Gossip in Gilt

James Wood

  • Licks of Love: Short Stories and a Sequel, ‘Rabbit Remembered’ by John Updike
    Hamish Hamilton, 368 pp, £16.99, March 2001, ISBN 0 241 14129 X

It seems to be easier for John Updike to stifle a yawn than to refrain from writing a book. It is generally thought niggardly or envious to complain about a writer’s abundance (a book a year, roughly, in Updike’s case). Most novelists, it is said, would pant to exhibit such a fault. Or the case is made that it is otiose to complain about the mediocre books when there are so many fine ones; the odd truancy in a record of such inspired application is inevitable, the waterfall has its chilly underside and so on. For every Witches of Eastwick a Rabbit will be pulled from the hat.

But, as the Russian proverb has it, paper will bear any writing, and great productivity is not in itself any kind of blessing. Surely it is not the case that Updike’s good books can exist only if the bad ones accompany them, like mentors to new prisoners. Updike’s good books might be better if they were uninterrupted by bad ones, and took him four silent years rather than two noisy ones. Every published word – if we mean art rather than journalism – should be as fine as it can possibly be. But a professionalised ordinariness has characterised Updike’s work in the last decade, and the stack of diligent second-rate books is beginning to mount: Brazil (1994), which was full of soft writing; In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996), a complacent historical saga; Toward the End of Time (1997), a deeply misogynistic moan; Bech at Bay (1998), a fleshless game; More Matter (1999), a rag-bag of journalism, whose very title seemed to encode a slightly helpless weariness (the matter included trivial pieces on burglar alarms, car horns, dancing, tanning, shopping and so on).

And now comes Licks of Love, an almost weightless collection, written in off-duty prose, of 12 stories, and a novella-sized installment of the Rabbit series, entitled ‘Rabbit Remembered’. The stories, most of which appeared in the New Yorker, are nice, facile fingerings, and they leave little trace of themselves on the reader’s mind (none at all on his soul). They are set in what the publisher calls classic Updike territory, which may or may not be a region you want to revisit. If Updike’s earlier work was consumed with wife-swapping, his late work is consumed by nostalgia for it. In the majority of the stories, a man, now in his sixties and sheltering inside the leathery love of a functional marriage, usually a second one, fondly recalls an old girlfriend, or rather an old lust, since this is how the women are chiefly celebrated – what Henry Bech, in the story ‘His Oeuvre’, remembers as ‘the most marvellous lay of his life’.

Bech’s crudity is not just his own, unfortunately. Of course, the prose trusses things in very pretty ribbons, but the hard, coarse, primitive, misogynistic worldview of these stories is a little astounding, even by Updike’s standards. In ‘Natural Colour’, Frank, stuck in his flavourless marriage (‘he had opted for a wife, and a wife she was, no less or more’), recalls an old flame, Maggie, and an earlier life of real and desired adulteries: ‘Driving back from taking the babysitter home, Frank would pass darkened houses where husbands he knew were lying in bed, head to murmuring head, with wives he coveted.’ (One relishes the kitschy way that adjective ‘murmuring’ strives to raise the sentence’s tone, plump its cushion a bit.)

In the book’s title story, the narrator is served coffee at an embassy reception by a maid who seems to be offering him her breasts ‘on a tray. They were sizable pert breasts, in a peach-coloured chemise that had just outgrown being a T-shirt.’ Hours later, he and the maid are better acquainted, and the narrator is labouring in real Updike territory: oral sex. He tells us that ‘ever since my days of car-seat courtship I’ve liked to press my face into a girlfriend’s nether soul, to taste the waters in which we all must swim out to the light.’ A hundred pages later, Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom’s son, Nelson, will reflect: ‘and it was lovely to have a woman’s head down there, all that hair under your hands, the tips of her ears and back of her neck, you can’t see her face but her shoulders tense up when you come.’ (This is mild, of course, in comparison to Toward the End of Time, in which the protagonist thinks happily of fellatio as a matter of shooting ‘bullets of milk’ into a woman’s mouth.)

The lowest note, in this particular key, comes in ‘How Was It, Really?’ We are introduced to Don Fairbairn and his second wife: ‘In their present circle of friends, the main gossip was of health and death, whereas once the telephone wires had buzzed with word of affairs and divorces.’ Near the story’s end, Don attends a party given by his daughter, and thinks: ‘How strange it was to be once more at a party where the women were still menstruating.’ And later: ‘how magically strange he had found it to be again among fertile women.’

