Monday, January 14, 2008

John Updike: the Limits of Realist Narrative: Outage

Where precisely does John Updike's recent story in the New Yorker, Outage, go wrong? HERE

It would be too easy to generalize: the mildly titillating well past middle age sexual fantasy, the well worn territory--New England or Middle States middle class ennui... but why bother? Failure is all too common, and pointing it out even more so. It's not failure in itself that deserves attention. What does, is falling short. And what matters, is not the failure, but what it suggests, and fails to realize.

Updike is a consummate stylist. For pure "Sentence Lovers," he delivers. Like Cynthia Ozick. Though Ozick, perhaps, drawing from a deeper level of Jewish angst, tries harder--not necessarily with greater success. But there's more there, as a few of his earlier stories show. As Outrage hints at, and misses.

Again, where precisely, does it miss?

Brad Morris is working at home. By computer. His wife is in Boston, where she manages a boutique. Brad is not impressed by the news reports of an approaching storm. Rain as come and gone, and come again.

The worst seemed to be over, when, in midafternoon, his computer died under his eyes. The financial figures he had been painstakingly assembling swooned as a group, sucked into the dead blank screen like glittering water pulled down a drain. Around him, the house seemed to sigh, as all its lights and little engines, its computerized timers and indicators, simultaneously shut down. The sound of wind and rain lashing the trees outside infiltrated the silence. A beam creaked. A loose shutter banged. The drip from a plugged gutter tapped heavily, like a bully nagging for attention, on the wooden cover of a cellar-window well.

Here is the promise. More than finely crafted description. A contrast, multileveled, compressed--nature and our technologically conditioned projection of reality, repressed memory of an unmediated sensual perception.

He opened the refrigerator and was surprised by its failure to greet him with a welcoming inner light. The fireplace in the den emitted a sour scent of damp wood ash. Wind whistled in crevices he had not known existed, under the eaves and at the edges of the storm windows.

He drives into town (surprised that his car still starts). A list of the businesses... all gone dark. A world both new... and old.
... and there it is. The possibility to penetrate the veil of conditioned notions of what is "real"... an awakening. Even if it be an awakening beyond the consciousness of Brad Morris... or the narrator--an awakening like that of Edna Pontellier. Keep it within the fictional universe Updike is competent to deal with. Let the awakening be ironic? Metaphorical? But let it be for the reader, a lucid dream!

But no. There's no escape in this story from the middlebrow American delusions; the only awakening--from a middle-age wet dream, and here is the deepest betrayal, an awakening he tells us, to "reality."

That's it. Updike leaves us the choice: our masturbatory delusions, or their repressive denial.

Not only the limitation of our choice, but of "reality" itself. A fictive universe no larger than the fantasy of what a man would like to have done to his penis, and the necessity of foregoing that illicit pleasure... for the sake of "reality."

As though that were an "insight." As though that were enough to justify the failed promise...

Three posts on Critical Narrative analysis


  1. Every sentence of Updike's you cite seems overcooked. The fire "emitted" a glow? Is the guy in the story so dumb he thinks his car is powered by the electricity in his house?

  2. The fire emitted a scent... I don't think the word "glow" occurs in the story, so not clear what you mean.

    Close first person... his surprise at the car starting is not because he believes--on a rational level--that there's any connection between the electrical power in the house and the car, but that he's in a state of taking in perceptions he's in the habit of missing, taking for granted--and the first blush of something that's gone unnoticed may be quite naturally linked to any number of fleeting, irrational associations.

    I don't think there's much to challenge in the psychological acumen of Updike's prose--not that can't be reasonably defended, but this is exactly how he get himself into trouble, because what you find yourself defending (as I just did here) are the standard conventions of realist narrative--begging all the real questions!

    Updike has abandoned, at least in this story, any interest in exploring "reality" and it's relationship to language. Instead, we have a playing out of all the stuff we think we already know, inviting us to smirk in the satisfaction of being able to connect the dots...a vein pleasure, since we already know the rules.

    This story is soft porn...for repressed semi-literates who appreciate the opportunity to imagine Brad's naked neighbor telling him there's "more to come" ... and then handing them by way of "sublimation," a tired excuse for an epiphany, reminding them that, whatever "reality" is--it means you're going to have to button your shirt and go home before the climax.

  3. I meant scent. I lost sight of the post while composing my comment so I was quoting from (apparently) bad short term memory. I remember a bad simile about glistening water going down the drain, or was it "shimmering"? Language does seem out of touch with reality when he starts to write like a high-schooler armed with a thesaurous. Remember the prose of The Centaur? Updike was at one time a good writer on the level of the sentence. Not anymore. At least not usually.

  4. I won't argue with you there. He seems to be writing from rote.

    When I read the story, I thought he might be on the edge of something interesting--the power failure jolting his narrator out of his middlebrow dream... I was more taken by my disappointment on that level than by the Updikean autopilot prose.

    1. Tracking John Updike's Foot Fetish.
      This is only scratching the surface! Some quotes from six of Updike's fifty odd books.He kneels to comply. Annoyed at such ready compliance, which implies pleasure, she stiffens her feet and kicks so her toenails stab his cheek, dangerously near his eyes.

  5. I started reading the Updike story and put it down. I will go back to it and come back to this discussion. I'm intrigued by your idea here.

  6. I put it down... but then began to wonder what it was that bothered me. Have been asking myself, what I want to find in short fiction, why I've been so dissatisfied. It's more difficult to see what's missing with the good stories--just by their being good enough at what they are that they cover the absence.

    ... so I picked it up again to see what I could do with it.

  7. So I read it last night and I want to first say that I like your distinction between failure and falling short. It does fall short because I agree that Updike suggests something beyond what we're expecting, something explosive, but then he doesn't even bother putting a flame near the fuse.

    The idea is interesting...he sets up a little wrinkle in reality, a time-out, a dangerous possibility located in the freedom from the everyday, freedom created from the smallest of changes in routine. So far I am with him...but then his character does absolutely nothing interesting or extraordinary with the possibility opened up to him.


    1. He kneels to comply. Annoyed at such ready compliance, which implies pleasure, she stiffens her feet and kicks so her toenails stab his cheek, dangerously near his eyes.He pins her ankles to continue his kissing. Slightly doughy, matronly ankles. Green veins on her insteps. Nice remembered locker room taste. Cheap vanilla.

    2. These are more or less the remarks I made at the American Literature Association conference in Boston in May, 2013 with the exception of some improvisation I injected concerning Bosley Crowther, Manny Farber, and Sam Peckinpah and what I believe their works can contribute to understanding DeLillo. I also used graphic examples from the films of Tarnatino and Kubrick to illustrate how auteurs repeat images from film to film.