Self-delusion and the pathos of memory

Lee Siegel is a regular contributor to Book Review.

Until the rise of the suburbs after the Second World War, you could pretty much divide American authors of fiction into country writers and city writers. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner are in the former category; Henry James, Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald belong in the latter. Suburbia changed that. A writer who set his or her stories in the suburbs could portray an environment with greater comprehensiveness, linger longer over details, tease more out of a situation at a slower pace, while at the same time investing his or her fictions with the city's dense psychic energy. Updike's best stories, lush with detail, taut with edge, are like that; so, too, are John Cheever's.

But the suburbs' aesthetic pitfall is that they don't offer primary experiences in the way the country or the city does. The backyard is not the natural arena a meadow is; it is the reminder of a meadow. The tree-lined street, no matter how much traffic passes over it, is not the crowded urban intersection but a reminder of a crowded urban intersection.

From the artistic point of view -- not as an actual place -- a suburb is more like the memory of primary experiences than an original experience itself; in that sense, it resembles a fairy tale, or a dream. That is why so many writers and filmmakers -- Richard Yates, Rick Moody, Todd Haynes -- disdain the suburbs. They believe that such an environment hides the sharp, biting primary experiences of life, numbs the intellect with a false sense of happiness achieved, robs the imagination of its time-honored subjects of "discontent, conflict, waste, sorrow, fear."

That quotation is from John Updike's foreword to this collection of his early stories -- not just a book but the creation, in its totality, of an original experience of life. Writing about the postwar generation -- his generation, "awash in a disproportionate share of the world's resources" -- Updike adds that "we continued prey to what Freud called 'normal human unhappiness.' But when has happiness ever been the subject of fiction? ... Death and its adjutants tax each transaction. What is possessed is devalued by what is coveted."

Though Updike's more shallow detractors accuse him of partaking in the suburban mirage of happiness achieved, Updike turns that quality into a universal human delusion. He doesn't scorn the suburbs for their illusions; he cherishes the suburbs and their illusions for exposing a deep strain of human pathos.

How revelatory it is, then, to have all these stories inhabiting the same volume, to find Updike encountering his theme and his artistic destiny right off the bat. "Ace in the Hole" is not the first story in this collection, but according to Updike's foreword it was the first story he felt confident enough about to send to the New Yorker. (It was rejected, then accepted after he had begun publishing there.) First stories, like the first adventure in a picaresque novel, are usually about an expulsion from some Eden of respectability: Cheever's first published story was an account of his real-life ejection from a New England prep school; "Ace in the Hole" is about an expulsion too -- from a well-paying job into unemployment.

Like Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, the hero of this story is a former high school basketball star who has fallen from adolescent glory into an indifferent adult world. Fired from his job by a Mr. Goldman, Ace begins the story cocky and self-deluded, passes through a jolt of fearful self-knowledge as he confronts his angry wife, who is also a new mother, and ends cocky and self-deluded, dancing with his wife to music from the radio: "[H]e seemed to be great again, and all the other kids were around them, in a ring, clapping time." You are left simultaneously feeling that Ace is blind to his own reality and that this blindness is an essential, perhaps even complicatedly healthy, part of his reality.

Years later -- inexplicably, the stories lack dates -- Clem, in the masterpiece "I Am Dying, Egypt, Dying," begins the story thinking that "this lightness, the brittle unmarred something he carried was his treasure." Toward the end of this tale of a cruise on the Nile, he realizes, however, that "[h]is defect was that, though accustomed to reflect love, he could not originate light within himself." And yet, at the very end, thinking back on what had become an emotionally jarring trip, "he saw that he had been happy." What was a pathos at Ace's expense now is embedded in Clem's ironic self-knowledge: The reader shares with Clem himself the feeling that Clem's self-delusion is part of what sustains him. Thus does Updike take the suburban chimera of happiness and transform it into a problem inscribed in human nature.

And Updike himself, in the way he tells his stories, wryly enacts the same self-deceiving dream of happiness and greatness. So many of these tales end with the bittersweet sense that life will always deny us our deepest, most precious longings but that these longings are the substance of our immortality, as if our intuitions of a life beyond us will outlive the disintegration of our mortal intuitions.

Updike's tales end in some Archimedean point outside the world, as if the author were outliving the world by re-creating it. Here is the last half of the long final sentence of "Pigeon Feathers," a story of the savage (and savagely self-deluded) crisis of faith experienced by David, its young protagonist, who destroys some pigeons as a taunt to God: "[H]e was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever." From "Toward Evening": "The Spry [neon] sign occupied the night with no company beyond the also uncreated but illegible stars." From "A Sense of Shelter": "Between now and the happy future predicted for him he had nothing, almost literally nothing, to do."

Even the much anthologized comic tour de force "A & P," with its defensively wise, wisecracking Holden Caulfield-like narrator, ends with a reach toward some point beyond the story's time frame: "and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me from here on in." Updike's stories begin with an immanence of detail and end with a transcendence of sentiment.

Updike's leap to a kind of omniscient future-place at the end of many of his tales is his attempt to defeat the passage of time. His famously intricate descriptions are how he transforms the present into a past before your eyes, as if he wanted to beat time to the punch: "It was a long foot, with the division of the toes just beginning at the rim of the slipper's blue arc, and the smooth pallor of the exposed oval yielding, above the instep, to the mist-reddened roughness ..." This isn't a description so much as a memory. For all its precision, it's an idealized perception, a present fading into a permanence.

The fact that experience fleets and becomes an incommunicable memory lodged in the mind vexes and thrills Updike. It is perhaps one reason why, in the later stories, as literary fame took its vexing and thrilling toll on him, Updike made sexual infidelity -- the fact that love fleets -- his obsessive theme. Perhaps here, too, Updike was thinking of Freud, who noted, along with "normal human unhappiness," a new development in modern life. The human heart, Freud once said, was not made to be broken so many times. For centuries, people stayed with one person -- one main person, anyway. In modern society, one falls in and out of love the way medieval Crusaders went in and out of conquered cities.

And so in the tales that cluster at the end of this collection, the relationship between men and women becomes for Updike a present that becomes past before your very eyes. A moment from "A Sense of Shelter" crystallizes the way Updike's theme of sexual infidelity converges with his habit of gesturing toward infinity at the close of his stories. Its main character is a high school student named William, who is as confidently swaddled in his self-delusions as any of Updike's other characters are. One day William finds himself, to his shame, blurting out a declaration of love to Mary, a classmate. Her reply shocks him. "Oh Billy," she said, "if you were me for just one day, you'd hate it."

"Nothing he could think of," Updike writes, "quite fit the abruptly immense context." William's delusion that Mary might love him is suddenly shattered; Mary is becoming a memory. But this memory opens out into infinity, for the "abruptly immense context" is death -- the death of illusions, of love, of all the familiar sentiments and expectations that sustain one's particular "sense of shelter" in life. It is a good thing that Updike, as he relates in the foreword, left for the suburbs after living in Manhattan for only "twenty months." Having chosen the illusion of a stronger shelter, he became the great chronicler of the startling immensities that sweep it away.

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