A House in Order
Any God Will Do
John Updike is obviously too gifted for his work to be treated with anything other than respect; and it was in this spirit that I approached The Music School, a new collection of short stories. Yet, by the time I had finished it, my respect, though only slightly diminished, was mingled with discomfort and even trepidation. Mr. Updike is still making language perform every kind of minor miracle; nevertheless, his glittering talent seems to me on the verge of disequilibrium, being pulled on by several sharply opposed forces. A scrutiny of the jacket and preliminary materials of his book gives a good idea of what these forces are. We see that in 1964 a selection of his earlier stories appeared under the title of Olinger Stories, and this reminds us that one of Mr. Updike’s strengths is to be, like Faulkner, an American regionalist: at the age of thirty-two it was a major achievement to have made Olinger, Pa., a permanent and memorable addition to the literary map. On the back of the jacket we also learn that Pigeon Feathers was praised by Claude Mauriac, a leading theoretician of the nouveau roman (“Coquetteries de style, mais heureuses…”), while on the inside flap we are told that one of the stories in the new book was awarded the O. Henry Prize for 1966. There is no absolute incompatability here, perhaps, but it is reasonable to sense that rather different qualities would appeal to M. Mauriac and the prize judges. At least, I feel that the patience which made Mr. Updike so adept at unraveling the secret patterns of life in Olinger (and in particular which enabled him to write so well about childhood) is in danger of being overthrown by his facility for achieving the sharp, instant effect.
ALL THE STORIES in The Music School appeared originally in The New Yorker, which need not be surprising or disturbing, since Mr. Updike has had a long association with that magazine. And yet I feel we need to know more about the long-term effects of writing for it: the dangers of formula-fiction are often remarked, of course, and they are fairly apparent in Mr. Updike’s book. But there may be more obscure forms of feed-back: a writer’s need to minister to his readers’ supposed preoccupations, and at the same time to be frequently and protestingly signaling that he is cleverer and knows more than they do. We should not expect Mr. Updike to write forever about Olinger, and in this book he shows an understandable need for a change of scene. And yet, in spite of the various settings, there is a sameness about much of the action. The brittleness and self-delusions inherent in suburban marriage are, no doubt, as absorbing for American readers as the anfractuosities of the English class structure are for many British ones; yet both seem somewhat parochial. A more serious defect is the narcissistic quality of Mr. Updike’s language; it has always tended to operate at some…
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