Gifted: Updike’s Style
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I once reported with excitement to my children’s piano teacher that a girl I heard in a school recital, someone else’s student, had a big sound. ‘Well,’ she said, dryly, ‘sound is the medium.’ She meant, I think, that admiring the bigness of a musical sound is like admiring a book for being beautifully written. It’s a sub-critical observation. And it’s one that’s made often about Updike.

You don’t want to get distracted from the music because you’re thinking about the musician’s gifts. Still, the gifts are part of the experience, and that must work in both directions. The audience knows that the artist has a gift to give, and so does the artist. This is why ‘If you just practice more’ is advice properly rejected by the non-gifted piano student. Though they may, and often do, neglect it, people generally know when they have it and when they don’t. Updike knew that he had it—he did not possess every weapon in the shop, but there were very few representational targets he could not find a way, with surprise and elegance, to hit — and virtuosity is always on display in his work, even in the criticism. He feathered all his arrows.

The goal of the short story, said Poe, is to produce ‘an effect’. As John Bayley explained in The Short Story (1988), this is very much a ghost-in-the-machine proposition: the story is (nothing but) a verbal artifact, but the effect is, always, ‘beyond words’. The something that happens in a story, the shudder, the affective turn, the recognition, is in excess of the materials used to produce it. Joyce famously called the story effect an epiphany, which he defined, less famously, as ‘a revelation of the whatness of a thing’ — an apprehension of the way the world unmediatedly is. Language being one of the principle means by which things are mediated, the trick in the story is to produce a palpable sensation (not an idea merely) without representing it. The form is therefore naturally haunted by the supernatural — most of the classic nineteenth-century story writers, from Poe through James, wrote ghost stories — since a ghost is a phenomenal event without a material basis. It is also haunted by death, since the whatness of a thing is what a thing would be like if you were dead, if the thing were just there without the extra gloss supplied by your cognitive apparatus, how a toaster would seem if we had no word for it. (In Joyce, often the ‘thing’ turns out to be the narrator seeing himself from the outside—as it is in ‘Araby’ and ‘The Dead.’)

The story was therefore an ideal genre for a writer like Updike. If you are fascinated by your own ability to produce verbally a nonverbal effect, then the story is not only a form that demands exactly that (unlike the novel, which demands other things besides). It is a form in which the relation between the material and the phenomenal, between words on the page and sensations in the head (‘some are treasured for their markings’), can be thematised. This — the analogy between literary performance and some other activity — can take place at any level. The empty hand at the end of Kipling’s ‘Mrs. Bathurst’, in which every reader ‘sees’ the false teeth of the seaman who disappeared, makes a neat allusion to the emptiness of art — as does the role, in that story, of the cinema, whose stuttering sequence of still pictures on a flat surface is read by movie audiences as continuous motion in three-dimensional space.

Kipling was a brilliant self-editor. He cut (or withheld) just enough to make his stories coherent but inconclusive. He did this even more radically than Hemingway, who is usually credited with the technique of ‘leaving out’. Updike did not leave out. Minimalism (except in verse) was not his mode. And unlike Kipling or Hemingway, he was not afraid to point a moral or adorn a tale. He tells you what you need to know— ostensibly, a little more than you need to know. His descriptive details are chrome-plated. But he does not digress. The chrome is part of the product.

That it is, in several senses, a product is the inner ring in the compound molecular structure of Updike’s ‘Transaction’, a story published in 1973, shortly after the second Rabbit novel and the first Bech book came out. ‘Transaction’ is the story of a married man who, on a business trip in a big city called N—, picks up a prostitute for the first time. She is twenty-two and claims that she used to be a librarian; she gives her name as Ann. He gives his name, falsely, as Ed, and is in his forties. We learn, along the way, that he is ‘a populariser of astronomy’, a vocation otherwise left vague. He has an eager mistress, his research assistant; but he loves his wife (never an improbable erotic combination in the Updikean imagination). It’s Christmastime, and he has just purchased presents for her and their children. He is carrying the packages back to his hotel, the R—, when he meets the prostitute.

