Has there, in American letters, at least, ever been a better noticer than John Updike? By “noticer,” I don’t mean “writer of detail,” exactly. There are many writers whose use of detail I find more narratively effective: Saul Bellow, Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, Denis Johnson, Stephanie Vaughn, etc. Updike’s use of detail, as I discussed in a recent essay, often impinges upon the realism, or “realism,” of his fictional worlds, overlarding them with sensory detail that too often alerts the reader to the writer’s presence. But in terms of pure, preternatural eye for the minute, the ephemeral, and the easily missed, it is difficult to think of another writer who can compare.
Here are a couple of excerpts from “Incest,” one of the earlier stories (contained, in fact, in the wonderful The Early Stories), many of which endeavor to capture the mundane drama of young married life, as played out in a series of similar, cramped New York apartments. In the first excerpt, Lee, husband and father, is cleaning up the sugar his daughter has spilled:
With two sheets of typing paper, using one as a brush and the other as a pan, he cleaned up what she had spilled on the counter, reaching around her, since she kept her position standing on the chair. Her breath floated randomly, like a butterfly, on his forearms as he swept.
Later, he watches his wife drying diapers in the bathroom:
Looking, Lee saw that, as Jane squinted, the white skin at the outside corner of her eye crinkled finely, as dry as her mother’s, and that his wife’s lids were touched with the lashless, grainy, desexed quality of the lids of the middle-aged woman he had met not a dozen times, mostly in Indianapolis, where she kept a huge brick house spotlessly clean and sipped vermouth from breakfast to bed.
The random breath on the forearm like a butterfly, the fine-grained quality of dry eyelid skin—these are signature Updike details. What other writer would notice, let alone bother to describe, the texture of his wife’s eyelids? He is a master at this kind of description, keying in on the microscopic and near-invisible, not as world-building flourishes, but as primary detail. The child’s breath on Lee’s forearm hairs is a perfect metaphor for Updike’s sensory apparatus—I imagine this apparatus as fine cilia, authorial cat whiskers, delicately picking up the slightest shift in descriptive breeze.
This keenness extends to non-sensory details, the internal mechanism of a character’s mundane thoughts. We have closely followed Lee from, in his words, breakfast to bed, and we lie with him as he deploys a favorite tack against the insomnia their tiny, hot apartment causes him, a mental exercise he refers to as the insomnia game. The insomnia game sees Lee working his way through the alphabet in the following manner:
He let the new letter be G. Senator Albert Gore, Benny Goodman, Constance Garnett, David Garnett, Edvard Grieg, Goethe was Wolfgang and Gorki was Maxim. Farley Granger, Graham Greene…
Detailing a character’s nighttime mental routine is unusually perceptive to begin with, but true to form, Updike finds a higher register of his protagonist’s attention to pay attention to, as Lee pauses his list to work through the less familiar foreign first names of Goethe and Gorki. These moments of deep attention are not there to embellish a larger narrative point—they are the point. In the space of several pages, an accumulation of these details create a world in miniature and a feeling of rare intimacy with its inhabitants.
The apartment stories—“Incest,” and others like it: “Snowing in Greenwich Village,” “Sunday Teasing,” “Should Wizard Hit Mommy,” etc.—seem to me the perfect vehicle for Updike’s rare gifts. There is, after all, a claustrophobia to this kind of detail, and these small city apartments match setting and theme to technique. The apartments become a kind of panopticon, with Updike’s thousand eyes relentlessly monitoring the stifled desires and tense moods of their main characters—almost invariably a young married man.
At the same time, the molecular focus that Updike brings to these stories manages to turn one-bedroom shotguns into universes of discovery. There is a sense in these stories of relentless searching for a truth or truths that can only be found by plumbing down into the granular, the microscopic; these tiny details both encode and reveal the larger hidden structures we move through unaware. A small New York apartment contains an entire life—the miracles (and curses) of marriage, childbirth, sex, and death.
The stories themselves follow suit, finding the largest meaning in the smallest plot point. For the most part, these tales bear little in common with others of their seeming kin—John Cheever’s earlier stories, for example, many of which also center on young married couples pressure-cooking in tiny apartments. But Cheever, despite being an eccentric fabulist, is conventional in his adherence to traditional plot devices, the need for inciting incidents and escalating tension. There is no Enormous Radio in Updike, just a very small one playing in the background, the crackling sound agitating the room’s ambient emotion, and the humbleness of the device itself obscurely bothering Lee (or Richard or Arthur) trying to read in the next room. We seem to be dropped into these characters’ lives almost at random, the barest wisp of event enough cause for a story to coalesce. In “Walter Briggs,” for example, a couple driving home from a party (cars—or trains, or airplanes—like apartments, are ideal Updike sensory dioramas) attempts to remember people they met on their first wedded vacation:
“How could you forget Roy? And then there was Peg Grace.”
