The Early Stories: 1953-1975 book by John Updike reviewed by Charlotte Dewar

In his 1986 introduction to a set of Paris Review interviews, John Updike quoted Philip Roth: “What I want is to possess my readers while they are reading my book – if I can, to possess them in ways that other writers don’t.” It’s hard to imagine how some of the painstakingly stately landscapes and elliptical monologues in Updike’s new compendium, Early Stories, read when first published as single pieces. But encountered as a whole, they make an ecstatic flood of details and images: an elegant, transcendent excess that achieves that absorbing power to which both Roth and Updike aspired.

This new volume contains 103 stories, most of which were first published in the New Yorker. That figure excludes just four of the body Updike composed in the interval between 1953 – when he started his writing career as a newly wed 21 year-old Harvard senior – and 1975, by which time he was a newly divorced 43 year-old, living alone for the first time. (In those years the prolific Updike also published seven novels and five anthologies of poetry, as well as essays, memoirs and other miscellany.) At least five (of the eight) thematic sections into which the stories are carved – “Olinger Stories,” “Out in the World,” “Married Life,” “Family Life,” and “Single Life” – directly trace an arc along which relentless reiterations assume the authoritative tone of autobiography. Elsewhere, Updike has been clear about the relationship between his life and his short stories: “More closely than my novels, more circumstantially than my poems, these efforts of a few thousand words each hold my life’s incidents, predicaments, crises, joys.”

Updike’s decision to reorder the collection strictly by theme is drastic but clever: it transforms the consistency of his obsessions into a strength rather than a liability. By directly juxtaposing different images of the same crises, Updike exposes the subtle intricacy of his characters’ struggles and gives the stories weight rather than making them seem repetitious. Unfortunately, the attention to chronology does not extend to the book’s production: it disdains dates almost completely. They appear only in an index in the back that lists the stories alphabetically along with their dates of composition and the collections in which they first appeared. Complex cross-referencing is necessary to follow Updike’s development as a writer closely or reconstruct previous collections. (It’s worth noting that another recent Updike collection, More Matter, contains no dates at all for most of its 856 pages of topical essays and assorted criticism. Perhaps the list in Early Stories was a compromise.)

“Aesthetic pleasure, like religious ecstasy, is a matter of inwardness, elevation, and escape,” Updike wrote in his essay “Religion and Literature.” If the act of reading is the act of communing with a particular god, Updike’s deity is certainly the Protestant one. Updike draws the reader into a world of middle-class heroes, surrounded by an abundance of opportunity, but mired in unmade decisions and the sensation of leading foreordained lives. The upbeat “Olinger Stories” already forecast a future of compliance as they follow the spiritual and sexual awakening of a small-town Pennsylvanian boy (a younger Updike, viewed alternately with self-aware nostalgia and self-consciousness). In a “Sense of Shelter,” the precocious student, held at arms-length by his town and disappointed in his first, hopeless romantic venture, resigns himself to his prospects: “Between now and the happy future predicted for him he had nothing, almost literally nothing to do.” A few years down the line, a young husband and fresh college-graduate has “reached a juncture in his life where there was nothing to do but play solitaire. It was the perfect, final retreat… Only solitaire eased the mind, only solitaire created that blankness into which a saving decision might flow.” The word “parallel” comes up repeatedly: something less than utter aloneness, it carries the bracing comfort that others are following the same path, but always nagging is the bitter certainty that the lines will never cross. Updike’s characters are a band of lonely supplicants: “My friends are like me,” one admits. “We are all pilgrims, faltering toward divorce.”

As fellow travelers and objects of desire, women are a source of endless fascination in the Early Stories. It’s not that Updike objectifies women as such, but he is a literary artist and women are his favorite subjects. He captures them as a brilliantly opportunistic photographer might: the “discreet death wish” of one who smokes her cigarettes down to the filter, and the stare of another, “a look, both blunt and elusive: somewhat cold, certainly hard, yet curiously wide, and even open.” An extended monologue addressed by a seven-years’ married man to his wife, “Wife-wooing” is a complex story told entirely by portraits. Gathered around a living room fire, “You allow your skirt, the same black skirt in which this morning you with woman’s soft bravery mounted a bicycle and sallied forth to play hymns in difficult keys on the Sunday school’s old piano – you allow this black skirt to slide off your raised knees down your thighs, slide up your thighs in your body’s absolute geography, so the parallel whiteness of their undersides is exposed to the fire’s warmth and to my sight.” The narrator finds relief only in the ugly civilities of the morning: “Monday’s wan breakfast light bleaches you blotchily, drains the goodness from your thickness …” But that night comes the discreet fulfillment of the previous day’s promise: “I am taken by surprise at a turning when at the meaningful hour of ten you come with a kiss of toothpaste to me.” Even in metaphor, the women are exquisitely physical; in “The Man Who Loved Extinct Mammals,” the titular philanderer concludes that “The trouble with his mistress … was that she had too successfully specialized, was too purely a mistress, perfect but fragile, like a horse’s leg, which is really half-foot, extended and whittled and tipped with one amazing toenail.”

