December 1st, 2012

Updike: the trivial and the profound

I’ve long been a fan of John Updike’s short stories, although his novels—which are probably much more widely read—don’t do all that much for me. He was one of the most prolific writers of the last century, so there’s plenty of both genres from which to pick and choose.

Perhaps I like the short stories better because I prefer short stories to novels in general. I’m not sure why—some sort of reader ADD, perhaps But I think most novels allow the writer to be too self-indulgent, going on and on and often becoming a repetitious or meandering bore—whereas short stories require focus, focus, focus.

Well, I like tapas bars and tasting menus, too.

Right now I’m reading a collection of Updike stories entitled “The Maples Stories,” about a fictional couple called the Maples whom Updike followed for decades from early marriage through disillusionment and conflict to divorce. The Maples are surrogates for Updike and his first wife, who split in the 70s.

Updike’s world is not mine. I don’t live (and never have lived) among brittle, intelligent, hard-drinking suburban couples during the 50s, 60s, and 70s who compulsively engaged in multiple affairs with each other, both casual and non. Or at least, if I did, I was so out of the loop I never realized it.

But Updike’s Maples stories—of which I’d read two or three even before reading this book—have always grabbed me because they seem to express almost perfectly the sturm and drang, the bittersweet regret, and the strong centripetal force that even a failing and miserable marriage can exert on wretched and flawed spouses deciding whether to remain together or go their separate ways.

Updike is not only a master of poetically precise language and description (both of external and internal states), but he is a master of observation. Once an art student, he retained an eye for just about everything. He’s been criticized for focusing on the trivial, the slight, the non-heroic, but I think that misses the point—which is his love of almost everything on earth as a source of wonder.

To Updike, nothing is trivial. Or rather, the celestial is in the details. For, despite his emphasis on the physical minutiae of illicit sex (more often found in the novels than the stories), and the large and small failures and betrayals of the human race (including, quite prominently, those of Updike himself, through surrogates), Updike’s other great theme is religion, as well as the fleeting nature of a single human life.

It was a quiet story entitled “Plumbing” in the Maples book that prompted this essay of mine. The story is about moving from an old house to a new, but that doesn’t even begin to capture what Updike does with his description of the empty old house and the life the family had lived there, beginning with a plumber’s dissertation on the flaws in the pipes in the new home to which the family has moved. I suggest you read the whole thing, but this excerpt may serve to give you just a tiny idea of the splendors hidden there:

The old house, the house we left, a mile away, seems relieved to be rid of our furniture. The rooms where we lived, where we staged our meals and ceremonies and self-dramatizations and where some of us went from infancy to adolescence—rooms and stairways so imbued with our daily motions that their irregularities were bred into our bones and could be traversed in the dark—do not seem to mourn, as I’d imagined they would. The house exults in its sudden size, in the reach of its empty corners. Floorboards long muffled by carpets shine as if freshly varnished. Sun pours unobstructed through the curtainless windows. The house is young again. It, too, had a self, a life, which for a time was eclipsed by our lives; now, before its new owners come to burden it, it is free. Now long moonlight makes the floor creak. When, some mornings, I return, to retrieve a few final oddments—andirons, picture frames—the space of the house greets me with virginal impudence. Opening the front door is like opening the door to the cat who comes in with the morning milk, who mews in passing on his way to the beds still warm with our night’s sleep, his routine so tenuously attached to ours, by a single mew and a shared roof. Nature is tougher than ecologists admit. Our house forgot us in a day.

[NOTE: If you haven’t read Updike on Vietnam, please do.]

25 Responses to “Updike: the trivial and the profound”

  1. vanderleun Says:

    “… whereas short stories require focus, focus, focus.”

    Quit meandering.

  2. Mac Says:

    That does sound worth seeking out. The only Updike I’ve read is the short story collection The Music School,and I like some of those a lot, especially one which I think is called “A&P”–at any rate it’s set in one.

    I have always sort of resisted his novels because the descriptions of their subject matter just didn’t sound very promising at all. And do/did people like that really exist?

  3. rickl Says:

    The house exults in its sudden size, in the reach of its empty corners.

    I’ve moved a few times in my life, and I’ve always thought that empty rooms seem smaller, somehow, than when they’re filled with carpets, furniture, books, and assorted junk.

