John Updike vs. Raymond Carver
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/12/05
Let me state- both men were bad poets, but this piece is about their prose, ok? There, I said it. Now on to the raison d’etre: I recently picked up my first piece of John Updike fiction- the short story collection Problems And Other Stories, after years of hearing his name bandied about with that of John Cheever, Saul Bellow, and Norman Mailer as a giant of what would be called Dead White Male writers. It may well be the last piece of fiction I pick up from Mr. Updike, because it really is a bad book, and the stories, and even Updike’s whole writing style seems to be an exercise in unaware stiffness.
When reading his tales I was put in mind of the WASPy sort of characters that populate the films of Woody Allen. Yet, Updike’s characters are utterly clueless as to their vapidity and cardboard nature- they lack both self-awareness and humor. It is rare to find a writer who can construct such tales. But, that’s not a good thing. That said, I have read many bad short stories in the last few months, and many by writers whose name and reputation equaled or excelled Updike’s. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Collected short stories are flat out bad, but as cardboard as those characters were they at least had some little adventures in Prohibition America, and the vapid flappers, and barber shop philosophers were somewhat engaging, if only as curios. William Faulkner’s short stories were even worse, but they were so over the top in the Southern Grotesque mode that they could be appreciated, by some, as being akin to the horrid films of an Ed Wood- so bad that they are unintentionally parodic. Virginia Woolf’s ‘short stories’, such as they were, are a bunch of disconnected rambles through her insane brain, and can at least function as, perhaps, an insight into her work, however little I think of it. There’s also Flannery O’Connor, who seemed determined to make Faulkner’s stereotypes and caricatures seem human by comparison to her ridiculous stereotypes. Then there was Eudora Welty, whose tales of the South, mostly, were like a nice, neat little garden- not much happened, but things were described well. There was also Willa Cather, whose tales seemed more devoted to simply record Midwestern life, not celebrate it.
Which brings me back to Updike, who seems to construct stories that, like Welty, are nice and neat, like Cather, are records of WASPy Easterners, yet are utterly lifeless. There is not a genuine human description or situation in any of the tales. Updike is an arid writer who seems to never have had a real insight into the human condition. There’s an arid hermetic feel to all his situations. Aside from an inability to dig into a real situation Updike seems to also lack any real imagination. All his characters are flat and banal- lacking even the over the top parodic nature of a Faulkner or O’Conner cretin. They are usually anal intellectuals who resemble what I can only take to be Updike himself- a stale, pale, stiff old fogy.
The reason this sticks with me is because the subject matter of Updike tales often intersect with those of Raymond Carver- a contemporary whose writing is far superior to Updike’s. Yes, carver has his faults. When he writes a bad short story- about one in five- they are really bad: ill-formed, witless, with no narrative arc, and banal ends, not to mention a penchant for having his characters drink their troubles away. Drink also inhabits the good and great stories, many of which inhabit the recent carver anthology I picked up- Where I’m Calling From. In a great Carver tale the characters are self-aware, they have humor, they speak like real people do, and relate to each other in the odd, yet familiar, ways our family and friends do. Yes, they drink too much, more than the average, but that’s a minor quibble, also considering Carver’s tales end with a bang, a memorable image or action that leaves a reader to think long afterwards. Such is not true with Updike. Perhaps it is the Northeastern vs. Northwestern thing? More likely it’s just that Carver was a flat-out far superior fictionist to Updike, at least in the short story form, although Updike’s book leaves me not eager to engage any of his longer fiction, since the short stories are so excruciating.
