Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Death of John Updike

The death of John Updike caused a flurry of retrospect and comment in the New York Times, and as usual looking at all of it gives a fuller picture than looking at any bit of it. Michiko Kakutani wrote a great appraisal, and Christopher Lehman-Haupt wrote the actual obituary. The slide show link below is somehow richer than all the words surviving writers lavish on Updike, the master of words.


Somewhere in these materials Philip Roth eulogizes that Updike was 20th century America's version of 19th century America's Nathaniel Hawthorn. I don't think that's far off at all. I like the comparison to Henry James, because of the full array Updike brought to the label "Man of Letters." Michiko Kakutani, in her piece, finally said he published too much, and observed that in one of his nonfiction collections of articles he reprinted the captions he'd written for Marilyn Monroe's pictorial in Playboy way back when.

Updike was not only a man of letters but a man of books. The Times coverage included Updike's famous thoughts about the origins of his writing, that before he loved writing sentences, he loved books, the making of books, printing presses, binding, typewriters, pens, paper, filling pages with handwriting or typing or print. For him, finally getting his written words between the covers of a published book, that alone was supremely important and satisfying to him, and thus he kept the mighty pace of three pages of writing a day, an average of one book a year (and way more writing than just one book in a year -- 800 contributions to the New Yorker magazine, counting the fact that he, like our friend Jamaica Kincaid, was an anonymous writer of the New Yorker's Talk of the Town feature).

A friend who is a friend of a relative of Updike's has written me that his death of lung cancer began in September when he was hospitalized for what they thought was pneumonia. It was reported that he checked into a hospice facility near his home in New England on Monday and died Tuesday. I believe I read he has two books coming out this coming year.

Because of his prose, which could be especially when he was young a bit of an acquired taste, I'm seeing persistent critical comment about his style even in his obituaries and the appraisals. He was a big deal and it will take years to get him into perspective. Michiko Kakutani quoted James Wood from long ago saying, in effect, that Updike was way more style than substance. I've said on this page that even I, who worship at his feet and memory, believe Updike's novels were not the best display of his writing. I've said you can find his best writing in his short fiction precisely because his expansive painting of detail is controlled better in the short form -- he really lets the horse go in the long work. I am fond of a couple of his short novels that are rarely mentioned, one being A Month of Sundays.

My ex-wife was a fanatic about Updike from the time I met her in 1964. She introduced me to his work and we followed his career all the way. I believe in my files I have that Time magazine from '68, pictured above. I have a hardback copy of Couples from back then, and many copies of the Rabbit and Bech series. In 1995 I was on a road trip for my job and was driving back to the hotel on the beltway between Eden Prairie and Minneapolis airport. The NPR station announced that Updike was in town, speaking McAlister College in St. Paul. I went to the hotel, changed into jeans, and drove up there for the reading. I got there way early (two hours). I found the venue, an old gym at the college, with a student center (I seem to recall) one floor below it. I got two slices of pizza and a large cup of orange juice, went into the gym where chairs were being set out for the event, placed myself on the center aisle in the first row, and waited. I was 49 years old, and I felt like I was thirteen and about to meet Stan Musial. After the reading, I was second in line behind another fanatic for the book signing. The other fanatic had brought all his old Updike books and, while 300 people lined up to meet the author, had Updike sign them all. Then I stepped up and Updike flashed a smiling generous look at the departing fanatic, a look that very clearly and bemusedly said, "You see it all in this business."

The only book I had with me that day that he might sign was my softback copy of the 1995 Best American Short Stories. I had a story ("Forty Martyrs") in the back list that year, the section of the book "100 Other Distinguished Stories from 1994," and he was in the same list. He was always in the book or in the backlist, year after year. For me it was unique and happy, this development, so I carried it with me everywhere I went. I told him it was the second time he and I had been in a book together (we were both in the 1988 O. Henry volume -- he was frequently in there, but once ["Arcola Girls"] was quite a thrill for me). He said, "Let me see," and I gladly flipped from U's to the D's. He said, "It's great to meet you," and shook my hand. He was super cordial, and in a great mood, as his appearance at McAlister was co-sponsored by The Hungry Mind bookstore on the occasion of the publication of his Rabbit compendium, all four of the Rabbit novels in one book. Combined into that volume, the Rabbit series was a ranking contender for the elusive label The Great American Novel. My encounter with him was about a minute and a half and I'm surely treasuring both the signature and the memory this week.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Richard Bausch's "Design"