  4. Sam L. Says:

    What’s up, doc, with Updike? Doesn’t work for me.

  5. Zachriel Says:

    neo-neocon: [NOTE: If you haven’t read Updike on Vietnam, please do.]

    Excellent essay. Thanks.

  6. Curtis Says:

    Who doesn’t like short stories?

    I devoured them when I heard of them. A what? A short story? What’s that? Well, it’s kind of like adultery, you get the orgasm without the committment.

    And then given an anthology of short story. Well, it was as good as the Bible and reading the stories about the Kings, good and bad. That’s what a short story basically says: good or bad. Flannery O’Conner. James Joyce. Updike, Fitzgerald, Poe, and each and every one of our lives.

  7. Curtis Says:

    his routine so tenuously attached to ours, by a single mew

    Well, now I know why you like Updike: your are both cat haters.


  8. Curtis Says:

    reference the trivial v profound.

    It may be the world revolves around the word “davenport” because academia absolves identity grounded in advertisement\propoganda.

    When did Madison become Harrvard? When Harvard stopped burning witches? Ha ha ha.

  9. IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States Says:

    Well, I like tapas bars and tasting menus, too.

    Ewww. Scratch-n-lick menus? Sounds pretty unsanitary.


  10. IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States Says:

    I haven’t read Updike, and, while you intrigue me, I suspect I’d not like it, since I’m more of an SF person. While SF can do “normal”, its main thrust generally isn’t (in truth, all “normal” fiction is SF… but not all SF is normal fiction — you can take any mainstream fiction and easily re-write it within an SF trope and lose nothing. But the reverse is not usually possible)

    I’ll let Larry Niven/Jerry Pournelle explain why it is that some people prefer spec fic:

    “Mainstream literature is about Being. For character studies, it’s probably the best genre around; but nothing happens, nothing changes. [Speculative] literature is about Doing. About making the future, not just bemoaning it.
    We’ll all be living in the future by and by. Some of us like to scout ahead.”

    – Niven/Pournelle/Flynn, ‘Fallen Angels’ –

  11. neo-neocon Says:

    IGotBupkis: did you read his essay on Vietnam? Absolutely brilliant, and still very relevant today.

  12. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    His essay on Vietnam shows a great deal of honest self awareness. Saying he was happy to aviod service in Korea but then feeling guilty that he hadn’t done his duty like other writers such as Philip Roth. That shows real awareness and honesty to confess this in print, in front of the world.

    Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one carrying around psychological scars from Vietnam, but then an essay like this reminds me that we all suffer from the scars – participants, families, observers, and even the anti-warriors.

    His recognition that the very act of living is violent is on the mark. To get our daily bread and shelter, we have to be aggressive, assertive, and alert; even violent at times. But we don’t like to recognize this fact. And such is possibly why we are now saddled with the stupid principle of proportional response. It avoids recognizing that war is hell, and fails to accept the truth – that if violence is required to settle issues, better to fight with everything available with the goal of unconditional surrender in the shortest possible time.

    Would that we were all as self aware and honest as Updike.

  13. neo-neocon Says:

    J.J.: Updike was, as I said, an amazing observer, both of himself and others, and he was extraordinarily graceful and precise in writing about what he observed.

    His memoir (in which the Vietnam essay appeared, among others) was entitled Self-Consciousness. The title was a bit of a pun—the ordinary way we use the word (to be self-conscious is to be a bit awkward and inhibited), as well as meaning “hyper aware” and also “aware of one’s own identity as a self.” One of the very interesting essays in it was called “On Being a Self Forever,” which is about (among other things) the idea of an afterlife. It contained this passage about self-consciousness, fame, and writing:

    Celebrity, even the modest sort that comes to writers, is an unhelpful exercise in self-consciousness. Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face. As soon as one is aware of being “somebody,” to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his overanimation. One can either see or be seen. Most of the best fiction is written out of early impressions, taken in before the writer became conscious of himself as a writer. The best seeing is done by the hunted and the hunter, the vulnerable and the hungry; the “successful” writer acquires a film over his eyes. His eyes get fat. Self-importance is a thickened, occluding form of self-consciousness. The binge, the fling, the trip – all attempt to shake the film and get back under the dinning-room table, with a child’s beautifully clear eyes.

  14. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    That’s a beautiful example, neo.

