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John Updike: The Collected Stories: A Library of America Boxed Set
John Updike: The Collected Stories: A Library of America Boxed Set
John Updike
Library of America, 2013
1949 pp., 85.00

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Scott Dill

My Hitherto Inadequately Superficial World

Reading John Updike's stories.

"Plato was wrong," John Updike writes toward the end of one of his short stories, "what is is absolute. Ideas pale." Updike's prose is rarely pale in the two-volume edition of his short stories recently published by the Library of America. It chases after physical objects more often than ideas, capturing a resplendent vision of creation's praise. Indeed, despite the timespan these stories cover—from 1953 to 2008—and their immersion in the changing social mores and material commonplaces of the American middle class, they astound most in the persistence of their praise. "So: be joyful" one story directly admonishes, and the rest quickly step in line. This dependable contentment renders these momentous volumes, though bound in tight cloth with a ribbon marker and sheer, crinkly pages, affectionately companionable. When Updike described a golden retriever as "endlessly amiable," "as if life were a steady hail of blessings," I reached to scratch the book behind the ears, so accustomed had I become to its own panting cheerfulness.

Such cheerfulness has irked some readers. James Wood, for one, has disparaged Updike's disingenuous theological staginess. As these stories testify, Wood is right to note the lack of gripping metaphysical debate in Updike's fiction. Belief is too secure, too confident, and—like that retriever—too creaturely to muster up the agonies of a Dostoevsky or the fierce apologetics of an O'Connor. Perhaps Updike's early loves, the benign P. G. Wodehouse and the bumptious G. K. Chesterton, loom too influential. Yet this dearth of skeptical brio is in part due to a conviction, taken from Updike's reading of Karl Barth, that the modern subject does not get to set the terms of Christian belief. For example, the early story "Dentistry and Doubt" promises to tackle the question of belief but sidesteps argument with an image of God's sovereignty over good and evil. Birds in the tree outside the dentist's window enact the drama of a fallen world being reconciled in Christ: "the wrens and the starlings, mixed indistinguishably, engaged in maneuvers that seemed essentially playful."

For one who comes to Updike looking for an existential defense of Christianity, as I did when I first read him, these stories may surprise in their essential playfulness. Though I grew up an hour east of Updike's hometown of Shillington, Pennsylvania, I did not read him until college. A professor, seeking an illustration for some classic of American literature, referred to the moment in "Pigeon Feathers" when the young David Kern lies in bed, his hands held out, palms up, praying for Christ to prove his existence by touching them. The passage invokes an existential crisis of faith. David's hopeful response to the seeming stillness, resonant in that professor's warm baritone, promised tantalizing consolation: "would not Christ's touch be infinitely gentle?"

When I went looking for the story after class, hoping to tether my ship of faith with some hard-won literary insights, I discovered instead David's visual attentiveness. Existential ideas paled beneath the story's illuminated surfaces. When David kills some pigeons roosting in the barn to placate his aging grandmother's fear for the furniture stored beneath them, Updike lavishes the pigeons' feathers with luxurious descriptors and stately pauses: "And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him." The sentence is characteristic of Updike's style, thrilled but languorous in the "controlled rapture" of its details. Unlike many of his post-Hemingway contemporaries, Updike does not shy from piling on the adjectives. In one story a typical Updike stand-in character muses, "It is a chronic question, whether to say simply 'the sea' and trust to people's imaginations, or whether to put in the adjectives. I have had only fair luck with people's imaginations; hence tend to trust adjectives." Overindulging this trust can lead to unintended comedy, however, as when he describes a lifeguard's leg hairs as "umber anthers dusted with pollen."

Yet what shines so pervasively in his short stories is the ability to burnish everyday routines with those carefully chosen adjectives. He may not convince us with weighty theology, but he does give us a grammar for praise. When our sins harden us to God's goodness, Updike not only reminds us of it, but he surprises us with specific gifts, faithfully retrieving them for us to taste and see. In these stories, the famous chronicler of adulterous affairs (twice profiled on the cover of the magazine Time) appears less as a lascivious provocateur than as a patient archeologist, polishing each fragment of human desire for our inspection. True, several stories explore the moral failings of marriages gone awry while simultaneously celebrating infidelity's sexual pleasures. Yet this is a function of what we might call, with all due respect, Updike's shallowness. In one of the adulterous stories a man tells his lover, as he ends their affair, "For me it was wonderful to become a partner in your response to textures. Your shallowness, as my wife calls it [ … ] broke a new dimension into my hitherto inadequately superficial world." When I was recently asked if I could justify having students read Updike's sensual descriptions, I should have responded that such shallow sensuality would do them good. I should have confessed that, prior to reading Updike, mine was a 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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