John Updike - The Afterlife and Other Stories
Death walks quietly among the paragraphs of John Updike's short story collection, The Afterlife. Fathers, mothers, spouses, and sometimes even protagonists, are drawn, one and all, to death. Updike's bleak collection of short stories, published in 1994 and clearly nostalgic for the Reagan years, is also one of his worst.
Updike's bitter specialty is to write not of the life you wanted to live, but the one that came about, as if by accident. Mistakes are invariably made; in Updike's world they are inextricably linked with adultery, the turmoil of marital discontent. Characters have either one wife they dislike, or multiple wives they distrust, with nothing in between. Perhaps it is true that married couples in their sixties must be unhappy – I do not know, being neither married nor in my sixties – but for Updike it is certainly the case. In previous stories, redemption usually came from sex, from very physical unions that were emotionally absent, but beautifully described. In The Afterlife the sex is still there, but the pleasure in describing it is not. And sex, finally, has come to seem more of a metaphor for death than rebirth.
“None of them lasted, none of them apparently excited that romantic wish so common to men of Ferris's generation, the wish to marry – to claim in the sight of church and state this female body, to enter into formalized intimacy as if into a territory to be conquered, tamed, sown, and harvested.” - This from the short story, Wildlife. I expect it is reasonable to assume that most women no longer wished to claimed, conquered, tamed, sown or harvested, but for Updike's generation – at least, according to himself – this is the expected viewpoint, and provides the soil from which the difficulties of being a male are grown. In The Afterlife, the protagonists are uniformly dissatisfied, but their dissatisfaction comes from their wives' unhappiness. Most of these poor women have lived unfulfilled lives and, following the turmoil of the sixties, are jealous of the generation below them, who were able to achieve – anything at all, really. Whatever their validity, these are the views of John Updike, and this is what we have to sit through for 316 pages.
But it is not all bad. One story tenderly unwinds the last months of a cancer-stricken woman's life as Martin Fredericks, an old flame, sparks up a new friendship. Martin, visiting Arlene on a day when she is particularly sick, noticed that “From the low angle, Arlene's front windows were full of sky, sky only, with white spring clouds set close as flagstones and hurrying thus close-packed in a direction that made the room itself seem to be traveling, smoothly pulling its walls and furniture and late-afternoon shadows backward, toward the past, toward the time when they were all in college and young and freshly acquainted, and the elms weren't blighted and cars were enormous and the Army-McCarthy hearings fascinatingly droned over the radio into the spring afternoons when they should have been studying Chaucer.” This is muscular prose, strong and solid and ringing with the truth of hurtful memory. Updike's stories, forgetting their content a moment, are sprinkled liberally with such passages of beauty. Whatever else his flaws, Updike is a generous author.
But then we have something like The Rumor, which is a particularly offensive piece. By now we are used to Updike's casual misogyny, his effortless knack of writing from the perspective that men are inherently better, even when they are shown to be fools or deceitful, but The Rumor breaks new ground. In this story, the rough outline of a happy couple is given, with the wife, Sharon, hearing a rumor that the husband, Frank, has run off with a young boy. He hasn't, of course – Frank is sitting right by her when she receives the phone call – but bizarrely Updike elects to switch the point-of-view from Sharon to Frank, where we learn that, well, perhaps, maybe, in some ways – Frank might just like boys after all. From there, Frank becomes a hideous stereotype, casually lisping, girlishly flirting, comparing his emotions to that of a woman and marveling over the strength and protective capabilities of his male friends. The way Frank is written suggests that Updike considers that all homosexual males are really females with the unfortunate problem of having male genitalia, rather than men – from strong, to weak, to stupid, to smart, to masculine, to effeminate, to... - who happen to like men. Updike's view of homosexuality is narrow and offensive, with the story very much reading like it was written by an crotchety old man who cannot understand these upstart young gays and their rampaging ways.
It has become fashionable, perhaps since the Rabbit series ended, to come down hard on Updike. This is both fair and unfair. It is fair because of collection like these, because of his endless variations on the New Yorker short story or the plotless adultery novel – variations he has been working for half a century, now. There is a tune to Updike's work, a beautiful tune but one that has creaked with age for decades. Overuse is certainly the culprit, and even in his seventies he shows no signs of slowing down. But this criticism is unfair, too, because Updike, when his limitless talent for word-beauty combines in just the right way with his limited strength for plotting and characterisation beyond a sex-obsessed male his own age, is truly capable of some of the best writing in contemporary American literature. These fortuitous collisions are happening less frequently with age, which is perhaps an excuse. Mistakes of the present do not always tarnish the triumphs of the past, and happily The Afterlife should not damage the permanent successes of Updike's career.
It is difficult to recommend the collection as a whole, but even individually these stories are unsatisfactory. The Man Who Became a Soprano and Tristan and Iseult are astonishingly flimsy stories, but there are half a dozen others nearly as bad. Conjunction is a nice little story about an older man's rekindled enthusiasm for the stars above, but it, too, amounts to not very much. And yet, the reverence given to Updike's writing on the back cover is remarkable for its enthusiasm. “[T]he master can do no wrong” writes Rosemary Dinnage from the New York Review of Books. “As a whole the collection is a well-planned novel, rich and tasty in its accumulated wisdom”, Ian McEwan tells us. One can only imagine that these writers were influenced by Updike's back list, which is certainly remarkable, for the collection itself is not. Were this the work of a much younger author, the language would be praised, and the morality espoused rejected. As it is, after nearly forty years (This, remember, back in 1994 – it is even longer now) of publishing fiction and criticism, a collection like The Afterlife is unacceptable. The themes remain the same as they ever were – surely by now we can expect something different than yet another story of adultery? Yet another chauvinistic male? Yet another litany of complaints directed toward the women in the man's life?
Fashionable to criticise, yes. But the criticisms stick for a reason. Social forces have moved on, and literature such as this cannot help but be old fashioned and even offensive. There is no shame in revering an old master, but the work requires as much criticism as the new kid on the block. The Afterlife is a poor collection beautifully told, but the negative far outweighs the positive, leaving us in minus territory.
The Complete Henry Bech
Hugging the Shore
Toward the End of Time
"Rabbit in Retrospect", posted to the South Wing website.
Wikipedia - Author