Tag: updike

Updike, “Morocco” (1979)

To Updike, predators everywhere in Morocco. (Heather Cowper)

I’m sure I’ve read a more repulsive Updike story. Right now I can’t recall one more repulsive than “Morocco.” Repulsive for its overt orientalism, its equally overt indulgence of racist tropes and travel writing’s laziest stereotypes.

The New Yorker rejected “Morocco” when he sent it in at the end of November 1978. He revised it, resubmitted it two months later, the New Yorker rejected it again. The Atlantic ran it in the November 1979 issue. He couldn’t bring himself to collect it in his next short story books, finally including it–as the very first story–in “My Father’s Tears” in 2009, three years after his Arabophobe “Terrorist.” Of course it’s not a story. It’s a travelogue of the trip he took with his wife and four children to Morocco in 1969. “A two-part Easter holiday began in Morocco, where they made an exhausting five-hundred-mile dash in a rented car from Tangier to Agadir,” Adam Begley writes in his biography; “they then flew to Paris for two days, but were too weary of living out of suitcases to enjoy it much.” Begley doesn’t mention the “story” that came out of it. I was looking around the web to see if I was reading something that wasn’t there. The story isn’t anthologized or referred to much, but I happened by a Maghrebi writer’s identical reaction.

Made up fears start in the first lines. Updike (let’s not pretend it’s a fictional dad) is afraid to stop his car anywhere. “What were we afraid of? A trap. Bandits.” It devolves from there. Nothing he sees, nothing he smells or feels elevates. Somehow, in one of the more sublime parts of the world, every mile, every sight is “the bleak plazas, the boarded up arcades” (though I could have been reading about Daytona Beach). One of his daughters, apparently blond, “attracted stares from native men everywhere.” The predatory Arab man trope appears on the second page of the story, as if the very same girl would not attract stares from Updike’s country clubs everywhere back home, as if Updike’s own predatory stares after nubile girls (how many times does the word “nubile” appear in Updike works?) doesn’t heave through his pages. He tries to add a comic element here and there (“Allah be praised”) but it falls flat. On a beach in Agadir, another predator: a man not far from the family is masturbating. They escape, go to a hotel and its private pool “where all the Europeans were swimming and tanning safe from the surrounding culture.” Could the bigotry be more explicit? He’s reveling in it now, in the superiority of it, writing like a supremacist colonialist of the 1800s. They don’t leave Agadir. They “escaped.” He blows through a red light and doesn’t stop when a cop hails: more western contempt for Arab laws. And again, “We had escaped.”

When Updike is more objectively reassessed for the distastefulness of morals and judgments behind the gilded style, this “story” will figure prominently.

Updike, “Atlantises” (1978)

john updike atlantises

Self-absorption, unchecked.

“bored with reminiscence,” as a line goes in this story, yet another one of Updike’s melancholy eulogies for the life he lost with his divorce, the parties, the beaches, “the idyllic grandeur.” It is one retread after another allegorized as Farnham’s lost Atlantis, Farnham being an older man now exiled with a second wife to some landlocked place often confused with Ohio. Atlantis and Plato here play the role of Updike’s props, the props he uses to cloak his fiction in a gravity it otherwise lacks. The reminiscing is contrasted with a silence that sounds suspiciously like Updike’s prison-like marriage to Martha, though he remained within sight of the sea. This is the man who included in the bequest of his papers to Harvard, his golf scorecards.

The New Yorker, November 13, 1978

Updike, “Guilt-Gems” (1977)

John Updike, guilt-gems

Winter landscape, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, 2019 (Peter Rintels).

“Among humans, a sincere apology often involves a touch or an embrace, and the renewal of damaged or broken social bonds,” Richard Conniff writes in a 2006 New York Times article, a brief social and intellectual history of sorry.  “The half-baked apology (“I’m sorry it happened” or “I’m sorry if I offended you” instead of “I’m sorry I did it”) also fails to elicit the visceral reconciliation response.” A commenter reacted: “Your article left out the most recent excuse for an apology, “my bad”. The first time I heard it I was offended because it was obvious that it doesn’t resemble an apology but was instead a total deflection of responsibility for the offending act or the apology.” Updike’s story should be called “My Bad.” It hides its self-absorbed parade of guilt behind word-gems without once–in protagonist Ferris’s retelling of moments with his son, his oldest daughter, his ex-wife, his mother, all mined for the guilt they induced in him, obviously with immense retrospective pleasure at pulling off their recasting as psychologically aesthetic gems–reaching for that touch or embrace. The closest we have to touches is when he describes his ex-wife’s belly bouncing against him like a heart as she sobs, and his son’s kiss when he drops him off at school, as icy as the surrounding New Hampshire snow. Updike isn’t elevating Ferris to any heroic space. “He had been a bully since his first cry for milk, and had continued a tyrant.” It’s a cardinal error to attack a writer for not doing something he doesn’t intend. But it’s Updike’s pose, if not his teflon prose, that invites attack and rejects the title’s twin deceptions. The story is neither guilt nor gems. It is all about “my,” all about “bad.”

