restricted access John Updike: The Afterlife and Other Stories
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When speculation is offered on which white male American fiction writer might next be awarded the Nobel Prize, John Updike’s name usually comes up. The Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges, who died in 1986, never received one because of his politics (or, more exactly, his country’s politics). One wonders, what would be denying Updike the honor? (Norman Mailer, perhaps, who also impatiently waits in the wings?) Updike is certainly international enough, with his novels set in foreign countries – The Coup, and the recent Brazil. But Updike’s long, brilliant career has lacked one element which usually prevails in Nobel considerations: the humanity novel, the uplifting tract that is embraced wholeheartedly by some section of the reading and critical public. Saul Bellow was able to slide just past that line, aided by an ethnicity that is wired more directly into the tragic world. And Updike always has been a little sour, a good wine just a bit off. Uplifthas always been more of an aesthetic question, with Updike, than a social one. His just released eleventh collection of short fiction, The Afterlife, focuses clearly some of his virtues and his vices. Updike has been a rather reluctant experimenter in style and form, and when John Updike: The Afterlife and Other Stories 236 237 he has let himself become frisky, it is in the novel, not the short story, where he will gamble and reach. SincethelatefiftieswhenUpdikebeganpublishing,throughmost of the eighties, he seemed to have a divided publishing life (at least in his fiction). He seemed to be split in two: two voices – the Rabbit voice (of the quartet of novels: Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich; RabbitatRest)andtheonethatconformedtohisautobiographicalself, and two publishing venues – the New Yorker for his genteel fiction and Playboyforhisnongenteel(althoughnow,giventhechangesattheNew Yorker, that division is no longer necessary). The only other voices he wouldusewouldbecolorfulpersonas(Bech,forone),andthesewould be confined, most often, to the novels (with the exception of Bech’s). One thing that stands out about The Afterlife is how Updike’s two principalvoicesarebecomingone.Asif,nowthatRabbitissupposedly laidtorest(unlessUpdikeproducesRabbitRots),hisvoice – themiddle classcurmudgeon,theclosestthingUpdikehastoamanofthepeople, the white male not part of any cultural elite – has blended with the upper-middle class voice of most of the short stories (and many of the non-Rabbitnovels),thevoiceofaHarvard-educated,successfulwriter. For The Afterlife’s stories are bathed not with the pale, simple nos­ talgiaforthefarawayorlongago,butwithadecidedlycoldlightthrown over those things “lodged deep in the transparent mass of lost time.” The twenty-two stories collected here are often meditations on adultery, and subsequent second and third marriages, and on a world utterly transformed: (from “The Journey to the Dead”) “. . . those Fifties and early Sixties when you moved toward your life with an unstressed freedom no one could understand, now, who had not been young then. There was less outside to that world – less money, fewer carsandpeopleandbuildings – andmoreinside,morebloodandhope- 238 fulness.” Most of the stories have a male protagonist of around sixty (roughly Updike’s age), and one theme keeps constantly surfacing: (from “Playing with Dynamite”) “Things used to be more substantial. In those middle years, as Fanshawe gropingly recalled them, you are hammering out your destiny on bodies still molten and glowing.” It is Updike’s realization that, as he ages, he becomes less substantial, less hereintheworld,andthisfactappallshim.Sotheafterlifethesestories speak to is not necessarily the one that follows death, but what follows, notone’sspentyouth,butone’sspentmiddleage:(from“Grandparenting ”) “He was a newly hatched grandfather, and the universe wanted to crush him, to make room for newcomers.” Updike is the true person of letters: writing and publishing the higher forms of magazine literary criticism, novels, short stories, poetry , plays and memoir. When the semi-informed bemoan the absence of literary journalists such as Edmund Wilson, one can point, among others, to Updike. One effect all his essay writing has had on his short storiesistheirdiminishedamountofsceneandpresentation.Rumination now dominates. His great descriptive talent, Updike being one of the best (again along with Mailer) metaphor makers in contemporary American literature, is somewhat muted in these tales, but it is still there: (from “The Journey to the Dead”) “‘I suppose. But a woman is like a spider, Marty. She has her web. She likes to feel the different threads vibrate.’” A woman dying of cancer is speaking, for there is a good deal of the usual sort of hovering afterlife in the collection. And (from “His Mother Inside Him”): “The store had been the classier thoughsmallerofthetwomajordowntownemporiums,bothrendered defunctbytheriseofsuburbanmalls;insidetherevolvingdoors,gusts of candy-sweet perfume had swamped his youthful senses. . . .” That verb, “swamped...


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