Infidelity is the worst (and most common) of the dilemmas in which Updike’s protagonists are trapped. Updike boils it down into a wry self-parody in one of the pseudo-arithmetic questions set to the reader in “Problems”: “1. During the night, A, though sleeping with B, dreams of C… He awakes troubled. The sleep of B beside him is not disturbed; she rests in the certainty that A loves her. Indeed, he has left C for her, to prove it. problem: Which has he more profoundly betrayed, B or C?” In “Solitaire,” a floundering, unfaithful husband is so desperate that he draws his wife and mistress together, hoping the two “would merge – would turn out to be, in fact, one woman, with no choice needed, or the decision settled between them.” But his desperate stratagem goes wrong: “Though he had drawn them so close that one settling into his embrace could smell the other’s perfume, each woman became more furiously herself.”

Perhaps, unlike the dithering card player, Updike would like each of the women who appear in his stories to be “furiously herself,” but even he would probably acknowledge they are not. The merging that his protagonist hoped in vain would happen to his two women does, in the end, to Updike’s hundreds: the shadowy figure of the dark, sharp mistress and the spidery outlines of mystery women fall away, leaving the essential, the wife, the one woman: an intelligent bundle of warm, white, rounded long limbs and shining hair. That essential singularity is explicit in a series of stories about Richard and Joan Maple, published together in 1979 under the title Too Far to Go. The stories trace the Maples’ marriage from near its start (a life in a tiny West Village apartment in New York) to near its end (a trial separation gathers force as Richard moves away). The accumulation of history and children make these stories among the most poignant in the volume; the typical onrush of detail and gesture find strong focus in the characters of Richard and Joan. Through the Maples, Updike makes his deepest, most resonant study of a doomed marriage, and Joan Maple is the most fully realized portrait here of the woman who lingers at the back of Updike’s mind. In the later stories, the Maples’ four children emerge as powerful characters, and their presence makes the last two stories – “Separating,” in which Richard and Joan must break the news of their separation, and “Gesturing,” in which Richard at last withdraws from his wife’s life and his former home – especially rich.

There’s a funny thing about John Updike’s fame as a writer: he first edged toward his place in the American canon with a seemingly constant stream of short stories published over the course of decades in the New Yorker that rapidly revolved and retained a distinctive style and substance. His most famous novels, the Rabbit tetralogy, fit right into that stream. Yet his popular reputation as a writer of short stories rests most on one, “A & P,” that stands out in this collection. Neither the jaunty rhythms nor the smart-ass attitude of the narrator (“Stokesie’s married, with two babies chalked up on his fuselage already”), both so evocative of J. D. Salinger, have counterparts elsewhere in Updike. Subtler but just as distinctive is the jarring fact that its narrator, apparently a teenager when it was written in 1960, is the only one of the stand-ins for Updike in any of his stories to belong to the “wrong” generation. Aside from his wanderings in the field of “Far Out” fiction, as the section of experimental pieces is called (which includes a piece featuring pond scum as protagonists and other still less fruitful adventures), Updike returns in story after story to the experience of his cohort, an “almost absent” generation he describes in “I Will Not Let Thee Go, Except Thou Bless Me” as a “strange, in-between generation – too young to be warriors, too old to be rebels”: a generation born early enough to marry young but late enough to divorce young.

According to Updike, his short stories are pervaded by the taste of his first patrons, his editors at the New Yorker: “There was, if not a formula to adhere to, a certain inward sensation … which told me inside when I had conceived a story `they’ would `take.’” As Updike explained the task set by William Shawn and William Maxwell, “A sense of effort or of forcing developments was to be avoided. A small authentic thing outweighed the big inflated thing.” Yet even as he internalized and exemplified it, Updike proved his greatness by surpassing his mandate: at his best, somehow he makes the small thing big and as real as ever. It’s true that there are bits and pieces in the Early Stories that are a bit too neat, and some trial-and-error that maybe should never have been tried, but I’m reluctant even to mention which I would put on either list because I’m sure that with good reason no one would agree with me entirely. In any case, one of the most absorbing aspects of Early Stories is its unashamed comprehensiveness. The ragged edges, whichever they may be, are just texture in a collection that ascends to the sublime about every other story or so.