrator, Jim, is escaping to Boston and to Harvard, only to be disturbed by the sight of his father weeping. Shuttling expertly between past and present, the story moves inexorably to his father’s death, news of which Jim receives while travelling in Europe in a final attempt to save his first marriage. But the power and pathos comes less from plot than from imagery, especially the quasi-religious references to water and light.

 

 

We are surrounded by holy water; all water, our chemical mother, is holy. Flying from Boston to New York, my habit is to take a seat on the right-hand side of the plane, but the other day I sat on the left, and was rewarded, at that hour of mid-morning, by the sun’s reflections on the waters of Connecticut – not just the rivers and the Sound, but little ponds and pools and glittering threads of water that for a few seconds threw silver light skyward into my eyes. My father’s tears for a moment had caught the light; that is how I saw them.

 

This prismatic image expands further in Updike’s very last story, written when he was terminally ill. The unnamed narrator, a former insurance salesman turned floor sander, now approaching eighty, reviews his life, focusing on the times when a “full-glass feeling” left him “eager for the next moment of life, one brimming moment after another”. Predictably, perhaps, these moments are from rural childhood and adulterous adulthood, but the tone is accepting and thankful, the perspective that of a man who can proclaim: “The world is being tended to, I can let go of it, it doesn’t need me.”

 

While turning off his Christmas lights each December, the narrator also tells us, he feels a compulsion to watch closely as the bulbs are doused. “I need to see this instant transformation occur,” he says with emphasis.

 

I recognize something unhealthy in my need, and often vow beforehand just to touch the switch and forgo peeking. But always I break my vow. It’s like trying to catch by its tail the elusive moment in which you fall asleep. I think that, subconsciously, I fear that if I don’t look the current will jam and reverse and it is I who will die, and not the lights.

 

Then, at story’s end, book’s end, the end of all the fiction Updike has given us across the decades, he proffers, via his narrator, final sentences that use this elemental imagery and the rhythms of his sublime prose to convey a sense of being on the lip of another, less definable world:

 

At night, the horizon springs a rim of lights – more, it seems, every year. Winking airplanes from the corners of the earth descend on a slant, a curved groove in the air, toward the unseen airport in East Boston. My life-prolonging pills cupped in my left hand, I lift the glass, its water sweetened by its brief wait on the marble sinktop. If I can read this strange old guy’s mind aright, he’s drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned.

 

What better epitaph for a man who so loved the visible world and so magically transformed it for our endless delight? May he rest in peace. We’ll miss him.


Kevin Stevens is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on literature, history and jazz.

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