Reading this Richard Bausch story again, a favorite of mine for fifteen years (another of the stories my good friend the writer Mary Burns pointed me toward) (and having met Bausch himself since the last time I read it), I’m as pleased as I was the first time. This story appeared in the 1990 Best American Short Stories anthology, and, in fact, Bausch had two stories in that volume. I think he and Alice Munro are the only authors ever to pull that off (someone give me a shout about this if you know). It is so perfect that this story, which then was entitled “A Kind of Simple, Happy Grace,” is one of Bausch’s honored two that make up that achievement. James Wood, in his fine book How Fiction Works, sometimes seems not to have a clue about how fiction actually works, and I think it is because he’s so taken by the craft aspect, which can be talked about at length. Only God knows how the art aspect works, and that part is so mysterious and magical even God hasn’t bothered to write a book about it. Perhaps Wood's intention (I’ll confess here I’m not through the book though I am through the section on characters in fiction) is to explore the question How Fiction Works rather than answer it. I haven’t read as much fiction as Wood has (very few people have – he’s amazing), but I’ve written more of it, and I can tell you the word “works” in his title is tricky. Anybody who ever ran a workshop knows it. It’s avoided. Works for who? What constitutes working? The word, when you think of it, is intentionally vague. “Well, I dunno, it just works, works for me anyway.” That kinda thing.

In the chapters where Wood is pondering character, he turns to the traditional terminology of round characters and flat ones (well, not so traditional – the terms, Wood advises us, come from E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel), and he (Wood) concludes all characters, even the best ones in the best fiction, are somewhat flat, because they can’t be round, because round characters are “real.” Real people are round characters, and fiction can’t go that far in creating characters, so in fiction they’re all a bit flat. And for damn sure, you aren’t going to have any round characters in short fiction because it’s too short to make them even a little bit round! Take a look (How Fiction Works, p 128), I think he really says this.

We have to find our way to stories. We tease them up from the subconscious by following a trail we hope we’re seeing but maybe not and maybe that’s okay, just keep going. The trail is mostly made up of characters who emerge as we write. In the back of the Best American Short Stories anthology in which the story we’re talking about appeared, Bausch reported that one summer it came to pass that he had to drive to work on “a route that led [him] past several churches, ranged within sight of each other in the lovely hills beyond McClean, Virginia.” He said that from that landscape he began to imagine a story about two men from different denominations and that the story would somehow involve them finally coming into “a sort of helpless embrace.” Bausch had no idea what the embrace would be about, who they men were, or how the story would get there. He couldn’t know that because he didn’t know the men yet. I love this, the story and understanding the background of it. What story was whispering to Richard Bausch from this landscape? After many blind alleys, he finally found it. He says it took him seven years to write. “So simple,” he said. “I don’t have the slightest idea why.”

“Design” begins with the Catholic priest Father Russell watching from his window the aging Baptist minister Reverend Tarmigian raking his leaves across the way even though the leaves weren’t finished falling and the old man was in no condition to be doing it. Tarmigian, ailing, pale and just a little dottering, didn’t seem at all well even from a distance, and Father Russell was going through a bad time, worried about everything, including but not limited to the old minister on the opposite side of the deep gully separating their churches. To get from one to the other one had to walk down to the sidewalk by the road, and walk over there, crossing the gully on a sidewalk bridge. Finally, having watched the old man struggle in his work, Russell had to go over there, even though through the years he’d actually avoided contact with the Reverend, idle conversation, waste of time, a whole flock on the right side of the gully to worry about, plate full, can’t take on the scene that’s going on over on the other side. So guilt came to roost. Time to go talk.

