Thursday, 19 February 2009

Review: Revisiting "The Early Stories" by John Updike

With his recent passing, I was reminded that I have the excellent but partly unfinished "The Early Stories", a collection of John Updike's short stories from 1953 to 1975.

I have a mixed reaction to some of his longer works (although admittedly I've only read two or three). With the longer form, he seems to get caught up in laying scene after scene at the expense of the characters. Loving detail and exquisitely fine prose drip off of every morsel of the natural and urban landscape. The characters are equally well observed and described, but somehow the overall effect is a bit distracting for me.

I greatly prefer his short stories, in which the detail is more restrained. These more tightly focused scenes hold their proper place as parts of the larger world into which characters propel themselves. The details that travel into each person's interior world via their ears, eyes, and sense of touch are presented to us in enough detail that we can imagine their experiences in context. Their thoughts and emotions make sense as reactions to (or distractions from) their environment.

His short stories also have a fantastic economy, a rightness to their pace. The endings come just in time, and usually are both the natural outcome of the rest of the story and also just a little bit surprising.

Maybe the longer works have the same flow, and I've just learned to read Updike better. I'll have to pick up a "Rabbit" omnibus edition one of these days.

In closing, I thought I would share a pair of stories (one from 1972, the other from 2005) that come to mind when I think of Updike.

The first link is sadly only available with a paid subscription to the New Yorker. When the copyright finally lapses on Updike's work, the public domain will be quite a bit richer for it.

Friday, 13 February 2009