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The Early Stories: 1953-1975
John Updike
London: Hamish Hamilton, 2004.
£25.00, 838 pages, ISBN 0-241-14264-4.

Kristiaan Versluys
Ghent University

The Early Stories is a collection of virtually all the short fiction the author composed between 1953 and 1975. By and large, the one hundred and three tales, rearranged thematically, follow the contours of the author's own life and experience. There are reminiscences of his boyhood in Pennsylvania, his college years at Harvard, his stay at Oxford, the heady twenty months he spent as a young and budding literatus in New York, the long and often difficult years of his first marriage, when he and his expanding family lived in Ipswich, a seaside town north of Boston. The stories, the author admits in a candid Foreword, "draw from [an] autobiographical well" [p. xi].

"[T]hese fragments chipped from experience," have been "rounded by the imagination into impersonal artifacts" [p. xii]. The tales are attempts to make the ordinary stuff of the author's life into the something extraordinary of his art by means of "careful explication" [p. x]. The transformative workings of Updike's imagination are characterized by patience. Little happens in these stories except the slow unraveling of feeling and circumstance. The drama is mainly in the language. Updike takes utmost care to evoke the mood of a time and a place through a careful description of its material paraphernalia. Beyond this descriptive accuracy, the texts shimmer with muted hope, dimmed expectations, conveyed in an idiom that is ornate without being cloying. Characters are neither happy nor desperately unhappy. As Cynthia Ozick put it: "There may be local and topical distractions, but by and large Updike's scenes and characters express a propitious America, mottled only by metaphysical ruminations." The decorous language itself exudes a sense of contentment—holding out the possibility of triumph over the setbacks and vicissitudes of existence.

Updike's oldest story, "Ace in the Hole," composed in 1953 (when the author was a mere twenty-one year old) and published in The New Yorker in 1955, is a case in point. Featuring a former high school basketball hero come down on his luck, it anticipates the figure of Harry Angstrom in the Rabbit-novels. Within its eight pages it packs a lurking tragedy, which never truly materializes. The essence of the narrative procedure is to evoke a great deal of marital tension, which is palpable in every detail but which never boils over into a climax. The story ends inconclusively with the young husband and wife dancing to the music of the radio. Whether such reconciliation is a pathetic reminder of Ace's former glory as an athlete or an invigorating memory auguring renewed vigor and joie de vivre remains a moot point. The story makes of indecisiveness its special forte.

The most recent story in the collection is quaintly entitled "Love Song for a Moog Synthesizer." Dating from 1975, it shows that in the twenty-odd years since "Ace in the Hole" Updike has retained his interest in the mysterious attraction between man and woman. His focus once again is on how the super-individual act of lovemaking ramifies into social circumstance. The reticence of the fifties, however, has been exchanged for a greater outspokenness and more explicit sexual detail. Orgasm is described as a quasi-religious "shiver," the "ventus Dei" [p. 831]. More importantly, the many hesitations and tergiversations that surround an adulterous love affair are rendered with less narrative confidence than in the earlier piece. Whereas the ambiguous situation of Ace could be summarized by a revelatory pun in the title of the 1953-story, no such shortcuts are possible in 1975—a time when America had lost its footing in Vietnam and President Nixon had been hounded out of office as a result of his own betrayals. "Love Song for a Moog Synthesizer" is at first sight a personal, apolitical tale in which the outside world only intrudes in the shape of cuckolded husbands and disgruntled wives. But the impenetrability of the title and the many interstices in the text point to an era of crisis and self-doubt. America's troubles have sunk into the texture of the text itself, leaving gaps between the tale's woof and warp.

Even at their headiest, however, the stories hardly veer away from an immersion in the quotidian and the recognizably normal. To read Updike is to understand that civilization means the bringing together of extremes. The reconciling middle holds great warmth so that the rendering of time in these stories figures as a falling from innocence but never from grace. Maybe the roughest of these stories is "Transaction"—the title referring to the deal between a prostitute and her client. For once, Updike has trimmed his language to a terseness that fits the topic. But even here—in the midst of much pornographic sighing and friction—the superb psychological analysis humanizes the subject. The tale, for all the exactitude of its unflattering descriptions, exemplifies forgivable frailty rather than commercial exploitation.

Updike's art is mainly metaphorical. Not only does he use metaphor as a means of revelation. It also figures as an instrument of reconciliation. The yoking of two things that are dissimilar in se constructs meaning. But more than that, it delineates the midfield terrain which Updike has made into his own. A typical story is "Pigeon Feathers." It deals with death and religious doubts, but ultimately it relies on shimmering linguistic connections and cross-currents to convey a sense of metaphysical comfort. The story is written from the perspective of a thirteen year old boy, who is disoriented because of an upsetting move from the town to the country, because of family tensions, because he experiences the threat of mortality for the first time and because he comes across a passage in H.G. Wells in which the divinity of Christ is questioned. Most of all, though, the boy is pressured by the fullness of things, the ragtag of objects by which one is surrounded and which clamor for interpretation and ordering. It is only when he studies in detail the intricate patterns and color schemes on the wings of the pigeons he has shot that he realizes in an Emersonian moment that all things are interconnected; that the tiniest little artifact finds correspondences in the larger world; that ultimately such concentricity (where everything has a common ground and thus becomes one big metaphor) is itself another name for the divine.

If metaphor means comfort, Updike is careful not to confuse it with stasis. In story after story Updike demonstrates that metaphorical mastery over reality is a struggle. His prose is baroque, un-sparse, untidy and full of dangling ends, and seemingly unconnected obiter dicta. This superabundance of meanings—the refusal of these superb tales, short as they are, to lead in a straightforward manner to their predestined end or telos—is a way of demonstrating the fertility of the human mind and of dramatizing meaning-making in action.


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