They are so predictable and cookie-cutter, loaded with bad metaphors and forced attempts to be poetic. The poetry does not flow naturally, nor does Updike engage the poetry of the ordinary- when a character sees something out of the corner of their eye, or describes something in a seemingly unconscious way, so that it’s ‘poetry’ is disguised and believable, coming from the mouth of a factory worker, or teenager, as it often does in Carver’s tales. In this book, from 1979, Updike also seemed enraptured with playing with form, but the tales are mere exercises for the forms do nothing to heighten the experience, or comment on the characters. The first story, Commercial, is more an essay than a short story, yet it ends with an abrupt query that is both easily answerable, and as such, non-provocative. The next tale, Minutes Of The Last Meeting, is another gimmick tale, that literally is a recitation of a rather banal meeting. The worst ‘gimmick tale, though, is the title story, a page and a half of questions posed that are of no depth, and bear no insight. The third tale, Believers, has a condescending narrator christen a religious character Credo. The tale then follows the character for a few pages, until he takes the subway, and ends in this clichéd and rather screed-like way:
The subway, rattling, plunges back underground. Or, it may be, as some
extreme saints have implied, that beneath the majesty of the Infinite, believers
and non-believers are exactly alike.
This is a typical Updike ending. He reaches a conclusion that is not very deep, nor original, and then declaims it as if some revelation from humanist heights. Look at the forced modifiers like ‘plunged’ and ‘extreme’, and the ‘majesty of the Infinite’ cliché. The final posit is mind-numbingly banal.
Even his descriptions are stilted. This is from page 42, the tale How
To Love America And Leave It At The Same Time. Even the title is
condescending, and more apropos to a self-help article than a short story. Read:
Beyond the restaurant’s red tile roof lies a tawny valley; beyond it, a
lesser range of mountains, gray, but gray multitudinously, with an infinity of
shades- ash, graphite, cardboard, tomcat, lavender. Such beauty wants to make us
weep. If we were crystal, we would shatter.
Ain’t he just so precious! ‘Tawny’, ‘gray, but gray multitudinously’, ‘an infinity of shades’, and the last two sentences convey a writer who is in love with his own voice. The ‘poesy’ is definitely purple- scratch that- ‘lavender’, and the whole tone of this snippet, and the story, and the book, is this for 260 pages. There are some tales that are nice ideas, but fail anyway for their poor execution.
Yet, Let me briefly focus on three of the twenty-three tales in the book that are the closest in tone and subject matter to Carver tales, as they will illustrate the huge gap in quality between the two writers in the best and least time-consuming manner.
The first is Transaction, the story of a john and hooker, that reveal that Updike has a) never had a real conversation with a prostitute, nor with anyone that has, and b) show Updike to have never met a human emotion he couldn’t butcher with trivialization. A lonely man, near Christmas, engages a teenaged hooker for services. Through her sexual wiles he learns valuable lessons- or at least Updike believes them so. But, their whole conversation is so stilted and phony, and the end so forced and trivial that one cannot grasp how a writer or renown could be so clueless.
Here’s some of the dialogue, after the act:
She asked, ‘You gonna keep that as a souvenir?’
He asked, ‘You want it back?’
‘No, Ed. You can keep it.’
‘Thanks. I keep saying ‘Thanks’ to you, you notice?’
‘I hadn’t minded.’ She stood, her buttocks fair as Parian marble. ‘Mind if I use your john before I go?’
‘No, please do. Please.’
‘Don’t want to keep you from your beauty sleep.’ But even this mild revelation of injury must have tasted unprofessional, passing her lips, for she relented and, gesturing again at the sheath of his prick, offered, ‘Want me to flush that for you?’
‘No. It’s mine. I want it.’
She gathered some clothes and he regretted afterwards that he had not pressed into his memory these last poses of her naked body. But a wave of blankness was emitted by the still-operant alcohol….
This is really bad writing. The character’s observations have none of
the easy candor of post-sex, the male character is juvenile, but in a rather
‘tell’ than ‘show’ way, and the use of the word ‘prick’ is merely
Updike’s way of sounding ‘street’- to use the current parlance.
The end is worse, as the man fills up the condom like a water balloon:
The rubber held, though it swelled to a vanilla balloon in which water wobbled like life eager within a placenta. Good girl. A fair dealer. She had not given him venereal disease.
What she had given him, delicately, was death. She had made sex finite. Always, until now, it had been too much, bigger than all system, an empyrean as absolute as those first boyish orgasms, when his hand would make his soul pass through a bliss dense as an ingot of gold. Now at last, at forty, he saw through it, into the spaces between the stars. He emptied the condom of water and brought it with him out of the bathroom and in the morning found it, dry as a husk, where he had set it, on the bureau top among the other Christmas presents.Even in 1979 this was stilted. Look at all the obvious tropes, the purple prose about masturbating- ‘when his hand would make his soul pass through a bliss dense as an ingot of gold- and how it ends in a terrible metaphor- ‘ingot of gold’?
