Thursday, May 22, 2008

Updike's "The Full Glass"

I was reading the New Yorker this afternoon and suddenly got the crazy idea that I should actually read the new Updike story. Don't get me wrong--I like Updike. But the Updike I like is the Updike of book reviews, incidental (and highly erudite) essays, the Henry Bech stories, and Of The Farm. That's about it. I tried the first Rabbit book three times and got hung up in the same place every go-round: when women first appear.

That's the thing I don't like about Updike, when I don't like Updike. I've never read a memorable woman character in his stuff. They might be in there--I've hardly been through the whole oeurve--but by and large, they are not his forte.

This new story looked pretty good to me at first--an old man is taking his ritual drink of water one evening, and he reflects upon the concept of fullness--the times in his life when he has felt full. He begins with memories of water itself, and these are interesting, and seem to be leading up to something.

And then the something comes--it's an affair!

I certainly don't object to this topic in fiction. It's a common life experience, I suppose. But when Updike does it, it's always with this sense...not of privilege, exactly, but of inevitability. His characters talk about their affairs as though having an affair is an expected, even required, rite of passage in a man's life; there are always some earthy and poetic little riffs about fuckin'; and the women--both the mistress and the wife, who here is always referred to as "the wife"--are boring as shit, and ultimately pathetic.

And this "the wife" thing. Updike's narrator is an asshole--we're not supposed to love the guy--but the defiant way he weilds his little slights is terribly precious, and it bugs me how much Updike enjoys making his flawed men coddle their masculine foibles. When Philip Roth does philandering, it's big, wild, funny, creepy, and explosive. When Updike does it, it's masturbatory and redundant.

I guess what I'm complaining about, ultimately, is the way Updike's characters are men and women first, human beings second. I find this approach tiresome. The gender wars were over before he even started growing hair in his ears--can he find a new hobby horse already? When Updike doesn't have sex on his mind, he's as good as they come; when he does, he's the worst. I can't think of another writer like this, whose attention to a single topic so completely saps his usual artistic vitality.

22 comments:

myles said...

I agree. I've read a few Updike stories in the New Yorker over the years, and they're usually some nostalgic old fool in New England dreaming about a former lover/mistress/wife and how they're all old now and wasn't life much grander once... Oh, mutability! Oh the deceptions of time! Oh get over it!

His women seem to be mainly for the purpose of justifying the men, validating them. Such a bore.

rmellis said...

I read it too. The main character is so horrible and self-obsessed -- constantly fingering his precious observations and habits -- it made me angry. I wanted him punished in the end. But instead the woman he had an affair with gets punished, with ovarian cancer. It's not my thing, usually, to want to see moral dramas carried out like that, but something about the almost-heroic presentation of this hideous character made me long for it.

Mr. Saflo said...

I think this is also James Woods's complaint about later Updike. I could be reading him wrong or misremembering. Anyway, I have nothing of value to add, so I'm just gonna sit here in the comments section until something happens.

the Duchess said...

JR: To yr last question, how about Woody Allen? But Miles, "Oh get over it!" Get over being 80 something and dying, being pushed off the edge of life, every day pushed a tiny bit closer? So just shut the heck up and die? Nice. I think the key to the story is on pg. 71: "...a man of my generation would sooner go on the street in his underpants than unshaven." Irony there: a man of any generation of the last three or four decades has no problem going out into the street both unshaven and in his underpants. So yr not the audience for this story. That's why he calls his wife, "the wife," a term of endearment for men of his generation. And more irony - "suburban decor": who in those same later generations cares about decor anymore? Oh, but they do, they do. And some day, often earlier than they expect, they sit down with the life insurance guy. Had you read Atul Gawande's piece on aging last year in the NYrkr you might have felt a little different about this piece, and understood that the narrator is, indeed, being punished. But the final irony here does go back to "the wife" bit. Because who's he writing to here? Who's his audience? Answer: almost no one, anymore. In the end he's just some old cat dying. But, for what it's worth, he's still drinking a toast, "his impending disappearance from it (the visible world) be damned." Maybe that's yet another reason some writers may want to use pen names. Note "visible" world? Implying there's now an invisible world? Finally, re Updike, his best book remains The Centaur, where you might find an interesting female character in his mother or grandmother, but the book is really about his father. BTW Glimmer Train solicited a few years ago a story from Updike, and he sent them a piece he had writen when young, before he started publishing, and they rejected it, offended somehow. Later he published a collection of writings written when he was a kid. Moral? `Tut, tut, child!' said the Duchess. `Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it.'

