John Updike: The Collected Stories (Library of America)
Library of America, 2013
1872 pp., $75.00
My Hitherto Inadequately Superficial World
To become adequately superficial, Updike shows us, requires a three-dimensional body. His bodies taste and touch; they smell. Inured to the air-brushed fantasies of advertising's generic bodies, where individuality is erased in the effort to produce so many Pavlovian prods of desire, we need the vibrant specificity of Updike's sentences. There bodies have hair and moles, they wobble and go gnarly, they pulse with moist warmth and glisten in the afternoon sun. "The Happiest I've Been" includes an unforgettable description of a high school girl at a party playing Ping-Pong. As she "lunged forward toward the net the stiff neckline of her semi-formal dress dropped away and the white arcs of her brassiere could be glimpsed cupping fat, and when she reached high her shaved armpit gleamed like a bit of chicken skin." A gleaming bit of chicken skin. Sentences like this celebrate fully imagined bodies made visible not by lust, but gratitude. This gratitude impels Updike's final story, "The Full Glass," to transform an old man's daily glass of pill-drowning water into a serendipitous occasion for joy. For in that glass, "he's drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned."
That impending disappearance haunts many of these stories, not merely the last. Yet the fretful specter hints at its own new hail of blessings. Updike's sensually precise prose bears within it, however waning its characters' personal belief, a theological conviction about the particularity of created things—that they will be made new. To see the details of the world right there before your calloused eyes is work enough; yet those very details suggest another, larger, more enduring gift. At the end of a story about the many stories he wanted to have written, the writer-narrator confesses to have provided only an outline in place of what should have been a fuller story. Yet it is the details that suggest a story's further developments, not an outline. The story ends with a guess, a hunch, based on a single detail:
Details. Details are the giant's fingers. He seizes the stick and strips the bark and shows, burning beneath, the moist white wood of joy. For I thought that this story, fully told, would become without my willing it a happy story, a story full of joy; had my powers been greater, we would know. As it is, you, like me, must take it on faith.
Reading all the gleaming details gathered in these stories, I tend to believe him.
Scott Dill is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
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