“Peg, Grace. Those huge eyes.”
“And that tiny long nose with the nostrils shaped like water wings,” Claire said. “Now: tell me the name of her pasty-faced boyfriend.”
“With the waxy blond hair. Lord. I can’t conceivably hope to remember his name. He was only there a week.”
This goes on far longer than it would in the work of other writers, several pages. On and on they drone, exactly the kind of inane, half-focused conversation that composes the atomic structure of married life, exactly the kind of desultory scene typically excised from most stories. And yet: something snags—her enviable memory, and his inability to summon the name of a comic figure at the camp. Later, at the door of sleep, his mild frustration blends with a litany of details from the camp, and the sudden return of the man’s name—Walter Briggs—is like a poignant echo of his old love for his wife. In both their obsession with remembering tiny details, and their ability to do so, these two resemble their creator. Who, but Updike, would find erotic charge in a nostalgic memory competition?
By so heavily foregrounding textural detail in these stories, Updike calls into question what constitutes a story to begin with. There is an aesthetic claim being made, that anything can be a story if you look closely enough. And the domestic sphere, Updike’s natural habitat and milieu, is all stifling closeness—what are marriages if not an infinite series of minute, learned, hateful, and joyful gestures, performed in the tiny theaters of our living rooms and beds?
Here, the aesthetic claim grades into something that approaches a moral claim. A reader, waiting in these stories for twist or conflict or denouement, will get to the end unsatisfied, having missed the all intervening action, action that occurs on a moment-to-moment perceptual level. Life is like that, too. Although modern readers may justly find Updike morally distasteful on many counts—mid-century white male privilege, literary sexism, and political conservatism to name a few—he seems exemplary, at least, in the sense of how much attention a person ought to bring to bear on the banal splendidness that comprises their life.
Taken as a whole, the attentiveness that Updike trains on these intermittently peaceful and unpeaceful homes becomes performative and self-justifying. Like a fantastically gifted magician, the show becomes less about the trick itself and more about the dexterity required to perform the trick. He is constantly finding the edge of his talent and reaching just beyond it for the detail so fine and fleeting that it is preposterous, even for him, to notice it.
Yes, on a basic level, this is show-offy. But I sense that it also comes from a generous instinct, a desire to share something with the reader no one else has shared before. As he puts it in “Wife-Wooing”: “An expected gift is not worth giving.”
Mad Men is about to disappear from our lives once again, leaving us to grapple alone with our complicated nostalgia for an era when men were men, women were secretaries, and alcoholism was glamorous. These books give a closer look at the era, offering a vision of Midcentury Manhattan that goes beyond Cheever and Yates. (Although Cheever and Yates are a great place to start, if you haven’t already.) Read them to tide you over until the next season or to fine-tune your predictions for this week’s series finale:
1. Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963, by David Rieff and Susan Sontag
If Sontag were alive today, it’s unlikely she would find much to admire about Mad Men, and yet she and Don Draper have a lot in common. Ambitious and seductive, both came to Manhattan to make themselves anew, rejecting their provincial roots. Among the many revelatory moments in Sontag’s diaries, the nakedness of her self-creation is the most startling; there are Gatsby-like resolutions for self-improvement, reading lists, and meticulous records of films, plays, and parties attended. Like Don Draper, she loved to use high-flown language to talk about popular culture, and was happiest when pulling nicotine-fueled all-nighters. She and Don also share a dread of monogamy, while at the same time rushing into ill-advised romances. Here’s Sontag on her early marriage to Philip Rieff: “I marry Philip with full consciousness + fear of my will toward self-destructiveness.”
2. Manhattan, When I Was Young, by Mary Cantwell
This sweet, searching memoir about a young woman’s coming of age in Manhattan in the 1950s and early 60s is full of Mad Men-esque images, and narrated with the same rueful, if-we-only-knew-then-what-we-know-now tone. A former magazine writer for Mademoiselle and Vogue, Cantwell’s memory is pleasingly specific as she recalls fashions of the day and the best place to get a sundae in Midtown. The book is also a record of her first marriage to a young, aspiring novelist whose bohemian tastes infected her own. Disdainful of suburban living, Cantwell and her husband chose the West Village instead, where they moved from charming apartment to charming apartment with an ease that seems like utter fantasy today.
