Friday, July 03, 2009

The Updike Variations

(Reflections on MY FATHER’S TEARS and Other Stories, by John Updike.)

Bach revisited the key of G hundreds of times, and he re-used the technique of fugue at least as often, and we admire him all the more for it. So let’s enjoy the nuances and variations and techniques that Updike uses masterfully in MY FATHER’S TEARS, a new collection of stories written mostly in his final decade of life.

We’ve been here before, to the old home in rural Pennsylvania where Updike’s hapless dad, bitter mother, and disappointed maternal grandparents raised the boy John. It’s the base for early novels THE CENTAUR and OF THE FARM, for his late novel VILLAGES, and for dozens of stories, poems, and reminiscences in between. The same house appears several times in this one collection, though Updike substitutes other names for his own: Craig, Daniel, Lee, Jim. I suspect that he chose to draw each character as a new one so that he could dismiss all the details except the one that he wanted to highlight, preserve, and appreciate. For example, “The Guardians” describes that household in order to reach a particular connection between memory, DNA, and life after death.

Updike’s number one motivation in writing these stories in his last years, focusing so much on replaying some of his greatest hits, has to be legacy. He dedicates this collection of last stories to his grandchildren, but each story is dedicated to appreciating a certain moment, a certain person, a certain nuance in memory. Of course, the fact that each memory is now refracted through a few additional decades of life and through increasing sense of disorientation and fading abilities adds a new layer to old events.

In other places, Updike revisits scenes of other novels. His novel COUPLES (1968) was wonderful for immersing the reader in the world and mindset of suburban couples circa 1963; more than once, in this new collection, Updike deftly compresses that novel’s world and even some of its incidents into just a few sentences. Here’s one example:

Cocktail parties were lethal melees, wherein lovers with a murmur cancelled assignations or agreed upon abortions. Craig could see in his mind’s eye, in an upstairs hall, outside a bathroom, a younger woman coming at him . . . . (“Personal Archaeology,” 22)

One story, “Varieties of Religious Experience,” deals with September 11, 2001. Updike was visiting his daughter’s apartment across the river from the twin towers, and he witnessed the day’s events from her patio and her television set. In this story, he imagines other peoples’ perspectives on the event, including one of the terrorists’, taking care to imagine as honestly as possible how the experience refracts through their religious worldviews.

Another, “Outage,” amusingly imagines life in a small community when a storm approaches and the power goes out. The narrator, advanced in age, at loose ends for the day, feels with everyone else a suspension of the usual rules and an opening up of possibilities.

Some of these are more like poems than stories, or even like music. The title story is a chain of remembered incidents related to tears. The final story, “The Full Glass,” which I presume to be Updike’s valedictory statement, connects incidents by a theme, the narrator’s deep sense of gratefulness for life.

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