I think Tarmigian is one of the most interesting and fine characters I’ve seen in contemporary short fiction. I love this man, bright eyed though dying, still raking the leaves of the massive churchyard, still carrying the mulch up the hill to the cemetery where his wife, dead twenty years, was buried. Pausing there to pray a while, and back down the hill to work. Teasing Father Russell for being so worried about him. What are characters in fiction? James Wood asks rhetorically as he opens his discussion on character development in his book. But it isn’t even a question worth asking, is it? It’s like asking, What are people for? One might as well ask what are atoms in a compound? What are rivers through a field?

While parrying Father Russell’s concern about his well being, Tarmigian lapses into preacher shop-talk, telling him that recently he’s been counseling a couple who have been married 52 years and want a divorce. Tarmigian is on the one hand wryly amused, on the other hand enthralled by the question. He tells Russell, it’s like the woman suddenly slaps herself on the forehead and says, what were we thinking? Fifty two years! The couple can’t agree on what television show to watch. Damn sure they don’t want to sleep in the same room! Those are just a couple of the points of contention, but fifty two years is the main thing – when marriage was invented, nobody ever dreamed two people would have to co-habitate until they were blue in the face. One farts a lot, the other is stone deaf, years ago they went beyond knowing each other well into the region of knowing each other too well, then past that into the zone of once again not knowing each other at all. This is what hard labor and crusades and disease were for, to kill off one of them, most likely the male, mercifully of course, we hope, in some regular civilized death way, but one of them has to go. Read the fine print! Until death do us part!

Father Russell, in the story, makes three trips over to Tarmigian’s place, worried about him. In the second trip, Russell has traipsed over to the very frail Tarmigian’s side of the gully to get him to stop working and go to a doctor. Russell is having a crisis, ostensibly so worried about Tarmigian that he can’t sleep, though we, the reader, can see this is a case of classic projection and Russell is easily as worried about himself. Celibacy! He’s forty three, alone, coming unstuck from reality. He has is own neurotic past to deal with and he can’t deal with it by himself in his creaky old rectory, nobody can!, his flock’s going walkabout all over town, the past haunts even those of us who aren’t neurotic, his faith-tormented present isn't feeling so great either, and his prospects looking ahead are pretty grim if you ask me (and for sure he'd agree, in this mid-life mood of his). Imagine the storms inside this man. And don’t forget, for a priest, this kind of worry about self is masturbation pure and simple – self indulgence – so he’s (convinced himself he's very) worried not about himself but about the guy next door. And also. Russell is a good guy and really IS worried about the guy next door.

Tarmigian meantime is on Russell’s last nerve, seeming to push his worry to the limit. In this second trip over, Russell comes into the church and finds Tarmigian, normally dottering even on terra firma, teetering at the very tip top of a rickety ladder painting the upper regions of the interior of his church. You have to know Richard Bausch to know how he loved writing this, so funny I’m laughing in my chair right now. When Tarmigian coughs, the ladder tips this way and that, and he coughs a lot. One hand’s fully bandaged from a mishap with the sharp lid of a paint can, and that’s the hand Tarmigian holds on with – the paint brush is in the other one. Father Russell fairly seizes up watching all this.

In the third visit of Father Russell over to Tarmigian’s place, when the priest arrives, Tarmigian is nowhere to be found, and Russell places himself in a pew in Tarmigian’s church and waits. Russell is a wreck, on the edge of a breakdown, worried about Tarmigian's health and, of course, himself. He's shaking and upset, holding back tears. He really wants to go to confession to this old minister, his father in a way and his brother in another way and in yet another way his priest, but Baptists aren’t into the sacrament of penance, dang. Finally Russell hears Tarmigian’s voice, out on the front walk with someone, talking loudly as he strolls into the church. He's walking into the church with an old woman, and the old woman is deaf. Tarmigian sees the priest sitting there and welcomes him, introduces him to the woman, who turns out to be guess who, the woman of the 52 year marriage on the rocks, and asks her to settle a moment in a back pew while he talks with the priest who seems to be wigging out. As they talk, the woman shouts she can't hear what they're saying and that she's deaf as a post. Meantime Tarmigian is calming the priest. The woman yells a couple more times, "Hey, what's going on over there. I can't hear a thing. I am stone cold deaf!" Tarmigian is aware she's trying to figure out what they're talking about, these two men of different cloths – what an odd thing. “What’s going on?” she shouts. It’s puzzling. She can see one of them is upset. "Hey!" she shouts, kindly, but just letting them know she's lost as to what's happening. Tarmigian, ever more frail, talks Russell down best he can, telling him to relax, all's well, it gets like this sometimes, don't worry – "I'm fine,” he assures the priest, “don't worry about me," etc. Russell is in tears. They are a few feet away from the deaf woman in the pew who's watching them but can't hear them. Finally Tarmigian says to Father Russell, turned away so his lips can’t be read, something like, so, are you gonna be okay? and then he says, "C'mon, let's shake hands so she sees us -- no, wait," he says, "let's embrace. Let's give her an ecumenical thrill." And they do. Of course, in the story, the hug is way more important than just performance for a deaf onlooker. We’re in Russell’s third person limited point of view and he feels the skeletal remains of his wise and kindly old Baptist neighbor, experiences the embrace as confession, and nearly collapses in the old man's arms. Tarmigian, we assume, experiences it as fellow reverend and father figure to the young priest, as spiritual healer and marriage counselor to the old woman.

