Review of Collected Early Stories by John Updike

This one surprised me. It is a luxurious and splendid collection. Well worth the money. My first Updike. Reading it resulted in me buying 12 of his books.

For some reason, he has acquired a reputation recently, and most of the chatter about his work takes the form of complaints. This might therefore be the best place to start with his oeuvre.

Listing off major themes and my emotional responses to the stories:

Fatherhood’s and husbandhood’s sinuous triumphs and challenges. Nice mix of life stages represented. Though women are always secondary characters. Many main characters resemble one another or are simply cut and paste versions of Updike – or they come off that way.

Death contemplated from the perspective of youth as a discovery of mortality arrived at abruptly. Sort of a universal feeling, portrayed with startling elegance. The lyrical brilliance is everywhere, as are the scintillating similes. Updike is at times reminiscent of Bradbury, but in this volume, he is devoted to Realism, and can be quite boring. He relies on plot very rarely.

Men shoved along the march toward death, assembling in their persons various paraphernalia of dignity. The mysteries of unassuming men – the men who uncomplainingly hoist the world upon their shoulder, only to expire pitifully in the next instant. Updike’s observational facility is construed through poetic juxtapositions.

Some of the stories are short sketches, exquisitely rendered snapshots, even, on occasion, still-lifes.
Updike is well-practiced in the art of literary allusion, as well as imagistic illusions. His command of description is magisterial.

DFW lumped him in with Mailer and Roth as GAMN (Great American Male Narcissi). This proclivity is not evident in this collection of his work. I’m assuming in later books, Updike turns into a sex-crazed dirty old man Narcissist. I’m basing this on how other people have described him. His language strikes a chord. The words are always brave, stating with poignant fierceness, never hiding behind safer, cliched lines. They have the spontaneous quality of free verse.

It would be hard to believe that the eight or nine thousand pages of writing he produced are all so inspired, uniformly pleasant to read, or infused with such radiance.

Pointing out the differences between Brits and Americans, rich and poor, young and old, never gets old with him, at least not yet.

Homely stories, in that the home is the theater of the drama, played out in unflattering starkness.
Visions of Christian life and Atheistic death. Some of the proclivities of Thomas Wolfe, but with a more honed style, no nonsense, a storytelling agenda unclouded by aesthetic bravado. Snow-covered parking lots, and equipment crowded back rooms, offices and book-lined studies. The quietude of Sunday afternoons; such pleasantries as make us thankful for our uneventful lives.

They possess the blandness of daytime television, how a lot of life is wasted between conversations, which are hardly ever thrilling. American ennui, childhood angst, prim and well-educated, privileged, sniveling. The dawning of maturity, nostalgia’s blush upon a quaint memory. The tales don’t require analysis, they yield to light, casual, leisurely reading. They are deceptive, glowing with inner warmth.

The stories are very tame, cool, refulgent, quiet, you can get the sense of relaxing into them.
Slow and methodical, employing straightforward 3rd person unvarying perspective. Sometimes it is only a lucid expression of palpable tension between characters. His stories seem ideally suited for the New Yorker, that is to say, they are inconsequential. The connective tissue of ordinary lives.

Flowing consistency, humdrum existence, everyday life, ie. strong emotions are often absent from the stories or are merely implied. Many of them rely on ephemeral epiphanies. Cool detachment, affected attitudes, hipness. The skill lies in the minute observations. The tales are easy to grasp, addictive, do not suffer from accumulation, are riddled with pop references, but just superb precision, fabulous word choice, blossoming prose cataracts, pervasive humor, implicit loneliness, the evocation of being young, naive, full of one’s self to the brim, the lives of unproductive, idle lounge lizards, in often entrancing descriptive prose.

American life, freedom, a certain type of indulgent selfish boorishness, middle class woes. Caring, and knowing it, is enough, feeling it in your bones, for these characters. Even when his storytelling ceases to be relevant and interesting, his sentences sustain themselves. Allusions to Joyce, Plato, Wodehouse, W. H. Hudson, philosophers, psychologists, etc. Speckled with memorabilia from the 50s and 60s. The utopian era of American ennui. He settles into a more utilitarian style toward the latter half, Sherwood Anderson-esque, accompanied by youthful moments of clarity. Dark moments are few and far between.

Couples and young men, never too poor, never quite happy, nor overwhelmed with despair.
Beautiful flora, elegant rooms, charming furniture, clean shops and safe streets, streetcars, smoke-filled sitting rooms, the mesmeric melody of words, intricately assembling crystalline images.
And the persistence of morality: how over time, a person, when interacting with others, begins to sense something in themselves called a soul. Some stories are meditations, solitary recordings of daily details, and associations, impressions, dusty photographs, sepia-toned reminiscences.

Some stand-outs include a bedtime story about a wizard. “The Persistence of Desire,” contains a brilliant episode at the eye doctor. A lot of husband-wife spats, children making mischief.

Evocations of childhood so convincing and effervescent as to be awe-inspiring. Dinosaurs at a dinner party – the mingling of surrealism into later stories. In some he begins to depart from Realism in favor of satire, but only in brief experiments, all of which prove to be magnificent departures. Makes me wish he would have stuck to satirical fantasy. There is a conversation with a Baluchiterium. (Throughout, his vocabulary is immense.) “The Pro” draws parallels which boil down to “Golf is life, life is lessons.” The interactions of paramecium, more dinosaurs, extinct animals reverberating into the consciousness of bored narrators. After 800 pages of 19th-century meekness we are treated to a 25-page sex scene in “Transaction” – showcasing another side of Updike’s talent.

All 102 stories are richly resplendent with the potential of artful language. “The Chaste Planet” is one of his most fascinating stories, in that it is satirical speculative story about the musical mating rituals of pickeloid Jovians.

Let your troubles melt away, live in the moment. Read rippling character intentions in his ripe dialogue, where cigarettes serve stylistic purposes. He is an expert at picking key quirks out of gestures. These slices of life are full of wonder, tender moments, and a strained self-conscious judgement of the world. Even a story about nothing is fascinating, containing many remarkable turns of phrase. With pithy sentences aplenty, Updike presents a thrilling panorama of descriptive detail through aptly chosen images, showcasing holistic human beings depicted in unflattering lighting, effortlessly smooth, moody, in displays of the pleasures of exercising the imagination. Pining after a vanished ideal, the disillusion that comes with growing up, and much, much more.