When John Updike revisited his childhood hometown of Shillington, Penn., he walked the streets one night in a misty rain. Everything spoke to him in its survival, or more commonly, in its replacement by something else. There was the luncheonette, the movie theater, the school.
Only his old house was mute. It seemed blunt and unrevealing. “Its familiar face and I had little to say to each other.”
Little to say. Perhaps it was inevitable that when Updike came to try his hand at autobiographical sketching, after so much fictionalizing of his life, he would offer a candid judgment on the effort. Aside from being a distinguished novelist and the correspondence secretary of America’s college class of 1954, he is a shrewd and fair-minded reviewer.
Here and there through these sketches, he puts up flags of discouragement. “These memoirs feel shabby,” he writes. Memory is like the wishing-skin in fairy tales, with its limited number of wishes. His, he writes, has been “used up and wished away in the self-serving corruption of fiction.”
In fact, what a memoir most requires is not memory. It is hunger. Updike seems sated. He was moved to write, he tells us, after hearing that a would-be biographer was on his trail seeking “to take my life, my lode of ore, my heap of memories from me.” “Self-Consciousness"--surely the least hungry title a memoir ever had--is an exercise in preemptive autobiography.
It will not work. Updike means too much to us to be left alone. Sooner or later, some biographer’s passion will override the memorialist’s weariness.
A memoir seeks to rediscover what its author has lost. It has the urgency of a quest. Updike knows what he will find; he has found it before. He writes to confirm his sensibility, not to extend it.
And a memoir is a journey, with the surprises and dangers of one. Updike sits and unpacks. Lacking a journey to go on, the reader sits and watches him unpack.
We sense inertness is evident from the start. The first of the sketches, and one of the best, is Updike’s nighttime ramble through Shillington. But he doesn’t simply go there; instead, he arrives by a decidedly mannered set of coincidences.
He and his daughter were to stay with his mother 13 miles away. But his daughter failed to tip the airline porter properly, the luggage didn’t arrive, daughter and mother wanted to come into Shillington to see a movie. Instead of staying behind to wait for the luggage to be delivered, Updike arranges for an airline representative to drop his suitcase in front of the movie theater. He will wait outside. And this gives him time to walk around. . . .
Such indirection--the self-consciousness of the title--bestows an air of lassitude even when the recollection is vivid and touching.
Updike recalls the feeling of well-being he used to get at the local department store, as if God were a “manufacturer--god,” a guarantor of plenty.
He recalls hearing two teachers talking quietly, perhaps romantically, one afternoon when he stayed late at school to work on a project. For the first time, he realized that these grown-ups had purposes other than to educate him.
He retells the quiet turbulences of his home. Both father and mother were in some sense disappointed people. The material lacks the strength it had in his novel, “The Centaur.” Still, looking down Philadelphia Avenue, Updike gives us one of his radiant slow lines:
“I loved this plain street where for 13 years no great harm had been allowed to befall me.”
One of the sketches goes into detail about Updike’s lifelong skin affliction. We hear too much about it. But the piece has more energy than the others, and it finds an equivalence between his struggle to resist his own nature--"psoriasis was my health,"--and a writer’s self-invention.
Similar equivalences are attempted in “Getting the Words Out.” But the connections are overrun. The author tells us in detail about his asthma and his sense of being choked by his first marriage and four children. He goes on to recount the stuttering that accompanied his guilt when he left them after 17 years.
Nine gruesome pages of dental surgery crown a ragbag chapter. It goes from his non-dovishness during Vietnam--he identified with the blue-collars against the snobs--to furtive sex with neighbors’ wives, to the contrast between his own Lutheran “heaviness” and the “airiness” of his wife’s Unitarian family.
The book’s flickering impulse grows fainter as it goes along. With “A Letter to My Grandsons,” it is extinguished entirely. It is 47 pages of Updikes and Op Den Dyks, going back to the 16th Century; nothing but genealogy real and surmised, and relieved only by some thoughts about how the grandchildren, whose father is Ghanaian, will find life as half-blacks in America.
Updike makes it evident that he is not happy with his book. Perhaps this unhappiness is its real subject. It is a confession of a sort, though an incomplete one.
A confession is not just telling; it is also a search for an absolution--from God, the reader, the past or the future. Updike isn’t looking for one. Perhaps, after so much ministry and absolution-work among the characters he has created, he can’t believe in one.