In Updike’s defence it is often maintained that these are the thoughts of his characters, not necessarily of their creator. But obsessions of this kind have recurred and overlapped thickly enough in his work to constitute, now, the equivalent of an artist’s palette: this is how Updike chooses to paint the world. To find it a distasteful and limited world is not, in the first instance at least, a political response. Misogyny can animate, and very powerfully and interestingly, as in Philip Roth’s work. The dismaying thing about this collection is that Updike appears to be ascribing a value to adultery which it no longer has. In these stories, men of the present are recalling the late 1950s, ‘that era just before the Pill’s liberating advent’, as Henry Bech has it, and it would seem that, to Updike and his characters, adultery, even in the new millennium, still has the glow of antique radicalism, that happy throwing off of the bourgeois cables of Eisenhower’s age. In ‘Rabbit Remembered’, Rabbit’s widow, Janice Angstrom (now remarried, to Ronnie Harrison), ponders that time under Eisenhower when everybody was supposed to be so pure. These stories remember, uncover, the actual impurities.

But it is now hard to share Updike’s extreme valuation – any more than it would be if the collection insisted on the radicalism of coffee bars – and the effect is to make Updike seem not only dated, but provincial and minor: the great, central writers do not seem to date in quite this way. You read these stories a little guiltily, suspicious that you are perhaps missing the point; and then you realise that Updike’s point is not your point, that what seems to him an engine of fraught and meaningful encounter, fuelled by a sense of moral gravity – that universe of infidelity and second marriages and afternoon trysts and fellatio at four – is to you barely firing.

Equally, the high radical value that Updike places on wife-swapping – and wife-swapping represents the proper way of looking at it – is denied by his prose, which has thickened into complacency. If one is always blearily swimming towards the raison d’être of these stories, it is largely the prose which is slowing one’s passage. The sentences have an essayistic saunter; the language lifts itself up on pretty hydraulics, and hovers slightly above its subjects, generally a little too accomplished and a little too abstract. In ‘The Women Who Got Away’, for instance, the narrator tells us of his old lover, and how ‘her voice and its quick inspirations of caustic perception painted the world, which seemed to me rimmed with a vague terror, in bright fearless colours.’ But is this perfect sentence, with its delicate deferral so characteristic of Updike (‘painted the world . . . which seemed . . . in bright fearless colours’), the expression of a man who really felt the world to be rimmed with a vague terror? Or does the terror not seem a little too vague, as if the narrator were paraphrasing a novel for a New Yorker review? In the same story, when we are told, ‘yet we did divorce, in painful piecemeal, as did Maureen and Rodney,’ we attend to that fine phrase ‘in painful piecemeal’, but are distanced by it from its piecemeal pain: if it was so painful, why does it disport itself in such dainty clothes?

One of the dangers for the stylist such as Updike – and one of the ways in which prose is unlike poetry – is that prose always forces the question: who is thinking in these particular words, and why? Point of view, a boring topic to most readers, is the densest riddle for the novelist, since words are either directly ascribed to characters (first-person narration) or indirectly ascribed to them (third-person narration). By contrast, the poet’s words are generally assumed to flow from the poet, who wishes, as it were, to draw attention to himself. But the novelist may not, and should not, always want to. There is no doubt that the pleasantly alliterative phrase ‘in painful piecemeal’ is rather fine; but is fineness what is needed here, or does it slide a filter between the reader and the supposedly pained narrator?

Updike is unduly fond of a certain literary register – that of the mandarin-essayist – and certain gauzy words: ‘simmer’, ‘scrimmage’, ‘weave’, ‘gallant’, ‘poignant’, ‘tender’, ‘fragile’, ‘luminous’. Here, for instance, is Frank – the Frank who charmingly ‘coveted’ the wives of his friends, lying in bed – reflecting on how he and his extra-marital lover, Maggie, met:

Out of this weave of promiscuous friendship, this confusedly domestic scrimmage, Maggie had emerged, touching his hip with hers as they stood side by side at a lawn party’s busy, linen-clad bar . . . And when, at one of the suburban balls with which the needs of charity dotted the calendar, his turn came to dance with Maggie, they nestled as close as the sanction of alcohol allowed, and at the end she gave his hand a sharp, stern, quite sober squeeze. It took very clear signals to burn through his fog of shyness and connubial inertia, but she had enough expertise to know that, once ignited, he would blaze.

This is nice, high-class, thoroughly professional prose – gossip in gilt. But its smoothness is surely alienating at just the moment we should be drawn in. How confused does this domestic scrimmage sound when rolled so easily into the right words? The very quality of the prose makes us doubt that Frank really exists, since Frank would be very lucky to think in this way. Instead, we are relentlessly drawn back to Updike himself, to the author’s verbal talents. And once again, an oddly distant, smoothly condescending tone is dominant (‘promiscuous weave’, ‘connubial inertia’) as if Updike were reporting on a scene described by another writer, but in more illustrious language than that of the writer under review. That word, ‘weave’: was Frank’s world of messy infidelity indeed a weave, or is Updike, eager to find the ‘best’ word, making of it a weave, an aesthetic pattern?