Under that different title, you can find the story in the 1990 Best American Short Stories. I recently read it in my copy of The Stories of Richard Bausch. I wish James Wood would read “Design.” What is character in fiction? It’s art. It’s a bunch of words the artist makes live and breathe so it’s a round character we’re better for having met, this old minister Tarmigian. The author found this man among the churches in the landscape he was driving through at the time. He imagined an embrace and found his way to it. Inspired, he knew just the brushstrokes to give us and exactly when to stop. He got two stories into the 1990 Best American. This one took him seven years. That’s how fiction “works.” So simple.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Updike’s “A Constellation of Events”

I’m reading the formidable writer and critic James Wood’s new book How Fiction Works, and the first twenty five percent of it (that’s how far I’ve gotten) is devoted to one of my favorite things, third person limited point of view, which he, from a different school of thinking and a different angle of comment, calls “free indirect style.” Wood is a writer my pal, the poet, essayist and Central Illinoisian Paul Freidinger, has really latched onto, in the New Yorker and really all over the place (including an interview with him conducted by the Kenyon Review that came out on their website about the time mine did – get on kenyonreview.org and find it in their archive). Wood’s astonishing contribution is the breadth of his reading and his continuing command over all of it.

Anyway, James Wood traces free indirect style (I like this expansion of the concept of point of view to the level of “style,” and when you think of it, of course, per the quote I’m about to show you, point of view IS style – something I’ve never thought before) to Flaubert. In the quote below, Wood’s simply helping us understand what he’s pinpointing with the term “free independent style”:
The tension between the author’s style and his or her characters’ styles becomes
acute when three elements coincide: when a notable stylist is at work, like
Bellow or Joyce; when that stylist also has a commitment to following the
perceptions and thoughts of his or her characters (a commitment usually
organized by free indirect style or its off-spring, stream of consciousness);
and when the stylist has a special interest in the rendering of detail.
Stylishness, free indirect style, and detail: I have described
Flaubert, whose work opens up and tries to solve this tension, and who is really
its founder.
Of course, John Updike, contemporary realist master, is a prose stylist, more articulate than most of us by double, and so there’s a problem. When he’s writing in free indirect style, he’s under an awful lot of pressure for his point of view character, mainly, to have the Updikean eye for detail and flare for language. This would be a rare Yankee suburban WASP bored cop, housewife or businessman, indeed. Yet Updike has to sell us on the reality of this character so that we aren’t distracted when the character pleases us with his spectacular observation or precision articulation of detail (he doesn’t want the reader to stop and think, “wait a minute, who’s talking here – the character or the author?”).

Free indirect style allows the “style” of the story to free float hopefully quite unobtrustively between the voice of the author and the voice of the character so that the reader isn’t distracted or bothered but buys in – just as the good reader dutifully performs that grandest of mental gymnastics, the “willing suspension of disbelief.”

