Living the least boring life

When I first read John Updike I was just starting on this grand adventure called life and therefore not prepared to appreciate the “mundane” which Updike strove to give “its beautiful due” (The Paris Review interview, #43, 1968). But his short story (The Gesturing) had been highly recommended so I gave it a shot. Here’s the plot in a nutshell: A man and wife are considering getting a divorce after many years and affairs. It’s not that either is miserably unhappy but they are simply looking for the “least boring” way to lead their lives.  When the man finally does move out he calls his wife to say “I feel I’ve given birth to a black hole.”  Nevertheless they forge ahead with a divorce.  Afterwards, they get together for sex from time to time and to gossip about their current lovers.  

Not surprisingly The Gesturing was first published in Playboy Magazine in 1980. Apparently, most publishers were still squeamish about the concept of guilt-free sex.

But Updike’s message is not about sex.  It’s about communication. There are gestures that are brave bluffs; there are wasteful and empty gestures, gestures without an audience, gestures that are helpless displays, and even unending gestures that would endure, cut into glass. Among the many definitions for the word “gesture” are: marking the rise or fall of the melody (music), expressing ourselves after utterances fail, and a perfunctory or symbolic action generally of little importance. Any or all could apply.

I was reminded of my parent’s marriage. They never argued.  There were never shouts or tears. They had affairs with other people. Not great love affairs that drove them apart but just “phases” (as my father would say).  In the post War prosperity that was suburbia, like Updike, they were just trying to lead the “least boring life.”

According to the book Generations by Strauss and Howe (a book my husband loves to quote), both my father and Updike were products of the so called Silent Generation, people who grew up during the greatest period of sustained economic growth that America has known and were “quietly grateful” to have escaped the horrors of the Depression and WWII. They preferred working within the system and were “incompetent of turning down an invitation to a party at which they are guaranteed to have a bad time.” (John Updike’s Couples, Christine Smallwood in Bookforum), Once I realized who he was writing for, I was able to read Updike with a bit more understanding.  I can’t say he’s my favorite but he did make me think.  And he did have a way with words.  Here are a couple of my favorite phrases:

“she was giddy amid the spinning mirrors of her betrayals.”

“encountering problematic wife substitutes at laundromats.”

“his smile was a gesture without an audience.”

I may reread his novels just for the pleasure of his words.  However, I do have another 80 short stories to go through first.  Next up, Eudora Welty’s The Hitchhikers.  Do you think it will be the light-hearted read which I badly need?

Little known fact: Besides being a great writer, Eudora Welty was also an accomplished photographer.

14 thoughts on “Living the least boring life

  1. Feeling. That’s what I get from the first few pages of Rabbit, Run. Make the reader feel.. something, anything, even if the words don’t make sense, they do as prompts for feelings.

  2. Never did get Updike’s take on the human condition. Maybe British reserve added an extra complication to those buttoned up lives he chronicles. I suspect he wrote perfectly about British suburbia for that generation but i could never relate from my own observations. I’ll keep him in the I tried pile I think. Beautiful prose isn’t sufficient to justify the investment

    • You’re probably right. The British experience post WWII was undoubtedly different than the American experience. Updike is talking about the generation who did not go to war but had to exist in the shadow of those who did.

  3. I remember reading Generations by Strauss and Howe. I was taken with the ways in which people born in a time period came to be considered the same– or at least enough so to have labels given to them. I don’t remember much about Updike as a person or his books. Interesting post all around.

  4. This post makes me want to give Updike another try. Like you, Jan, I didn’t relate to most of his stuff in high school. I have a little Updike story too: he used to live in Beverly Farms, MA, and I spent my first year out of college canvassing for a nonprofit. Updike was a generous supporter of this nonprofit. The field manager for the town of Beverly–a guy older than me and very well read–canvassed Updike’s house many times, but Updike wasn’t home on any of his attempts. Then, one night, the field manager assigned me to Updike’s neighborhood. I spent a couple of hours hoping to meet the genius writer and also wondering what I’d say if he asked me what I thought of his writing. However, for better or for worse, Updike wasn’t home that night either. If memory serves, that field manager guy did eventually get to canvass and meet Updike, which seemed like the proper ending to the story.

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