Collected Artistry

At 864 pages, 103 stories, and roughly three pounds, this volume, which collects almost all the short stories from the approximate first half of John Updike's writing life, is a testament to many things, not least Updike's prodigious work habits (reputedly three pages a day, six days a week). But what makes this collection more than the standard anthology accorded the magisterial (or dead) literary figure is that twenty-two years' worth of stories have been arranged in a fictive chronology that tracks Updike's protagonists from adolescence to middle age. The result is not only that these disparate stories find their place as part of larger narratives but also that Updike's artistry—normally glimpsed in sections, like a person through window slats—is wholly and deeply seen. Or, to put it in pop-culture terms, this is the boxed set.

And, as music lovers know, much can be learned or relearned by experiencing a familiar artist's work this way. Among the more trenchant reminders here is that early Updike, as in his Olinger stories of the late 1950s and early 1960s, was very, very good, in possession of a subtly ominous metaphysical bent that wouldn't emerge again as effectively until his stories about divorce and single life a decade later. Another is that Updike stood almost alone among the writers of his time in not thinking that suburban Americans were uninteresting or insipid, and in never mistaking the inhabitants for the surroundings. But the overarching (and somewhat depressing) conclusion is that Updike is one of the few American authors for whom writerly craft remains the essence of fiction. Though his aesthetic occasionally traffics in the obscure, far more often his filigreed sentences remind us what an outright pleasure it is to engage the refined sensibility of a writer who attempts to reflect on things in an interesting way instead of thinking himself interesting because of what he reflects on. Indeed, these older stories resolutely affirm that no one so frequently wrings elegies from the ordinary as Updike (for proof, reread "Plumbing," "The Day of the Dying Rabbit," or the exquisite "Wife-Wooing").

Given that Updike's characters have been intermittently parading before us for half a century, it's also intriguing here to witness the fuller scope of their development. As the chronology unspools, we see the stories trade some of their earlier grit for a psychological quiescence, and begin to float upward in meaning even as their characters spiral down. As Updike's protagonists struggle with family doings, the ruinous effects of children on marriage, and (with acrimony giving way to adultery and then divorce) the desultory single life, they begin taking off from increasingly idiosyncratic points of departure, moving from the head-on view of things to other preoccupations—museums, solitaire, leaves. (As the narrator in "Leaves" muses, "I am surrounded by leaves. The oak's are lobed paws of tenacious rust; the elm's, scant feathers of a feminine yellow; the sumac's, a savage, toothed blush. I am upheld in a serene and burning universe of leaves. Yet something plucks me back, returns me to that inner darkness where guilt is the sun.") We also see the use of the first person, prevalent early, gloomily reappear in the après-marriage pieces, at just about the time one of Updike's great concerns—religious faith—begins to materialize. Another reminder from this collection: for all the notoriety Updike has reaped for writing about sex (or, more precisely, adultery), some of his most affecting prose has been about the Protestant faith, the negotiation of which gives the first theme its potency.

Yes, there are less-than-successful stories here. There's a perceptible fade in a spate of them near the end (some of the "Far Out" stories show that Updike was not immune to 1970s trends in meta-fiction); but given that this collection sums up only the first half of a career, one can view that fade as the well-deserved pause at the midpoint of a commanding literary marathon. In the meantime, one reads through the plenitude with delight, expectation, and at all times gratitude.

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