The Panopticon: John Updike’s Apartment Stories


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.

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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.”

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