The New Yorker, September 19, 1977

Updike, “The Faint” (1977)

A bouncily crass story plodding with clichés (“an ass like two moons”), stereotyped racism (a Japanese girl giving the narrator the eye, “though it was hard to tell with those eyes, those opaque little pools of racial ambition, noncommittal as camera apertures”) and the usual objectifications (“it thrilled him like a spurt of ice water to realize he must dump her”), none of it redeemed by the humor of the grown-man narrator and Porsche-driving real estate developer living with his mom, his first marriage having failed years before.

The slithery-named Freddy Python’s girlfriend Corinna “(or whoever),” goes one reference about her, gets bored at plays and seems to be the usual shallow canvas Updike uses to paint his desires’ vagaries. They go to the theater, she doesn’t feel well, she faints. “She was out cold, and looked grand.” A whole paragraph about the way she looked out cold, the way he felt, as if prized to be the refracted object of the attention she draws. An attendant wakes her up with smelling salts. “The watching women [obviously, no men are watching] greeted this prodigy with murmurs, and Freddy, as somehow its father, took their applause as a compliment to himself.” Everyone orbits around Updike’s male protagonist. Himself. Her unconsciousness is his epiphany. The couple marries.

The New Yorker rejected the story. It appeared in the same Playboy issue that carried the interview with Anita Bryant. Apt, in its own way.

Playboy, May 1978

Updike, “The Parade” (1984)

John Updike’s childhood home in Shillington, Pennsylvania. (The Reading Eagle)

Not at all a story. It had been part of “The Egg Race,” which The New Yorker didn’t like, was cut from it, years later resubmitted as its own story, declined, then run in the Ontario Review and in Odd Jobs, a recollection of when he was invited to be in the Shillington parade. It’s descriptive, entirely self absorbed, not illuminating or generous about parades. In Odd Jobs, he places it in a section on personal essays but doesn’t bother changing the fictional Hayesville.

Ontario Review, Spring-Summer 1985

Updike, “The Egg Race” (1977)

Ferguson reminisces wanderingly: his father, Shillington, here called Heysville, goes to a class reunion, reminisces more walking around town, and shows us why he’s such a coward who wants his cocoon preserved at all costs. Written as if he needed to fill a quota. Interesting premonition of his lung cancer.

The New Yorker, June 13, 1977

Updike, “The Fairy Godfathers” (1976)

Robert J. Manning, center, with Updike and biographer Justin Kaplan (Tom Britt)

Stupid story about man and woman, for some reason called Tod and Pumpkin (the psychiatrists’ names are worse) and their psychiatric sessions after each leaves a spouse. The whole story seems to be an excuse to write a passage about Pumpkin’s feet and how she likes her toes sucked, but otherwise a pointless exercise.

The New Yorker, November 8, 1976

Updike, “From the Journal of a Leper” (1976)

A diary of Updike and his psoriasis. Too self-absorbed down to the scabs. His Treatment. His seeming cure. Dull.

The New Yorker, July 19, 1976

Updike, “Domestic Life in America” (1976)

More autobiography than fiction, written in Boston, “where Updike lived alone from September 1974 through May 1976,” the notes to the Library of America edition tell us. Also the first story Roger Angell edited, following William Maxwell.

Fraser has recently moved out of his family home, to be with his mistress, herself a mother, a walking distance away. But not to live with her. He lives in Boston. He deals with his wife and children around Christmas, and the rising temper of one of his sons, who talks back to his mother, puts up the Christmas tree without his father’s help. The tugs of domesticity, the competition between the two women for Fraser’s attention. His oppressive indecision, making him seem like a eunuch. He then takes the train back to Boston. The scenes are transcribed from his life.

The New Yorker, December 13, 1976