Studies in Short Fiction

The Afterlife and Other Stories.

The Afterlife and Other Stories. – book reviews

Sanford Pinsker

by John Updike. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. 316 pages. $24.

No contemporary American short story writer captures that epiphanic moment when surfaces collide with intimations of the transcendental and memory pushes protagonists simultaneously toward recollections of a nostalgic past and fearful dreams of an all-too certain future than does John Updike. Which is perhaps only to say that as his characters find themselves inexorably sliding into late middle age, those of us who have been following his meticulously rendered chronicle of American civilization and its religious-sexual discontents find ourselves musing along with him. In this sense, Updike has always been playing our song–albeit, often in a lyrically overheated key.

The beat goes on in The Afterlife and Other Stories (Updike’s eleventh collection), but with a richness I haven’t felt as keenly since the days of Pigeon Feathers (1962). For in the latest stories life has accumulated enough experience, enough layering of achievement and regret, to justify–at long last–the reflective inner voice that has been Updike’s strongest suit. Here, for example, is a minor marital tiff told from the husband’s point of view:

He could not help feeling [that] he didn’t make the world, and he

didn’t ask to be born a male, with a male’s responsibilities and

prerogatives. Their children grew and went away, their automobiles

became foreign and expensive, their houses increased in price and

suburban remove, and at the center of all this centrifugal

movement the cinder of her resentment remained, paired with his

resentment of her resentment. He had laid his life at her feet, and

all she cared about was gender politics.

Such notes were served by the bucketful in Rabbit at Rest (1990), and for those who remember America before shopping malls and uni-gravy, theme parks and political correctness, they pack an oddly fin-de-siecle punch.

At the same time, however, Updike knows solid anchors still exist, and more often than not, he finds them in the timeless world of his childhood. As one character puts it: “Yes, he remembered, this is how people did things in Pennsylvania: seriously, thoroughly. Life had weight there.” Moreover, glimmers of the Godly manage, despite the sheer mass of quotidian everything, to poke through:

Inside the egg, paper silhouettes spelled out a kind of landscape–a

thatch-roofed cottage, a rabbit wearing a vest, a fringe of purple

flowers, a receding path and paper mountains–all bathed in an

unexpectedly brilliant light. Where had the light come from? There

must have been a hole in the egg besides the one he peered into, a

kind of skylight, admitting to this miniature world a celestial


It has, I realize, become fashionable to write Updike off as a man who says far too much about far too little; but that accusation–and many others accumulated over the decades–will not stick to this collection. It is simply too good, and too culturally important.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Studies in Short Fiction

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