- The Meaning of It All
John Updike’s final collection of stories (barring future unpublished tales) is a probing and meditative book. The big questions have haunted Updike’s work from the beginning, of course, as readers of Rabbit, Run will recall; but in his later years mortality and the fragile legacy of the individual become recurring themes and an intense preoccupation. The eighteen stories in My Father’s Tears bring these inquiries to a somber moving conclusion.
“What does it mean,” a character wishes he could ask an old classmate, “this enormity of our having been children and now being old, living next door to death?” Surveying an array of family possessions, another aging protagonist reflects, “These objects had been with him in the abyss of lost time, and survived less altered than he. What did they mean? They had to mean something, fraught and weighty as they were with the mystery of his own transient existence.” In story after story, people take trips, sift through belongings, dream, or lie awake, asking repeatedly in one way or another, “What does it mean?”
The pursuit leads most frequently into origins—in the persons of departed parents and grandparents. In several stories readers will recognize the familiar narrative of Updike’s childhood: the rapturous small-town years, the bitter exile to the country, the tragicomic father, the demanding mercurial mother. Yet Updike muses on the meaning of posterity as well, as in a rueful story (“Blue Light”) of a man’s visits to his grown children and his realization that his grandchildren’s “heads were full of lore and survival strategies that had nothing to do with him.” Given the pain that these characters’ discoveries cause them, and the ubiquity of loss and death in their lives, one could say that My Father’s Tears ponders, Job-like, the meaning of suffering. [End Page lxxiii]
Answers, tentative and unsatisfactory, are weighed. A high-school reunion-goer, visiting a dying friend in “The Walk with Elizanne,” divides his acquaintances into religious believers who “developed philosophies,” and others whose “unresisted atheism left [them] to suffer with the mute, recessive stoicism of animals.” Another doleful character, surrounded by abandoned family artifacts, confronts an act of retrieval in his cluttered barn and wonders, Why bother? Refusing an easy aestheticism, Updike labors on in the shadow of death, never letting his stately cadences and perfect similes pose as a resolution. “My Father’s Tears,” one of the more frankly emotional stories in the collection, delivers the closest thing to a finished homily: “It is easy to love people in memory; the hard thing is to love them when they are there in front of you.”
One story that differs from all the others is the panoramic treatment of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, “Varieties of Religious Experience.” Instead of another personal, almost microscopically local narrative, Updike steps back to deliver a national story that functions as a kind of monument. An eyewitness, a conspirator, an office worker, and a plane passenger take turns with the point of view, combining their fragments into an account of the terrible day. Here, too, perhaps more urgently than ever, Updike continues his inquiry into the meaning of suffering. Like William James, whose title he borrows (minus the confidence of a definite article), he examines human experience in the face of evil and extinction, and records in pluralistic sympathy a manifold range of responses. It is a haunting, deeply respectful story.
My Father’s Tears isn’t wholly confined to loneliness and dread. “Delicate Wives,” “German Lessons,” and “Outage” portray affairs or near-affairs in a variety of amusing contexts, displaying Updike’s unfailing curiosity and inventiveness in the realm of sexual relations. Throughout the collection he flashes as well his old talent for original, strikingly apt comparisons, as when a man learns that a former lover’s cheek “had a dry pebbled texture beneath his lips, but warm, like a dog’s paw pads.” After decades of reading such meticulously chosen phrases, however, it is disconcerting to find, in “Spanish Prelude...