Fresh Eyes on Updike
When I heard about John Updike’s death last week, I thought it might be interesting to share some of his work with my high school students.
I teach English at Watershed, a small, progressive private school in Rockland. My students — mostly sophomores and juniors — are nearly two generations removed from the addled, ennui-laden, postwar suburbanites that populate much of Updike’s work. But they’re very bright and take an open-eyed interest in things.
I wondered what they would make of him. I’ve learned to expect to be surprised. Some of the holy cultural icons of my own youth have struck them as boring, opaque, or pointless. Other, difficult authors — James Joyce, for one — they’ve found interesting and accessible.
By way of rapid introduction to Updike I chose a 1980 story called “Gesturing,” a tale the author himself selected for The Best American Short Stories of the 20th Century,an anthology he co-edited several years ago. It’s a quiet story; the title, “Gesturing,” nicely conveys the way Updike invests his narrative drama, such as it is, in tiny events like a motion of someone’s hands. You have to read closely or you miss everything. And even if you catch it all, down to the last nuance, what you’ve got finally is an unsensational episode in the lives of a middle-aged couple — hardly the fare usually served up for teenagers. My students, on the whole, enjoyed the story, some even expressing a degree of enthusiasm. What seemed to impress them in particular was the lack of drama.
In the story, the protagonists, Richard and Joan (featured in several Updike stories over a couple of decades, as their marriage meanders and totters and finally collapses), are married but living apart. Each has embarked on a new relationship. They decide to formalize their separation; Richard moves to an apartment in the city. Yet like the couple in Brokeback Mountain, they don’t know how to quit each other. This is all pretty big life stuff, and teenagers can relate to much of it directly — relationships that aren’t what you want them to be; people you can’t get out of your life, for better or worse — but here in Updike it plays out rather gently, even fondly. No shouting, no conspicuous misery, no grand opera.
My students seemed to approve of that. In contrast, they scarcely batted an eye at the stuff I remember being struck by when, at about their age, I discovered Updike (and his New Yorker running mate John Cheever) for myself. I read these stories “live,” so to speak, as they popped up in magazines at the public library. And I was struck by how very different this vision of grown-up life was from how I imagined it would be, and from what I saw around me in my hometown in Virginia. But my students today — small-town kids from Maine, though more worldly in many ways than I was then — take Updike’s cultural milieu as a given. The world of his fiction was, at the time, newly formed and still in flux; human relationships had been changed forever by the Sexual Revolution and other cultural shifts, and the consequences were still playing out. But none of that is true anymore. Those things are ancient history.
The world Updike mapped out is the only world my students have known. So they liked Updike. To an extent, and in different ways. Myself, I’ve always been more of a Cheever man.
Novelist Richard Grant lives in Lincolnville and is a Down East Magazine Contributing Editor.