John Updike’s little beauty of a story “A Constellation of Events” can be found in this collection (Trust Me) along with “Poker Night,” “Leaf Season,” “Getting Into the Set,” and “Deaths of Distant Friends” – all of these latter stories frequently anthologized but never “A Constellation of Events.” If you have attempted to read Updike’s novels and haven’t been drawn to them, there is quite likely a good reason for that, relevant to this discussion if only we had time. You could come to your own conclusions, and they’d be right, if you’d give Updike’s mid-career stories a try instead of one of the novels, next time you’re so moved. The stories in Trust Me, as usual with him, first appeared in the New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy, and the Atlantic, mostly in the late seventies through the late eighties – that’s “mid-career” for Updike, a time when critics finally admitted he’d grown into his much touted vocabulary and his somewhat muscle-bound talent for metaphor and simile.

“A Constellation of Events” is told from the point of view of the wife of an insurance executive, living in suburban Hartford, CT. She, Betty, is recalling four days in a certain February that made a sort of constellation if you looked how they dotted a calendar. On that first day, some certain day in the winter when the fields were full of new snow, she and her husband (Rob) pulled together a few friends (and their young families – toddlers, adolescents, etc.) to go cross-country skiing. There were three couples plus kids in the entourage. Updike writes: “They all met at the Pattersons’ field in their different-colored cars and soon made a line of dark silhouettes across the white pasture.”

Like the three stars in the belt of Orion, snow skiing has a way of bringing the illusion of order (in the form of a single file line) to a random group of individuals. But among them there were two people who were having an affair, and while the other adults mostly knew it, they pretended that everything was regular and relatively fine. Betty, our third person limited point of view character, took on the role of helping those who were bringing up the rear, including the slightly slumping, vaguely depressed, cuckolded husband (Rafe) as well as Betty and Rob’s own daughter who was (a) too young for skiing and (b) didn’t have the right equipment. Rafe had the right equipment but the skis were set wrong, and he kept popping out of his bindings.

Out in the country, broken off from the rest of the group, Rafe and Betty, struggling with stragglers and equipment, manage to get each other’s attention. They find commonality in a book Rafe’s reading which he loans her. There is an afternoon together to discuss the book, and before long this unlikely duo is finding even more commonality on the naugahide of the couch in Rafe’s law office downtown.

The story is short, probably 3500 words or about 12 pages in the printed collection. It begins with Betty bored but in a good mood about her marriage. All signs are her husband is bored as well, no signs he’s straying as Rafe’s wife is with some other guy. Rob and Betty aren’t at the end of their marriage but they are in the desert-like middle of it. There is no sign that this private lapse of Betty and Rafe’s will cause an end to either of their marriages, but it will cause hurt, infinite confusion, and long-lasting disorder, and Rafe and Betty know it and say it to each other, and they ask each other if they really want that, and they both seem to say “yes.” In the frame of the story, Betty, staring at the calendar later on, looking at the distribution of those four sunny winter days among the squares that formed the month of February when all this happened, thinks of the days as a miracle, no matter how it all turned out.

Why have I been drawn to this story over the years? It is Updike’s style and insight, not the story line. It is his assumptions, cagily attributed to Betty in a free indirect style that allows him to launder his views through a fictional character. It is the inexorable progress of the situation through these few days we see and Betty, too, comes to understand, what she wants to do. It amazes her, in retrospect, that she was capable of this sudden switch in direction. Updike writes at the end:
And though there was much in the aftermath to regret, and a harm that would
never cease, Betty remembered these days – the open fields, the dripping eaves,
the paintings, the law books – as bright, as a single iridescent unit, not
scattered as is a constellation but continuous, a rainbow, a U-turn.
To appreciate this story we must understand that Betty, a good person, precisely the sort you know and are friends with, could actually believably do this U-turn, and maybe even that you know what she might feel like later if she did.

In mid-career, Updike had grown into his language, his metaphors, his stories. The novel is a whole different issue, for all authors. It is a gigantic project, enormously demanding. It takes time from our limited lives, a couple of years to write if you write steadily, maybe three, and after all that it might suck anyway. It’s in the stories, perfectable in their scale and scope, that you can see the masters handle the rough air of our lives through their characters whom they first have to sell us (with the skillful use of free indirect style) can talk and observe like the masters but also can live and love and be like you and me.