jrlennon said...

duchess, I actually liked the initial observations of this character--it's not his age that bothered me, and I would hardly shy away from a book about aging. To bring up Roth again, Rhian and I both adored Exit Ghost, a book about, among other things, sexual dysfunction, senility, and brain cancer. My complaint is that Updike's frame of reference on the subject of women and sex has always seemed very narrow to me, in stark contrast to his broad erudition and empathy elsewhere.

I will read The Centaur, though.

rmellis said...

Saflo: I'm frightened by how often I agree with James Woods.

Duchess: There are so many wonderful stories about getting old or dying. For some reason I think of that recent Alice Munro story, about the woman with terminal cancer whose house is invaded by a murderer. It's about the *worth* of life, of any kind of life, and making sense out of it. It's original and shocking and moving. Updike's is a stale old story of a man in the autumn of his life looking smugly back on his sexual conquests. As Myles said.

Does having irony in a story make it good? I actually like some early Updike pretty well, in the same way I like Cheever.

Getting old after a long and healthy life is difficult, of course, but hardly punishment. It's the best anyone can wish for. I did read the Gawande piece, but I also once worked in a nursing home as an aide. I will be grateful for every day of my dotage I spend walking around *outside* of one of those places.

Mr. Saflo said...

Jesus, I called him James Woods, didn't I. I always prided myself on not making that mistake. I'm going to go slam my head against the wall.

the Duchess said...

"Does having irony in a story make it good?"

I don't know, though we do live in the winter of literature. Maybe the young writing still have time to bring us into spring.

Or maybe I don't understand what is meant by "good." In this story, the author draws a character strong enough to evoke "...it made me angry. I wanted him punished in the end." Does a story have to be one we like to be good? I didn't like the story either; probably Updike doesn't even like it.

But you would have to point out some more specifics from the story that made you thing him a hideous character. If his having a single affair in a lifetime (or was it two?) makes him hideous we surely do live in a winter of irony. I don't see the "smug" attitude though. But even that wouldn't seem to qualify as hideous, or again, we're awash in it.

But I look forward to a post on The Centaur. But then, that was before "Couples," a long time ago.

rmellis said...

No, it's not the affair that made me dislike him. (The unspoken but implied attitude that exciting, literature-worthy love only occurs during illicit affairs, or that affairs are more real or interesting than marriages, I do take issue with.) Rather it's the greasy, self-involved way he keeps returning to his memories of himself, of his little habits (at one point he says something like, "and another of my quirky habits was..." Bleah) and the way all the other characters seem puny and pale. There's nothing about him to indicate he'd be anything other than a horse's ass in real life. Other people aren't quite real to him.

And of course, I don't think the reader has to love all the characters in stories. What bothered was the feeling I got that Updike himself *really liked* the guy.

Saflo: Wood, Woods... I don't ever remember the differece. I just think of him as Mr. Messud.

jrlennon said...

The winter of literature?

Anonymous said...

Where in the story does it say what Updike thinks of the narrator?

Winter of lit.: I think she got that from Northrup Frye.

myles said...

I probably expressed myself poorly in my first comment. But as Rhian said earlier, I have no problem with stories about getting old -- or being young, or anything. I was merely indicating my general dislike of Updike's male characters and their persistent attitudes to women. I read something recently that kinda sums it up for me. It was about Steinbeck, but it works for Updike too: he treats women as symptoms, not people.

rmellis said...

Anon -- Of course it doesn't say anywhere. It's just a feeling this reader gets. You can argue it. That's why literature is so great. It aint math!

Peter said...

I think this is one of Mr. Updike's best stories. His language and description of feeling is amazing. He is writing from the narrator's point of view: a male. Of course it's flawed, since the character is flawed: That is part of the point! You miss the richness of his words; it is absolutely peerless.

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