3. The New York Times Cookbook, by Craig Claiborne
Page through this and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the meals that Pete Campbell’s wife, Trudy, has waiting for him when he comes home from work. First published in 1961, it was the book that a generation of young housewives learned to cook from before they graduated to Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
4. The Early Stories, 1953-1975, by John Updike
Although only a handful of the stories in this collection take place in Manhattan, Updike was born within just a few years of Don Draper, and his stories reflect the peculiar pathologies of their generation, “the Silent Generation.” Raised during the Great Depression, both men grew up in a time of scarcity only to come of age in an era of prosperity. Such extremes of experience were bewildering, creating feelings of both wonder and discontent. As Updike writes in his 2003 foreword to the collection, “We were simple and hopeful enough to launch into idealistic careers and early marriages, and pragmatic enough to adjust, with an American shrug, to the ebb of old certainties. Yet, though spared many of the material deprivations and religious terrors that had dogged our parents, and awash in a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, we continued prey to what Freud called ‘normal human unhappiness.’”
5. The Grand Surprise, The Journals of Leo Lerman, by Leo Lerman
Leo Lerman, a social butterfly whose name is likely included in any number of books of the period, is briefly mentioned in Manhattan, When I Was Young, in a passage describing the offices at Mademoiselle:
Leo Lerman, the entertainment editor, sat in a sort of railed-off den behind an enormous mahogany desk, taking phone calls from Marlene Dietrich and Truman Capote. A plump, bearded man, he lived in a house so excessively Victorian it defied the century, which was the point, and had a collection of friends so dazzling I am still dazzled by it.
Published posthumously in 2007, Lerman’s diary reveals the full extent of his “dazzling” collection of friends, which included Carson McCullers, Maria Callas, Jackie Onassis, and George Balanchine, among others. In the 1960s, he was installed as features editor of Vogue, and became one of the decade’s tastemakers, introducing readers to writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., August Wilson, and Iris Murdoch. Although Lerman’s version of Manhattan, with its focus on the literary, fashion, and theater worlds, is quite different from the one portrayed on Mad Men, his diaries share the same interest in gesture and language, especially the indirect ways people communicate with another. Attempting to find meaning in his diaries, Lerman wrote: “Personality, that is what I want to pin down, no matter how fleetingly, for the personality of a man is component to personality of his era.”
6. Within The Context of No Context, by George W. S. Trow
Series creator Matthew Weiner has said that at its heart, Mad Men is about the massive cultural shifts that began in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the way someone like Don Draper, an archetype of an earlier era, learns to adapt. George Trow’s classic essay, Within the Context of No Context, first published in The New Yorker in 1980, is a retrospective analysis of those cultural shifts, as well as his own anguished response to them. The son of a newspaperman, Trow writes that he grew up expecting to “have a fedora hat of my own by the time I was twelve years old.” Instead, he came of age only to find that his father’s version adulthood could no longer be inherited: “Irony has seeped into the felt of any fedora hat I have ever owned…” Like our nostalgia for the world of Mad Men, Trow’s is undercut by his understanding that it was never very sustainable to begin with.
7. Talk Stories, by Jamaica Kincaid
After being told that Mademoiselle “would not hire black girls”, Jamaica Kincaid started her writing career at Ingenue magazine, whose offices were in the same building as National Lampoon’s. Recognizing Kincaid’s wit, a writer at National Lampoon introduced her to The New Yorker’s George Trow, who became her mentor. Kincaid’s first assignment for The New Yorker was to accompany Trow to Brooklyn’s West Indian Day parade. Trow transcribed Kincaid’s comments for a “Talk of the Town” column, introducing the world to her joyful, youthful, and subtly ironic point of view. After that, Kincaid wrote her own “Talk” pieces. Talk Stories collects Kincaid’s essays into one volume, covering nearly a decade of New York City life, from 1974-1983. Although the columns don’t — at least not yet — overlap with the time period portrayed in Mad Men, it’s fascinating to see how a young black woman from Antigua managed to subvert the staid “Talk” format, which was at the time an unsigned column written in the first person plural, and free of curse words, sex, gossip, and any subject that might be considered trendy. Despite these strictures — or maybe because of them — the spirit of the era shines through. Kincaid’s spirit also shines, and taken together, these essays form a portrait of a young woman striving to find her place in the world. A must read for anyone with a soft spot for Peggy Olsen.
