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A Portrait of the Artist As An Adult

Museums and Woman and Other Stories by John Updike, Alfred A. Knopf 278pp., $6.95

By Michael Sragow

JOHN UPDIKE's new volume of short stories is his longest and most various, not his best. Out of twenty-nine, eight are very good Updike, which means that they stand among the best fiction in contemporary American literature. The others are either entertainments, collections of variations on literary themes which only erratically gel, or brittle middle-class social comedies in which the sophistication of the writing surface jars with the sitcom situations it carries along.

Still, all the Museums and Women short stories permit the author to comment on fleeting issues which attract him, revealing some of himself to us even at these most casual aesthetic moments. When viewed against more consistent earlier collections like The Music School and Pigeon Feathers, this one doesn't fade. In the complexity of the characters whom he deals with here intensely, and the openness of even his plotted stories to all sorts of notions--political, religious and scientific--which are pertinent to the educated audience he addresses, these new stories are as far from those he wrote a half decade ago as Rabbit Redux is from Rabbit Run. What Museums and Women finally signals is Updike's absolute progression away from his rural Pennsylvanian root experiences, their '40s and '50s settings, and the themes of adolescence and young adulthood which went with them.

THE DEEPLY DRAWN stories of previous collections were split between nostalgia for the moral individualism and bucolic sensibility that his upbringing nurtured, and concern for the conservatism and stagnation that existed simultaneously at levels of town life beyond the youngster's grasp. The farm where the young Updike and his fictional stand-ins were brought up is a cruel but an ordered place, dominated by the dreams of his mother and tempered by the stoic reserve of his father; the towns which lie outside are usually dreary places, full of people governed by lethargy, and occasionally swayed by social currents. Updike's narrative voice is full of emotion in these stories, but that emotion is joyous or pathetic according to the turn of an incident. Because he is a good smart boy, the youngster Updike depicts the town where his teacher father works, while painfully acceding to his mother's wish that he aim to fly beyond it. The tension comes from the boy's guilt-ridden love for his town, and his need to assert his identity and grow both in the town and in his home--neither, below the surface, very healthy grounds to spring from.

At the same time that Updike wrote autobiographically, he turned out other kinds of stories, not as rich, in which he groped for beliefs and a manner of life more appropriate than those his parents left him--particularly in light of his own parental and marital responsibilities. He took subtle digs at psychoanalysis, and coupled them with serious expressions of the middle-class dislocations which make psychoanalysis necessary. He attempted to find historical sense and social constancy in such totems of his culture as an "eternal" (Massachusetts) Indian and a grandmother's wooden thimble. He was engaged throughout in expressing what was clearly universal--the emotional bonds of family which more than anything else tied him to his dynamic society and chaotic land.

IN HIS NOVELS as well, from Poorhouse Fair to Of the Farm, Updike moved from anxiety over the destruction of American (and his own) innocence to a clearheaded view of his past, and a definition and coming-to-terms with his own limits. A farm may feed a dream and passions, but as a private kingdom it can become a hotbed for neuroses; all men may be basically anarchistic, but even the worst society may answer the specific needs of a family. Of the Farm's Joey Robinson finally denies his mother's whims and sticks by his "vulgar" wife, who is able to cope with the broader urban tensions which his high-strung sensitivity and sheltered experience make untenable for him.

With Couples, Updike's next novel, Updike took an ambitious stroke at resolving his darting allegiances. It was flawed by flatness and defensive negativism. Wilfrid Sheed at the time accurately described the type of community Updike etched:

a peculiar sub-group, spawned by World War II and already half-extinct. They are the people who wanted to get away from the staleness of the Old America and the vulgarity of the new; who wanted to live beautifully in beautiful surroundings; to raise intelligent children in absolutely authentic rural centers. Eventually, they brewed up their own kind of staleness and vulgarity.

The villain, whom Sheed labelled the priest of the group, recognized his restless neighbors' need for community ritual, approving their matings and swappings and supplying them with the necessary sports, parties, and outings. His nemesis, and the figure closest to a hero that Updike could then manage, embodied freedom and real earthiness, wells of love for individuals. He was, in short, a throwback to a time when a man could build his life straight up from the ground. He only appealed to his friends' and ladies' private affections, ignoring their needs for social exposure, and was thus destroyed. Unfortunately, the novel went with him. He posed no real alternative; the narrative tension was nullified, and the fiction got clinical.

IN RABBIT REDUX, however, and now in some of the Museums and Women stories, Updike honestly reflects an untidy world and explores its moral, emotional, and sociological forces, without trying to find in it values similar to those he experienced elsewhere. From the lower floors of the middle class to its monied and educated ceiling, Updike shows men losing their beliefs in America as an overarching upholder of the world's secrets, letting go of religion or consciously holding on to it for its ethical mythology, gaining consciousness of the lack of social health in their local and national community, the confounding complexity of modern personal relationships, and the absence of consistent and accurate history to which they can refer.

He also gives us men and women and families conceiving their own private truces with the world in order that they may continue to grow past adolescence. Those critics who claim they find no love in Updike can't be looking very carefully; though he can playfully delineate the exaggerated irritations of the emotionally cramped, most of Updike's heros suffer from their desire to hoard the love they have--and from their resulting febrility. At least two stories, "The Day of the Dying Rabbit" and "Man and Woman in the Cold," make the re-assertion of tenuous connections between father and children seem the beautiful victory not only of love over familial gaps, but of man's positive, creative urges over surrender to chaos. Updike has become a mature commentator; if his characters don't know their ultimate fate, they do determine their direction. Even "The Witnesses," the story nearest to tragedy (and one of Updike's best), portrays a mediocre man with a sexual itch who succeeds, much to the discomfort of his respectable friends, in weirdly legitimizing an actually sordid affair. In other hands, the material would be dreary, condescending; Updike makes it moving and unsettling.

YOU CAN'T, OF COURSE, talk only of Updike's themes and characters. In Museums and Women he succeeds in restoring completeness to our view of the physical world, threatened and impaired by the generalizing blur of communications media, through precise description; and, if his characters muse or mediate, he follows them with the fluidity of a writer who was welded his intellect, insight and emotion into vision. In his less serious pieces he is sometimes simply very funny, filling in the words to a dinosaur tea-party or chronicling the invention of the horse-collar. But his artistic effectiveness derives mostly from his subtleties of form. As if the drama in his allegory "I Am Dying, Egypt, Dying," weren't sufficiently strong to express the dilemma of outmoded, outrageous American simplicity abroad, he invests it with a mock-epic structure, all the more sharply exposing his quiet American's hollowness.

But Updike has always known how to write. It is his continuing emergence into a world where all actions have social resonances, and his ability to investigate with love the torture of past and present American dreams, which make his latest fiction heartening and necessary.

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