She is, of course, the present he buys for himself. Yet she is also, as he reminds himself, ‘alive, a person’, and he becomes preoccupied with the problem of how to handle this double aspect of this relationship once they are in the room. The man has had one or two drinks too many, and at first the sexual part of the encounter present him with a challenge. In the interval, he and Ann develop a kind of friendship, a little less awkward than an encounter of strangers stuck in an elevator but a little less intimate than a first date. She tries to be an obliging professional; he tries to be an accommodating consumer, the sort of person who would rather be thought to have been a good customer than to get a bargain. They have, after all, to deal, between them, with a limp penis, a task that naturally obliges people to work together.

He arouses himself by arousing her: ‘He regretted that in the politics of their positioning his mouth did not come at it upside down but more awkwardly, frontally, with his body trailing between and beyond her legs like an unusably heavy kite, and with his neck bent back to the point of aching.’ And she responds. ‘She was heaving her hips to help his tongue go deeper. He suspected a put-on. . . . .Yet the girl lifted her pelvis and rotated it and forcefully sighed. She had been so unemphatic and forbidding in all else, he doubted she would fake this.’ They negotiate (for an additional 30 bucks) a return of his oral favor, and then, earnestly, joylessly, but gratefully, they consummate their interlude.

The woman offers to spend the night; the man declines, concerned about complications in the morning. ‘He calculated: if the alcohol wore off, and he got a few hours’ sleep, he could manage one more piece of ass; but then getting her out of here in the morning light, through the bustle of breakfast trays and suitcases, loomed as a perilous campaign.’ Like most of Updike’s male characters (like Updike himself, if we can judge by the memoir), he suffers far more from acute self-consciousness than moral compunction. She leaves without a fuss. It was, the man concludes, a fair deal. And then, cashing the Christmas metaphor:

What she had given him, delicately, was death. She had made sex finite. Always, until now, it had been too much, bigger than all systems, an empyrean as absolute as those first boyish orgasms, when his hand would make his soul pass through a bliss as dense as an ingot of gold. Now, at last, in the prime of life, he saw through it, into the spaces between the stars. He emptied the condom of water and brought it with him out of the bathroom and in the morning found it, dry as a husk, where he had set it, on the glass bureau top among the other Christmas presents.

What he sees, during the act, is, ‘dismally but indulgently, his prick as a product, mass-produced and mass-consumed in a few monotonous ways’. The mock Christmas of their exchange reveals the whatness of, so to speak, a thing. The man confronts sex as what materially constitutes it, as colliding bodies. Or, as he puts it to himself at another point, when he realises that there is no reason to flirt: ‘I produce, you produce. Provocation had zero value.’

We get to the literary analogue in an odd way. Updike published most of his stories in the New Yorker during the editorship of William Shawn, a man whose prudery was well known. (In magazine matters, anyway: he had a product, too, and its success depended on a little differentiation and a high renewal rate. He did not want to alienate old subscribers. He also, doubtless, was terrified of the publicity a change in editorial policy might bring.) ‘Transaction’, in which genitalia receive concentrated mimetic attention, was not destined for those pages. It appeared in Oui, an organ of the old Playboy empire. This was back in the days, the 1960s and 1970s, when Playboy was about cheesecake with a brow, and when many New Yorker-class writers published in soft-core magazines. The money, reportedly, was more than good.

One of the stories about Updike is that he never took an advance: he was paid by the piece for his New Yorker work and took a straight royalty (normally from Knopf) on his books. I don’t know whether this is accurate in every detail, though it’s consistent with my own few second-hand dealings with him. He once expensed a hot dog. So a story for Oui, whatever else it might be, was a transaction. Its performance brought together not merely the commercial and the literary — a story in The New Yorker does that — but the  commercial and the literary under a particular, kinetic aspect: the pornographic. Ed buys Ann for the same reason that the reader of Oui buys Oui, except that Oui has to do it with words. And for that, Oui buys Updike. So Updike named his story for what it was. I think that, along with the story ‘Unstuck’, about a husband and wife who make up for a frustrating night in bed by successfully pushing their car out of a snowbank, it’s one of his cleverest pieces.



'Arete is a journal as exquisite in its execution as in its intentions.'
John Updike

'Vous m’avez donné un grand plaisir … votre revue m’est très sympathique et proche.'
Milan Kundera