    “The best seeing is done by the hunted and the hunter, the vulnerable and the hungry; the “successful” writer acquires a film over his eyes.”

    As does the successful society/culture. We have forgotten whence we came. As a society we have a film over our eyes as well. We didn’t get where we are because the heavens opened up and rained dollar bills on our heads. We’ve reached our present state of success because of private property ownership backed by courts, a willingness to be aggressive in developing the basics for success (Natural resources, farms, fisheries, and opportunites for enterprising citizens to find a need and fill it.), and the awareness that no individual or nation is owed a living.

    Our present frittering away of the heart of what makes us successful is much like the writer who “acquires a film over his eyes. His eyes get fat. Self-importance is a thickened, occluding form of self-consciousness.” We lose our ability to see clearly, to defend ourselves, to know friend from foe, to do the hard things that ensure survival.

    Updike should be required reading for all Americans.

  15. rickl Says:

    J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:
    December 2nd, 2012 at 11:03 am

    Good comment.

    Or as they often say over at Belmont Club, “We’re burning through our design margin.”

  16. Jan of MN Says:

    I remember reading Updike’s essay on Vietnam, but it couldn’t have been when it first came out in 1989. I hadn’t completed my move from left to right until the middle of the nineties. Whenever I did read it, I was astonished that Updike had written it, having assumed that all of the best writers were leftists. I was grateful that he took the “wrong” side, because it was obvious that I had positioned myself on the wrong side with regard to most friends and family members.

    I so loathe pundits who regretfully but smugly can state that despite a person’s great talent he still has that one unfortunate flaw, of being on the “wrong” side regarding Vietnam.

    I became acquainted with Updike’s writing in London in 1969. We had just moved from the States, and it was a short story about his experience with an English dentist — Updike had been an art student for a time in London — that first grabbed me. I also had visited a Harley Street dentist, and was captivated by Updike’s vigorous and precise observation. I spent my first summer in London obsessively reading Updike, mostly his short stories.

    Thanks, Neo, for “Plumbing”, which I must have missed and now must find. His powers of description make every tiny thing alive and feeling and defy you to remain uninvolved.

  17. Jan of MN Says:

    More about John Updike:
    Here’s an excerpt from Updike’s contribution to an NPR series, “This I Believe”:

    … I also believe, instinctively, if not very cogently, in the American political experiment, which I take to be, at bottom, a matter of trusting the citizens to know their own minds and best interests. “To govern with the consent of the governed”: this spells the ideal. And though the implementation will inevitably be approximate and debatable, and though totalitarianism or technocratic government can obtain some swift successes, in the end, only a democracy can enlist a people’s energies on a sustained and renewable basis. To guarantee the individual maximum freedom within a social frame of minimal laws ensures — if not happiness — its hopeful pursuit.

    You can hear his full statement in his own voice at .

  18. Cleaver Says:

    I love your civilized, literate, eclectic blog, Neo.

  19. artfldgr Says:

    It doesn’t matter what I say
    So long as I sing with inflection
    That makes you feel that I’ll convey
    Some inner truth of vast reflection
    But I’ve said nothing so far
    And I can keep it up for as long as it takes
    And it doesn’t matter who you are
    If I’m doing my job then it’s your resolve that breaks

    Because the hook brings you back
    I ain’t tellin’ you no lie
    The hook brings you back
    On that you can rely

    There is something amiss
    I am being insincere
    In fact I don’t mean any of this
    Still my confession draws you near
    To confuse the issue I refer
    To familiar heroes from long ago
    No matter how much Peter loved her
    What made the Pan refuse to grow

    Suck it in suck it in suck it in
    If you’re Rin Tin Tin or Anne Boleyn
    Make a desperate move or else you’ll win
    And then begin
    To see
    What you’re doing to me this MTV is not for free
    It’s so PC it’s killing me
    So desperately I sing to thee
    Of love
    Sure but also rage and hate and pain and fear of self
    And I can’t keep these feelings on the shelf
    I’ve tried well no in fact I lied
    Could be financial suicide but I’ve got too much pride inside
    To hide or slide
    I’ll do as I’ll decide and let it ride until I’ve died
    And only then shall I abide this tide
    Of catchy little tunes
    Of hip three minute ditties
    I wanna bust all your balloons
    I wanna burn all of your cities
    To the ground I’ve found
    I will not mess around
    Unless I play then hey
    I will go on all day hear what I say
    I have a prayer to pray
    That’s really all this was
    And when I’m feeling stuck and need a buck
    I don’t rely on luck because….