If, in recent years, Updike’s language has indeed thickened into complacency, it is because it has begun to seem journalistic – more interested in its own smooth continuation than in registering metaphysical or emotional interruption. Compare, for instance, the passage above, or the one in which the story’s narrator spoke contentedly of ‘the world, which seemed to me rimmed with a vague terror’, with the following, from a review of André Dubus’s stories that appeared in Updike’s Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism (1991): ‘But life goes on, and life’s gallant, battered ongoingness, with its erratic fuelling by sex, religion and liquor, constitutes his sturdy central subject, which is rendered with a luminous delicacy and a certain attenuating virtuosity.’ It is almost, in this passage, as if Updike is patronising life itself: that word ‘gallant’ is especially unfortunate, and hardly succeeds in making life seem especially ‘battered’. Compare it further with a fictional passage set in the early years of the 20th century, from In the Beauty of the Lilies, in which the Reverend Clarence Wilmot, supposedly in the process of losing his faith, looks at his shelves of 19th-century books, and thinks of them as ‘ignorant but not pathetic in the way of the attempts of the century just now departed to cope with God’s inexorable recession: the gallant poems of Tennyson and Longfellow, phrasing doubt in the lingering hymnal music’. Again that word ‘gallant’, and again the strange air of complacency, which neutralises all affect: it is almost impossible to credit that the Rev. Wilmot is undergoing a massive crisis of faith while this smooth, upholstered language is apparently being ascribed to him.

Likewise with Updike’s fondness, in his new book, for the words ‘poignant’, ‘poignantly’, ‘tender’ and ‘touching’, almost exclusively applied to women. In ‘Natural Colour’, Maggie is described as having lots of hair and a large head, with a ‘neck poignantly thin, at its cocky tilt’. Janice Harrison thinks of Annabelle, in ‘Rabbit Remembered’, that ‘there is a poignance in this strong female body.’ The ‘best lay’ of Henry Bech’s life is recalled by him as also having a large head and big hair, ‘a head poignantly balanced on her petite breastless frame’. The narrator of ‘New York Girl’ remembers that his lover’s hips were wider and fuller than ‘the bony top half of her body, and this added to her touching aura of being out of kilter’. And Don Fairbairn, the gentleman so sweetly excited by all those menstruating women, touchingly – or is it tenderly? – regards his eldest (presumably menstruating) daughter, and the ‘tender blue shadows beneath her eyes’.

These sentences are of a piece with a passing line in Roger’s Version (1986), in which Updike notes, in passing, a ‘poignantly breastless’ young woman. Such expensive adjectives and adverbs (to which can be added ‘gallant’, ‘sturdy’ and so on) always seem to have been purchased too cheaply. They seem simultaneously too large and too small: they are only fancily gestural. There is nothing especially poignant about a breastless woman, nor about a large head on a small female body. The word is too minor to capture actual poignancy; while too large, too lyrical, to be applied to the ordinary experience of seeing a flat-chested or large-headed woman. While appearing to sympathise with such women, to find communion, it can hardly help seeming to condescend a little; anyone who did find these women poignant would probably not use the word. ‘Poignant’ is both too poignant a word and not poignant enough.

This might be a definition of kitsch, an atmosphere in which Updike’s language has too often found itself of late. Kitsch is, among other things, an unknowing complicity in self-limitation. Updike does not mean to condescend, of course; but in striving to find good ‘literary’ words, like ‘tender’ and ‘poignant’, he both inflates and deflates language, almost as if he were condescending to himself. Updike’s prose has begun to exhibit a curious, paradoxical habit of seeming at once insufficient (life is always more than ‘gallant’, terror more than ‘vague’, infidelity more than a ‘weave’) and presumptuous (don’t tell us, the reader feels, what is touching and tender and poignant until you have proved your case). Insufficient because true meaning eludes its grip; presumptuous because it assumes that it can handle truth so glibly, with such casual gloves.

