Updike and Barthelme: Disengagement

MUSEUMS AND WOMEN by John Updike Knopf, $6.95
SADNESS by Donald Barthelme Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $5.95
Recall if you can the 1950s and try to retrieve a feeling that existed then. It’s common now to remember those as silently anguished years, all of us mute with rage at the banality of the culture, and there is some truth to that memory—there was rage, including much that didn’t know its name—but the feeling I have in mind is different. It began with the odd and not altogether unpleasant sense that the world had recently ended.
The world was about to end, of course, in “nuclear holocaust,” but it had ended already in terms of the possibilities for human behavior that remained alive. Everyone knew that large gestures, heroic intentions, a full-throated voice were no longer available. Everyone knew that the only acceptable mode of speech and vision was irony. “Everyone” was, of course, not everyone, but it was many: this sensibility flourished (often in mutually contemptuous forms) in English departments and advertising agencies, fraternity houses and “converted barns.” The twentieth-century malaise that had belonged to what used to be called “bohemia” had moved in a gentled form to the suburbs. The suburbs were one symbol of the compromised quality of life. Another was the curious Bomb. It surely traumatized not nearly so many people as it was fashionable to claim, but it probably did alter the scale on which we thought of human life: it contributed to the sense that human beings had become a toy breed.
“A smug conviction that the world was doomed” John Updike remembers (in the voice of a character who is “in securities”) in a story from his new collection, Museums and Women. The story works to re-create another emotion of the years, simultaneous “fear and gratitude. Young people now are many things, but they aren’t afraid, and aren’t grateful.” If anyone so young-this is the year he is forty— is entitled to nostalgia for those years, it is John Updike, who was the poet of their precarious coziness. The “fifties,” I suppose, extended into the early sixties; although the Kennedy inauguration could have been said to end them on time, a dedicated “privatist” could easily enough dissociate himself from the cadences of Theodore Sorensen; the civil rights movement drew the line. If you were, as I was, in college at the end of the decade, Updike, still in his twenties, was a figure to reckon with, his stories appearing regularly in Friday’s welcome mail, the New Yorker.
In 1959 Updike wrote what was then his richest, most accomplished story, called “The Happiest I’ve Been.” It recounted the last night at home for a young man about to return to college from the Christmas holidays. Not much really happened. There was a New Year’s party. A girl fell asleep on his shoulder. A friend driving with him fell asleep on the seat. Dawn occurred, as he drove safely over slick roads, and further into the trip the young man had his happiest moment, which consisted of an expansive feeling for the landscape, the trip, and, in no small part, the pleasure that two people had trusted him enough to fall asleep at his side. I struggle to say how wonderful a story this seemed. Its power lay initially—as always in Updike— in the perfectly rendered detail. Beyond that there was the paradoxical daring of the story, its defeat of conventional expectations concerning what the passage to adulthood (which was, after all, the subject) ought to be about. Updike was making a story out of stuff trivial enough to be the stuff of one’s life. This is all there was, he said, and all there would be; the implication was that life would hold no more exalted moment than the instant the story recorded. (The antiheroic impulse was strong; Updike was moved by the success of Jack Kerouac to parody his book’s claims for the beat life with an account of a boy on a tricycle— “On the Sidewalk.”)
Thinking of “The Happiest I’ve Been” I find that a phrase from its last paragraph comes back: “the moment of which each following moment was a slight diminution.” As the assistant professors used to say: Just so. A diminution. Updike’s stories even then were often about a sense of loss. So are they still. Most of the stories in Museums and Women were written in the past five years, but they evoke the time of Updike’s earliest success. They are, of course, “minor” work; even as Updike was writing them he had his mind on more ambitious things, particularly Rabbit Redux, which included vastly more various sexual, social, and political content than do the stories. But his short fiction isn’t to be dismissed; I’d maintain that his most fully realized novel is the one most like a short story : Of the Farm.
In the title story of Museums and Women, the narrator, musing on his marriage and on his affairs, some of whose trysts have occurred in museums, is moved to the realization (in a shamelessly elaborate metaphor) that what is most “splendid” about museums is not their content but their entrances. “And it appeared to me that now I was condemned, in my search for the radiance that had faded behind me, to enter more and more museums, and to be a little less exalted by each new entrance, and a little more quickly disenchanted by the familiar contents beyond.”