    For many of the people that write the things you think are great, its a game, a toy, a process. like combining roses, silver, and snow… etc..

    updike is a master at nothing but the ruse you dont get he is playing as you take his process seriously

    one of the best essays i have ever read was by edgar alan poe describing how he wrote the raven.

    it does not match what anyone who doesnt do that would think. and so they dont produce like him as they think his process is different.

    they dont say.. i want to write a dark piece, and with repetition for strength, etc.. they wait for some muse to come and take an artful crap in their brain and arrive at Xanadu

    but if you ever worked at a top art studio, advertising place, etc… where the tops of the tops perform, and you know its a process from above not one from sitting within.

    being that good only lets you stand in the room with the others that good and compete. no xanadu

    those that dont do it or cant do it tend to put a mystical thing on it. which the fine artists who are not so great, put on airs with. but the ones that are, they dont do that at all that i have met in my lifetime. most loath showing someone something, even family.

    even more interesting is to read poe on how he created the raven and read the course summaries and such on it and so on, and you will see that the post modern progressive leftist moron knows more than the author does about what the author did!!!!!

  20. IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States Says:

    As soon as one is aware of being “somebody,” to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his overanimation.

    Interesting observation, but, for writers in particular, it’s not that hard to avoid… it’s just that writers, being human, often DON’T… once they have their egos getting stroked, they go in for more stroking, not for purity of art.

    I mean, think about it — how many writers — even ones that you’ve read and like a great deal — would you be able to recognize on the street or at a party?

    Not a lot, I’d argue. Most of them, even if they were famous names, could pass themselves off as someone else and you’d have no idea.

    So writers, among celebrities, have an easy time of maintaining that hunger — they just choose not to do so.

  21. IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States Says:

    I mean that, btw — most writers, though I’ve looked at their pics on the cover of a book jacket, would only come to my attention as THAT writer if I heard them discussing their works. I might be able to recognize about a half dozen to a dozen SF writers by face at a party. But even they could get away with denying who they are and claiming they often get mistaken for them.

    That’s harder for an actor, I’d grant. There are a few hundred to a few thousand I’d probably recognize in person (depends on how much of their on-screen look is “makeup”, which is more significant than you’d think), but with them, even their voice and mannerisms would often give them away, unlike a writer, if they claimed to be a look-a-like.


    […] Updike: The Trivial and the Profound – Neo-Neocon […]

  23. neo-neocon Says:

    IGotBupkis: quite a few writers are recognizable, especially in Updike’s heyday. Updike himself was quite recognizable (also, for example, Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth). But I think Updike was actually not even talking so much about recognition by the general public across the country (although he was indeed talking about that) as recognition by people in the writer’s own community—be it literary cocktail parties in NY or, in Updike’s case, Ipswich Massachusetts. Once it is known around town that you’re a famous writer, people are (or should be!) more wary around you (although they weren’t wary enough with Truman Capote, apparently). Plus, you yourself get a different view of yourself; famous writers are subject to swelled egos, which can very much change your perspective on other people and the world.

  24. David Guaspari Says:

    I’m coming rather late to this discussion, but …

    The lyrical precision (and intelligence) of Updike’s sentences can leave me giddy with pleasure; but what you politely call his “emphasis on the physical minutiae” of sexual encounters I would call his gynecologist’s eye view of them, and it gives me the willies.

  25. Elaine T. (please use instead of full name) Says:

    Oh dear – a great discussion about Updike, and I have commitments elsewhere and can’t hang around long enough to join in as I’d like. I devoured Updike’s short stories in (his and) my youth. I was truly nourished by them – the unexpected minutiae unobserved by me until he called them up and I never lost them again. But he lost me in his novels. His writing had a luminosity for me in the short stories, but he seemed to get in the way of his own light when the works got longer and his assorted angsts (maybe his fame?) took over. As David Guaspari noted, the “lyrical precision” (very good!) and grace gave way to the gynecological perspective. A loss. I haven’t reread him in a long while….something is calling me back to “Pigeon Feathers”. It’s still in the bookcase, with a lot of the others. Time to dust them off.

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