The other tales are on divorce- Nevada and Separating. The first tale is a so-so tale of a father driving his daughters to their mother’s home in Nevada to live. They stop at a hotel, and the father trysts with a gal he picks up. When he tries to sneak back to his room, one of his daughters catches him coming back. the scene is meant to be awkward, but it’s just dull and without meaning, as well as preachy:
‘Sure.’ Though already he could feel the morning sun’s grinding on his temples. ‘You been awake, sweetie? Sorry.’
‘I was worried about you.’ But Laura did not cross the threshold into his room.
‘Listen. It’s not your job to take care of me. It’s my job to take care of you.’
This is the end to a Very Special Episode Of A 1980s Sitcom, not a piece of literature from a supposed ‘name’ writer. Separating is even worse, lacking the few good moments that the other tale has, and ending with the father of a separating couple, tucking his son into bed at night.
Here’s how that ends:
Richard bent to kiss an averted face but his son, sinewy, turned and with wet cheeks embraced him and gave him a kiss on the lips, passionate as a woman’s. In his father’s ear he moaned one word, the crucial, intelligent word: ‘Why?’
Why. It was a whistle of wind in a crack, a knife thrust, a window thrown open on emptiness. The white face was gone, the darkness was featureless. Richard had forgotten why.
Need I really explain why this, and all the above writing is so bad? My word! What melodrama between father and son, and, of course, the faux existential copout at the end- not to mention needless modifiers like sinewy, wet, passionate, crucial. Is the son coming on to the father? Then the clichés so rife in the last paragraph, and the ‘forgotten why’. I watch soap operas with more emotional heft and realism than this scene.
A similar scenario is engaged in Raymond Carver’s short, but humorous, tale of a wife throwing her abusive husband out of the house after he threatens their daughter. The story is One More Thing. Here’s that end- and note both the dialogue and the last line, and compare it to Updike’s ends for Nevada and Separating:
‘I’ll be in touch, Rae. Maxine, you’re better off out of this nuthouse yourself.’
‘You made it into a nuthouse,’ Maxine said. ‘If it’s a nuthouse, then that’s what you made it.’
He put the suitcase down and the shaving bag on top of the suitcase. He drew himself up and faced them.
They moved back.
‘Watch it, Mom.’ Rae said.
‘I’m not afraid of him.’ Maxine said.
L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm and picked up the suitcase.
He said, ‘I just want to say one more thing.’
But then he could not think what it could possibly be.
Note Maxine’s angry repetition. This is how people speak. They do not perfectly enunciate, and they let alot be said, even when a little could suffice. Note the mother and daughter’s fear, and the mother’s bravado in spite of it, then the husband’s quizzical moment. This is a terrific, and realistic end point for a story. It says what it says and allows us to draw conclusions. The last sentence is far more poetic a touch than Updike’s self-conscious posing.
Here’s one final selection, from Carver’s Intimacy, about a famed writer who confronts his ex-wife’s hostilities over his use of details from their marriage in his work. The dialogue is wonderful and the story ends with him leaving his ex-wife’s home:
I move off down the sidewalk. Some kids are tossing a football at the end of the street. But they aren’t my kids, and they aren’t her kids either. there are leaves everywhere, even in the gutters. Piles of leaves wherever I look. They’re falling off the limbs as I walk. I can’t take a step without putting my shoes into leaves. Somebody ought to make an effort here. Somebody ought to get a rake and take care of this.Had Updike written this he would have described the leaves as ‘vermilion and gilt wonderlings of a greater tree’, and then had the character ruminate on the existential despair of it all, where carver is content that we get the metaphor of the leaves and memories that the tale recounts, and argues over. That’s the difference between great writing and self-conscious writing exercises. Updike is the latter, while Carver the former. I’ve shown you this. Just read now.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Summer, 2005 Laura Hird website.]
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