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Self-delusion and the pathos of memory

The Early Stories, 1953-1975; John Updike; Alfred A. Knopf: 842 pp., $35

November 16, 2003|Lee Siegel | Lee Siegel is a regular contributor to Book Review.

Until the rise of the suburbs after the Second World War, you could pretty much divide American authors of fiction into country writers and city writers. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner are in the former category; Henry James, Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald belong in the latter. Suburbia changed that. A writer who set his or her stories in the suburbs could portray an environment with greater comprehensiveness, linger longer over details, tease more out of a situation at a slower pace, while at the same time investing his or her fictions with the city's dense psychic energy. Updike's best stories, lush with detail, taut with edge, are like that; so, too, are John Cheever's.

But the suburbs' aesthetic pitfall is that they don't offer primary experiences in the way the country or the city does. The backyard is not the natural arena a meadow is; it is the reminder of a meadow. The tree-lined street, no matter how much traffic passes over it, is not the crowded urban intersection but a reminder of a crowded urban intersection.

From the artistic point of view -- not as an actual place -- a suburb is more like the memory of primary experiences than an original experience itself; in that sense, it resembles a fairy tale, or a dream. That is why so many writers and filmmakers -- Richard Yates, Rick Moody, Todd Haynes -- disdain the suburbs. They believe that such an environment hides the sharp, biting primary experiences of life, numbs the intellect with a false sense of happiness achieved, robs the imagination of its time-honored subjects of "discontent, conflict, waste, sorrow, fear."

That quotation is from John Updike's foreword to this collection of his early stories -- not just a book but the creation, in its totality, of an original experience of life. Writing about the postwar generation -- his generation, "awash in a disproportionate share of the world's resources" -- Updike adds that "we continued prey to what Freud called 'normal human unhappiness.' But when has happiness ever been the subject of fiction? ... Death and its adjutants tax each transaction. What is possessed is devalued by what is coveted."

Though Updike's more shallow detractors accuse him of partaking in the suburban mirage of happiness achieved, Updike turns that quality into a universal human delusion. He doesn't scorn the suburbs for their illusions; he cherishes the suburbs and their illusions for exposing a deep strain of human pathos.

How revelatory it is, then, to have all these stories inhabiting the same volume, to find Updike encountering his theme and his artistic destiny right off the bat. "Ace in the Hole" is not the first story in this collection, but according to Updike's foreword it was the first story he felt confident enough about to send to the New Yorker. (It was rejected, then accepted after he had begun publishing there.) First stories, like the first adventure in a picaresque novel, are usually about an expulsion from some Eden of respectability: Cheever's first published story was an account of his real-life ejection from a New England prep school; "Ace in the Hole" is about an expulsion too -- from a well-paying job into unemployment.

Like Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, the hero of this story is a former high school basketball star who has fallen from adolescent glory into an indifferent adult world. Fired from his job by a Mr. Goldman, Ace begins the story cocky and self-deluded, passes through a jolt of fearful self-knowledge as he confronts his angry wife, who is also a new mother, and ends cocky and self-deluded, dancing with his wife to music from the radio: "[H]e seemed to be great again, and all the other kids were around them, in a ring, clapping time." You are left simultaneously feeling that Ace is blind to his own reality and that this blindness is an essential, perhaps even complicatedly healthy, part of his reality.

Years later -- inexplicably, the stories lack dates -- Clem, in the masterpiece "I Am Dying, Egypt, Dying," begins the story thinking that "this lightness, the brittle unmarred something he carried was his treasure." Toward the end of this tale of a cruise on the Nile, he realizes, however, that "[h]is defect was that, though accustomed to reflect love, he could not originate light within himself." And yet, at the very end, thinking back on what had become an emotionally jarring trip, "he saw that he had been happy." What was a pathos at Ace's expense now is embedded in Clem's ironic self-knowledge: The reader shares with Clem himself the feeling that Clem's self-delusion is part of what sustains him. Thus does Updike take the suburban chimera of happiness and transform it into a problem inscribed in human nature.

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