Loss upon loss, and loss itself becomes a diminution. What is lost is nothing very extraordinary; only a moment of happiness, or a moment when the possibility of happiness might be glimpsed. Another story describes a day on which the hero has some bridgework done, goes to a party, gets drunk, skids his car off the road, as his patronizing wife predicts ("Darley, you know you’re coming to that terrible curve?”), and a woman (divorced, seductive) riding with them suffers a minor injury to her leg. He quickly sobers: “Never again, never ever, would his car be new, would he chew on his own enamel, would she kick so high with vivid long legs.”
Implicit in most of these stories is an awareness of two sorts of time: one’s own and social time, and the stories often play off the ironic contrast between history and the present moment. “The Carol Sing” in the new volume describes a community at church at Christmastime, preoccupied with small tragedies, and remarks on the music—“these antiquities that if you listened to the words would break your heart.” Another finds the transience of our lives in a contemplation of the enduring pipes in an old house.
The smallness of Updike’s subject matter (in, at least, his short fiction) is of course accompanied by his celebrated, lushly intricate descriptive style. The title story of the collection begins: “Set together, the two words are seen to be mutually transparent; the E’s, the M’s blend— the M’s framing and squaring the structure lend resonance and a curious formal weight to the M central in the creature, which it dominates like a dark core winged with flitting syllables.” Words at moments become objects and organic things, larger and more real than what they denote. First and last sentences are particular repositories for cleverness: look from one to the other and more often than not you will find them punning against one another, tying a bow around the story.
These habits produce a certain response in Updike’s critics. From the start of his career it has been usual to speak of him in wistful tones. If only he weren’t so precious. If only he’d write about something important. If only he wouldn’t waste his talent.
I imagine that this criticism has rankled. Like a girl accused of coyness, Updike must have wanted to say: But whether you know it or not that is what you like about me. The delicacy of Updike’s style derives from the sense that you had better keep your eyes on the small task at hand; look around the room and you’ll see pointlessness. “Better, I suppose, to sing,” it is said at the end of “The Carol Sing,” “than to listen.”
Though so many of the stories are chronicles of melancholy, there is at their heart a kind of assurance. A considerable distance exists between the cool contemplative voice of the stories and the experience it describes. Whether in “Museums and Women” the M’s and E’s perform the sort of architectural and anatomical functions that the narrator claims is, as you enter the story, beside the point. You are affected by the detached voice, which, it becomes clear, has the most magic control over its perceptions, but remains strangely remote from the life of which it speaks.
There is this difficulty in Updike’s stories: for all their recognitions of the religious impulse, their honoring of tarnished values, they are not stories in which moral choice occurs. Instead, they render modes of reconciliation and acceptance: values in themselves, of course, but not ones to arrive at easily. I only reluctantly uncrate the central word of a fifties’ critical vocabulary: the stories are sentimental, in the sense that they invite us to value an unearned emotion.
A certain moral paralysis afflicts Updike’s fiction (though it is a problem from which Harry Angstrom tries to free himself in Rabbit Redux). It becomes more visible now, as Updike’s shorter fiction loses its exact grip on the present moment. The stories address themselves to a cultural situation that held sway most strongly when Updike began his career; they provide a way of feeling good about a world whose language continually suggested that life had become a diminished thing.
When Updike began to appear in the New Yorker, he was in formidable company. O’Hara and Cheever appeared frequently and J. D. Salinger memorably allowed Franny and Zooey to be read. But Updike dominated the pages of the magazine ten to fifteen years ago in that he was the most contemporary voice, the leading edge. If there is someone today whose presence is similarly felt, it is Donald Barthelme.
Barthelme is read by students now with some of the same attention that Updike inspired in the fifties. Like Updike, he inspires unfortunate imitators. Probably the best advice you could have given a young writer then was not to try to write like Updike; don’t try to write like Barthelme would be good advice today. Each expresses a widely shared sensibility, yet depends on a carefully wrought, quite personal, style.
“While I read the Journal of Sensory Deprivation, Wanda, my former wife, read Elle.” Like few other current writers, Barthelme may be identified by any handful of his sentences; only he could have written the one above with which his new book, Sadness, begins. There is the rational, liberal tone (edged with hysteria), the collages of objets justes, the easy sliding in and out of fantasy. Barthelme’s stories fail to fit ordinary ideas of what stories ought to be. Fragmented monologues, laments, high-wire acts in prose, sometimes only half prose, half engraved illustrations; they are not tales but gestures.