For some time now Updike’s language has seemed to encode an almost theological optimism about its capacity to refer. Updike is notably unmodern in his impermeability to silence and the interruptions of the abyss. For all his fabled Protestantism, both American Puritan and Lutheran-Barthian, with its cold glitter, its insistence on the aching gap between God and His creatures, Updike seems less like Hawthorne than Balzac, in his unstopping and limitless energy, and his cheerfully professional belief that stories can be continued; the very form of the Rabbit books – here extended a further instance – suggests continuance. Updike does not appear to believe that words ever fail us – ‘life’s gallant, battered ongoingness’, indeed – and part of the difficulty he has run into, late in his career, is that he shows no willingness, verbally, to acknowledge silence, failure, interruption, loss of faith, despair and so on. Supremely, better than almost any other contemporary writer, he can always describe these feelings and states; but they are not inscribed in the language itself. Updike’s language, for all that it gestures towards the usual range of human disappointment and collapse, testifies instead to its own uncanny success: to a belief that the world can always be brought out of its cloudiness and made clear in a fair season.

Updike is really a kind of pagan writer, for in fact, traditionally, God does not always enable language and its easy flow, but beggars it, forcing the writer into approximations and helpless ineffabilities: the Psalmist, after all (in Psalm 90), is ‘consumed away in thy sight’. One would wish Updike’s prose a little more ‘consumed away’, and a little less consuming. He is a writer for whom different subjects have the same sensuous textures, whether a vagina, an air-conditioner or a petal. All is ‘more matter’ for his prose, all can be given the same beautiful finish, the same equalising enamel.

Perhaps for this reason, his most successful novels have been, in effect, about pagans, and written as if through the eyes of those pagans: I mean the Rabbit novels. In these books, Updike’s greedy notation of the world clings very closely, like a cap, to the heads of the Angstrom family, and in particular to Rabbit himself, the Toyota car-salesman in Brewer, Pennsylvania. Updike has tried very hard, and rather nobly, to see things in these books as Rabbit might see them – coarsely, unreflectingly, irreligiously, unaesthetically. The effect of the slightly dunning continuous present can be relentless and limited; there are times when one dearly wishes Rabbit were an intellectual. But the effort to see through Rabbit’s eyes sheers some of the sensibility and high lyric kitsch off Updike’s prose, toughens and metals it a bit, and renders it newly dynamic.

‘Rabbit Remembered’, unsurprisingly, is by far the most interesting and substantial piece of writing in the new book – indeed, the only thing worth a reader’s (rather than a critic’s) examination. It is ten years since Rabbit has died of a heart attack, and Janice has remarried. Nelson, her son, is now 42, separated from his wife, and living with his mother and stepfather in Brewer. Their stolid, slightly sullen domesticity is exploded one day when Annabelle rings the doorbell, and announces that she is the illegitimate daughter of Rabbit Angstrom and one of his adulterous lovers.

The Rabbit books all pose the challenge of how to log America’s vulgarity and materialism without the books themselves becoming these things. I am not sure that they avoid the hazard of this proximity, and it is at times difficult to sustain any interest in ‘Rabbit Remembered’. The narrative slows and banalises itself, in order to keep step with the daily trivialities of its characters; and often the prose relaxes into a kind of grey chunter. Here Janice, watching Ronnie root around in the fridge, thinks about feeding Ronnie, and about Ronnie’s previous wife, Thelma:

‘What’s for dinner? Did you remember to defrost anything?’ Ronnie has learned what questions to ask. Thelma was a clever cook and a zealous housekeeper, along with all else she did, teaching school and raising three boys. Janice at first had tried to give Ronnie real meals, but something always dried out or was underdone, and her attempts at seasoning, though she thought she followed the recipe exactly, miscarried into a funny suspicious taste. With the yuppifying of greater Brewer, all these vague industries coming in that didn’t make anything you could handle or drive or put in a box really – ‘the information industry,’ they said – there were more and more pleasant and not very expensive restaurants to eat out at; you didn’t have to go downtown any more as Daddy and Mother used to for a little celebration, usually in one of the two big hotels downtown, the Conrad Weiser or the Thad Stevens. And otherwise the supermarkets sold wonderful frozen meals and sealed salads.

This is finely faithful, if not quite to the way Janice might think (she would not present herself in this unnatural way to herself; no one would), then to the way Janice might summarise her story so far, to an intimate interlocutor. A reality is found and secured in this novella, even at the cost of a general lapse into trivia: one can take only so much of that mental chat about ready meals.

If, like the stories, the Rabbit novella also has a curiously dated air, as if it were a very good imitation, by a highbrow writer, of middlebrow American domestic realism from the early 1980s, that may be because Updike, who began the Rabbit series in 1960, partly invented the genre itself. In this, as in other respects, the Rabbit piece has a power and authenticity absent from the stories in this collection. The novella is an affecting homage to the echoing literary power of an enduring character, Rabbit Angstrom; the stories, however, are only echoes, nostalgic for an age in which they might once have had power, if they ever did.