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 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.


  1. It is an interesting way of looking at POV choice as a function of style. For me, style is a natural function of the emotional context of the piece. My style grows out of the story itself, primarily the characters. I don't put much thought into style as I draft, because it seems to arise naturally. Revision involves maximizing the emotional effect. From this the style is further refined.

    An agent once told me she "didn't fall in love with my style" regarding a novel manuscript. I had not intended to wow her with stylistic pyrotechnics, rather to present sympathetic characters in unusual and painful situations, in a narrative that would engage her heart regarding the characters themselves. I don't concern myself too much with style for its own sake. For me, it has to serve the narrative.

    Anyway, that's my take on it, for what it's worth.

  2. Funnily...and I don't much like that word, but it fits here...I turn my head to the right and there on top of a stack of literary mags still in their plastic wrappings and a well read copy of the Oct. 8 2008 New Yorker lies How Fiction Works by James Wood, borrowed from a friend and by me unopened for the past three weeks. And now she wants it back, just as you've enticed me to dig in. Well. Perhaps I need to own it. Mark it up and dogear it. So we can talk further.

    As far as style, I've just today gone back to my moldering novel and find that the style has somehow gone from being brilliantly lyrical to absolutely trite. And that happened, somehow, without my touching it. Explain that, if you will. So, there is much work to do, and you have peeled the onionskin from my eyes to help me see the long road ahead. Thanks.

  3. So pleasing to hear from a couple of writers I'm crazy about. And I recognize, Ellie what you say about how the manuscript seems to go dim as we, the authors, the variable in the mix (the manuscript just sits there without us!), evolve. Novels are a huge thing. Your "While in Darkness There is Light," nonfiction though it is, is a great model for me, quite moving and very well-written, so I know your novel will turn out right, know it, know it.

    Chris, a strange thing about the art of fiction for me, and I think you, too, is that all elements of the craft seem to, as you say, "grow out of the story itself" -- voice, characters, point of view even. Which is the revelation for me of thinking of point of view as style. There is no fact in any of this, actually, but only working theories and fresh angles of approach to the craft, ways of looking at it to keep us working at it. In fact, art is as amorphous as clouds and starts with character, honesty, courage, and a work ethic in the artist himself, and that, my friend, is you.

    Thanks to you both for jumping in. Come again.