Trust Me: Short Stories
The American reading public prefers famous writers to suffer. The approved pattern is a meteoric rise like that of a Roman candle, exploding into brilliance at its apogee and then descending and becoming extinguished in the glare of newer fountains of colored fire. The descent ideally will be haunted by demons of a particularly nasty sort and end in a classical purgation of terror and fear, with biographers and critics scrambling round to pick up the holy cinders.
A writer who achieves the initial detonation yet does not fall apart—who remains high in the empyrean, producing another and yet another burst of red and green stars, risks provoking first discomfort and then a lethal mixture of boredom and spite. Over the years something of the sort has begun to happen to John Updike. Critics are irritated to realize that after over three decades of success he has not become an alcoholic or a drug addict, suffered a debilitating illness or a serious bout of writer’s block; nor has he lost his gift for social observation, his intellectual acuity and erudition, his love of the sensual world, or his remarkable, poetic talent for description. Voices have begun to be raised suggesting that Updike does what he does too easily for it to be really good (as if sweat were a kind of golden glaze). It has been said that his work is “all surface” and fails to show the marks of a painful struggle with words and ideas.
Years ago I had a summer volunteer job on a highbrow magazine in New York.There, when someone complained that an article was too closely argued or too novel intellectually, the editor I most admired would remark sardonically: “The fish swims too well.” Updike, like these imaginary fish, began to be criticized because he swam too well. He was blamed for doing exactly what he had been praised for earlier, even though it was admitted, sometimes grudgingly, that nobody did it half so skillfully.
Rationally speaking, such criticism seems perverse and ungrateful. Updike’s stories about middle- and upper-middle-class people in the northeastern United States were and are marvelously subtle, sociologically accurate, beautifully observed and yet more beautifully written, opening out at unexpected moments into both comedy and tragedy. At his best he is, more truly than John Cheever, the Chekhov of American suburbia. In such tales his tone, even at the start, was elegiac; perhaps it is significant that his first novel dealt with the lives of the elderly inhabitants of a poorhouse.
No matter what the subject of Updike’s stories, underlying even the most light-hearted was a sense of the inevitable ravages of time. The memory of some moment of past happiness or unhappiness—usually linked to physical details of weather and scenery—often in the end weighed heavier than the original event. Over and over again that kind of “spot of time” (in the Wordsworthian sense) was re-created for the reader in words just as it had …