8. Just Kids, by Patti Smith
Where Mad Men depicts life on Madison Avenue, with occasional glimpses into the life of New York’s bohemian culture, Smith’s memoir is a portrait of downtown New York with occasional glimpses of Fifth Avenue, where she worked for years as a bookseller at Scribner’s. Smith’s point of view is decidedly romantic as she recalls the years when she and Robert Mapplethorpe were broke nobodies, trying to decide whether to spend her paycheck on art supplies or diner meals. “We hadn’t any money but we were happy…I tacked pictures of Rimbaud, Bob Dylan, Lotte Lenya, Piaf, Genet, and John Lennon over a makeshift desk where I arranged my quills, my inkwell, and my notebooks — my monastic mess.” Reading Smith’s girlish memories, you’ll understand why Don sometimes gets a wistful look when talking to Megan.
9. Jack Holmes & His Friend, by Edmund White
Edmund White’s most recent novel, about the decades-long friendship between a gay man and a straight one, illustrates the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s from a new angle. Like Mad Men, Jack Holmes & His Friend begins in a world that is still dominated by the manners and mores of the 1950s. Jack, who is gay, must hide his sexuality from his straight friend, Will. But as the counter-culture takes hold, the tables turn and it’s Will who struggles with this sexuality, feeling trapped in his marriage while Jack blossoms, embracing a new identity as a “sexual libertine.” Covering a period of over thirty years, this novel includes many evocative descriptions of a Manhattan gone by, as well as a number of blow-out party scenes, resulting in debaucheries worthy of Don Draper.
10. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson
This work of narrative non-fiction is an investigation of the migration of African-Americans from the south to northern and western cities, a profound demographic shift that began after World War I and continued through the 1970s. Wilkerson ties her narrative to the lives of three individuals, who each leave the south to settle in three different cities: Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. The pathos of Wilkerson’s narrative comes as her subjects realize that escape from Jim Crow laws does not mean an escape from racism. This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the roots of the civil rights movement — something that seems, to the characters of Mad Men, to come out of nowhere, but was actually a decades-long process, rooted in the day-to-day struggles of hundreds of thousands of migrant families. As Wilkerson writes of one of her subjects, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, “Few experts trained their sights on the unseen masses of migrants like her, who worked from the moment they arrived, didn’t end up on welfare, stayed married because that’s what God-fearing people of their generation did whether they were happy or not, and managed not to get strung out on drugs or whiskey or a cast of nameless, no-count men.”
A couple of weeks ago, Harvard University’s acquired the late John Updike’s papers, which will take up something like 380 shelf-feet in Houghton Library. For context: that’s the length of a football field, endzones included, plus enough parking lot to tailgate in.
Now the sorting of the Updike archives begins. Where to start? What to read? My own first forays into Updike’s back pages earlier this year revealed a different writer than the one I thought I remembered… one more to my liking, if less sure of himself. Then, a few months later, I picked up The Maples Stories – a series published from the late ’50s to the late ’70s (with a ’90s coda), covering the contemporaneous unraveling of a suburban family. The jacket copy made the stories sound classically, even off-puttingly, Updikean. Perhaps still clinging to the ragged edges of Rabbit Redux, I decided to extend to The Maples a formal adventurousness Updike only occasionally indulged in his short fiction: I would read the stories backward.
The effect was strangely thrilling, like watching a time-lapse photograph in reverse, the oak tree imploding into the seed. The slight, sketched quality of the early “Snowing in Greenwich Village” and the lyrical carnality (bordering on self-parody) of “Wife-Wooing,” gained weight from the more mature pain of later stories like “Gesturing.” And the relative callowness of young Richard Maple – not initially one of Updike’s richest characters – acquired a tragic dimension from foreknowledge of where this callowness would lead him. In short, The Maples Stories, read backward, seemed too me to draw on the best of both Updikes: the younger writer’s curiosity, anxiety, and social preoccupations; the older’s greater security of technique and earned sense of pathos.
These stories have appeared in several incarnations – a paperback called Too Far to Go, a television script of the same name, a retitled edition called Your Lover Just Called, and a selection in The Early Stories: 1953 – 1975. Now Everyman’s Library has gathered them in a single, compact, novel-like, and apparently definitive hardcover. I recommend reading them in whatever order strikes your fancy.