In this book there is an account of a man’s difficulty in paying necessary “companionship” taxes on his monster; St. Anthony is tempted by a VISTA volunteer; at “The Party” Cynthia Garmonsway grooms King Kong: “She holds the steel curry comb in her right hand and pulls it gently through the dark thick fur. Cynthia formerly believed in the ‘enormous diversity of things;’ now she believes in Kong.”Despite the abundance of fantasy, Barthelme’s comedy begins with his singular ear for the inanities of much contemporary speech. He must be an inhibiting presence in a room, his ears as tremulously sensitive to a false note as if they were awaiting an explosion. Difficult to talk about him, for fear of becoming a Barthelme figure. You can sympathize with the writer of the jacket copy for Sadness, who edges toward that role: “Barthelme deals with world-pictures, some old, some new. Some have grown shabby, have been devalued; some have increased in importance, have accrued value. He points to shifts, changes.” (One of Barthelme’s habits of style is the restatement that carries no meaning but pitches an idea forward into foolishness.) His gift for mimicry is a cleansing thing. The air would be purer if sociologists, journalists, literary critics, structural engineers, women in love, tans of Buckminster Fuller, terrorists, people thinking of starting a commune, gifted children, all read Barthelme daily on rising.
Larger claims are made for him. He has been compared to Kafka and Borges. He honors them, surely, and they have no doubt influenced him. As is the case with Borges, all of his stories turn implicitly on the exhaustion of literary and artistic tradition. In the present book, the story most explicitly about this theme is “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace,” an account of a phantasmagoric exposition in which nothing is ultimately satisfying. “Sad themes were played by the band, bereft of its mind by the death of its tradition.” But the familiarity of the theme is itself made into a joke. Whatever his debts to other dealers in the ambiguous quality of art and reality, the life in Barthelme’s prose lies in his parodic impulses.
Like Kafka, Barthelme is a delineator of the bureaucratic ideal to which our lives sometimes seem to be aspiring. The oppression that interests him, though, is not that of the Pigs, but of the benevolently asphyxiating bureaucracy of our good intentions. Of “The Genius” in the story by that name, it is said: “He did not win the Nobel Prize again this year. It was neither the year of his country nor the year of his discipline. To console him, the National Foundation gives him a new house.”
Barthelme distinguishes himself from other comic writers—Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind—by his lack of interest in traditional American villains. It is not warlords, vulgarians, robber barons, but figures closer to home who engage his imaginationpeople of a certain sensibility. Alienation, depersonalization, paranoia (see Barthelme’s earlier story “Brain Damage” for a lyric account of this anxiety) are persistent themes in his work, but so too— more importantly—is our awareness of our various disaffections from ourselves and society. He mocks the bodiless language with which we become intimate with our ailments: “Self-actualization is not to be achieved in terms of another person, but you don’t know that, when you begin. The negation of the negation is based on a correct reading of the wrong books. The imminent heatdeath of the universe is not a bad thing, because it is a long way off. Chaos is a position, but a weak one, related to that ‘unfocusedness’ about which I have forgotten to speak.”
If there is an animus behind Barthelme’s stories, it probably has less to do with “the death of tradition” than with something simpler: singlemindedness, the shaky presumption of things said with conviction. A matter of “world-pictures,” as the copywriter said—except that all world-pictures are “devalued.” Single-mindedness is an old and honorable target of comedy; but we feel the sting of Barthelme’s humor particularly because single-mindedness has become our leading survival skill—now, when we are “into” things, have roles, lingos all our own, can’t understand large numbers of our gifted and intelligent fellows, and are moved not to, because to speak their language is to question the integrity of ours. So the streets are full of peacocks, oblivious to one another’s beauty. It is Barthelme’s high calling to deflate this sort of vanity, and it has produced some of the most entertaining stories of recent years—as entertaining in their way as were the early Updike ones.
The pleasures of each writer are in fact more alike than their disparate styles would suggest. Both Barthelme and Updike soothe a similar anxiety. Both address the question of how to live in a world where missing coherence is acutely felt. (Or, more exactly, they ask how to be happy in such a world; which is both less and more of a question.) The answer, in each case, consists of a kind of disengagement. In Updike, a willed miniaturization of life; in Barthelme, a grand withdrawal into the schizophrenic joy of seeing absurdity at every hand. There is another point of congruence. Like Updike’s stories, Barthelme’s are intimately tied to a particular time, this time; I expect that sooner than one would like a nostalgic light will overtake them, too, as our sense of helplessness fades once again.