When other writers at a 1986 PEN panel on “How the State Imagines” were lamenting Cold War militarism, John Updike offered a hymn of praise for the U.S. Postal Service: “I never see a blue mailbox without a spark of warmth and wonder and gratitude that this intricate and extensive service is maintained for my benefit.” His co-panelists were miffed, but there was no gainsaying him: Updike was a lucky man. Lucky in his chosen career; lucky with women (or at least, he wrote about “getting lucky” often enough); lucky in being an American at the peak of the American century.Many remembrances of this literary polymath will focus on his native talent, and may be right to do so. Updike found his pellucid, synesthetic voice in his mid-twenties, and so seemed a kind of prodigy… even, at times, a prodigal. But at its best, what his voice expressed better than that of any other American novelist (with the possible exception of Saul Bellow) was gratitude for the superabundant gift – the sustained good luck – of everyday life.At the height of his powers… say, from 1959’s The Poorhouse Fair to 1996’s In the Beauty of the Lilies, Updike delineated a territory – American, lower- to upper-middle-class, uneasily suburban – that will ever after be associated with his name. In novel after novel, story after beautifully wrought story, he charted its tensions and ambiguities. That it is hard to remember that this territory was ever unfamiliar is a testament to the thoroughness of Updike’s cartography. Collectively, the novels of the ’60s and ’70s, the Rabbit Angstrom omnibus, and The Early Stories are a monumental achievement, one that will become clearer as the world they describe falls into the past.Somehow, Updike also managed to maintain a a sideline as a poet, as well as a prolific career as an essayist on literature and art. Though his opinions on each could be both narrow and strongly held, his Protestant circumspection always allowed room for doubt. His “rules for reviewing” remain a model of good faith and good sense.As five books became ten, and ten became fifty, Updike’s “spark of warmth and wonder and gratitude,” which seemed to distill a generational trait, could at times flirt with self-satisfaction. We forgive a writer for everything but success, and in his later years, Updike’s critics would execute a kind of pincers movement. From one flank, he was attacked for rehashing old ground, for being (in books like Villages) too… Updikean. From the other flank, he was attacked for his attempts to move beyond first-hand experience (see: Seek My Face, Toward the End of Time, Terrorist). If each position had its merit – more than a decade has passed since Updike’s fiction felt urgent – both overlooked the fact that he had been experimenting with form and subject since the mid-70s. And well into his own eighth decade, his reviews and essays, which he produced with the dependability of a classic Buick sedan, bespoke a writer still alive to the surprise of the new.In this, too, Updike was lucky: he outlived his aura of invincibility.He will not, however, have outlived his reputation. Now that he is no longer among us, it will be easier not to begrudge him his good fortune, and to appraise his legacy. The career of Émile Zola, that other prodigy of the real, tells us that a few golden works will outweigh any amount of dross. Updike’s gold-to-dross ratio was, in retrospect, remarkable, and his good books many. They remind us of our own good fortune. We are lucky to have had him.
Recommended Collections:The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed with Magellan by Stuart DybekDybek owns a specific part of the literary universe, a several square-block section of the south side of Chicago. He focuses on that, hones it, and reproduces it beautifully. His stories – sentimental (but not sappy), funny, and moving – describe a world where cultures and generations rub against each other, sometimes producing sparks. If you don’t read collections in order, or if you happen upon Dybek’s stories in an anthology, start with “Hot Ice,” “Pet Milk,” or “Orchids.”Sixty Stories, by Donald Barthelme and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. GassBoth of these are challenging collections, or at least they were for me, yet both are also adventurous and mind-altering. Barthelme, who has experienced a renaissance of late, did more with the form of the story than anyone I can think of. His stories – brief, wild, audacious – will cure whatever boredom might have possessed you. Gass’ stories, typically quite long, describe the emotionally bleak and unforgiving Midwest, with its brief moments of untold beauty buried within quotidian horrors. At one moment, a Gass character might be counting the peas in his pot pie; in the next, he’s contemplating freedom in the backyard. The titular story contains what is, at the moment, my favorite sentence: “It’s true there are moments–foolish moments, ecstasy on a tree stump–when I’m all but gone, scattered I like to think like seed, for I’m the sort now in the fool’s position of having love left over which I’d like to lose; what good is it now to me, candy ungiven after Halloween.”Recommended Stories:”The Christian Roommates” from Early Stories by John UpdikeAn ode to the classic freshman double. This story pretty much was my first year of college. I played it pretty straight in high school, and had my mind completely blown open by all the nuts I met in school, including my freshman roommate [God bless you, Glen, you beautiful bastard]. Updike captures that so well that the first time I read this, I couldn’t believe it had been written before I was born.”The Fall of Edward Barnard” from The Collected Stories of W. Somerset MaughamSort of a precursor to The Razor’s Edge, this is the story of a man who goes to Tahiti to find his best friend, Edward Barnard, who’s fallen off the grid and who also happens to be engaged to his best friend. I spent two years of my life trying to adapt this story for the screen to no avail. If I were pressed, I’d say this is my favorite story.