Reading John Updike’s Complete Stories
This series is a re-reading of John Updike’s short stories in the wake of the publication of “The Collected Early Stories” and “The Collected Later Stories,” the twin-volume set by the Library of America (2013), edited by Christopher Carduff. Updike wrote some 230 stories in five and a half decades. The commentaries include the Maple and Bech stories, most of which are excluded from the Library of America edition in anticipation of a subsequent volume collecting those. Contact the editor for questions, debates or corrections. A hyperlinked list of the compete stories appears below.
[Written in Ipswich in 1973, “Transaction” was rejected by The New Yorker, accepted by Playboy, and published in Playboy’s new Oui magazine, the March 1974 issue. It was collected in Problems, The Early Stories, and the Library of America’s Collected Early Stories.]
Until then the most sexually explicit, and second-longest, short story, “Transaction” is John Updike’s raw, enfolding, at times very funny and occasionally poignant recreation of an encounter between a 40-year-old man and a prostitute in the city of N—. Today’s New Yorker would have accepted it, though the explicit scenes date the story the same way that grainy, 1970s porn with cheap pop music and hairy, bulging men look dated today.
The story begins with a funny nod to Chekhov or Dostoevsky: “In December of the year 197-, in the city of N—–, a man of forty was walking toward…” But it’s an entirely different sort of anonymity than the habitual tic of 19th century Russian literature. We’re clearly in New York City during the Christmas season. The man who would later claim to be called ed is walking back to his hotel, leaden with Christmas gifts, when he passes by a cluster of prostitutes. The word “Negress” makes an apparition again, as it did in “Toward Evening” and “Bech Panics.” What may have been excusable by a young writer in 1955 is by 1973 plain racism, repeated again a few pages later. As is often the case when a white Updike character grazes the space of a black character, “Fear fingered his heart.” But the man walks on. He seems to be on Tenth Avenue.
A death theme emerges. DDeath and gifts. As he walks, the glass office building floats above him silent as an ice floe.” A bank at night becomes “its own sealed mausoleum.” “Amid this deathly gray of winter and stone,” he doubles back. He passes by an unlit window where Maggi are bringing their gifts. He wants his. He wants to pick up a whore. “The routed but raffish army of females still occupied their corner and dim doorways beyond.” Why routed? He finds his pick. Or rather she finds him as her “toothy white smile suddenly slashed the doorway shadows.” They go to his hotel, ignoring a pair of boozed up and jealous men who leer at them in the elevator. Portend of something else as the elevator door “sucked shut.” The death theme continues: the hotel’s windows “blazed erratically, like a ship going down” (not the most successful simile).
But Ed, as he calls himself to Ann, is boozed up himself. What follows is something of a comedy of errors as he tries to get it up, fails, and exasperates the young prostitute, a 22-year-old woman with tautness for a body. A collection of poems Ed bought for his wife as a Christmas present, Auguries of Innocence, begins to play a recurring role, sprinkling a mixture of irony and pretension on the scene, but mostly, and crudely, demarcating the protagonist’s elevated taste from the prostitute’s street culture. Crude because it’s a cliche and it’s unnecessary, a shortcut that refracts the author’s too heavy-handed superiority to his characters, the prostitute, more often referred to as a whore with evident prurient relish, especially.
Ed attempts several times to chat up Ann, humanizing her gradually, so that by the end, when she reveals that she, in daytime, takes care of her kid, now being taken care of by a babysitter, the humanization is complete: she is a mother, she’s lived in Rhode Island, she’s big on hygiene and condoms, and she transacts as efficiently, if pleasure-lessly, as she jacks off, sucks off and fucks he client. The description of every act is rendered in detail by the post-Couples Updike, who by then was in the full groove of ensuring that his novels would land on the best-seller list as long as he infused them with a few scenes written in the style the old Penthouse Forum. There is a lot of back and forth along the way as Ed tries to cover up a failed first attempt before making his way to her pussy with his mouth and, naturally, stopping just as she seemed to be nearing moments of pleasure of her own. He wants his. She goes back to business, condom at the ready, rocking him expertly and finally, belatedly making him come, spurting “the gift we are made to give, the seething scum the universe exists to float.”
Ed had wondered: “How many times a night did she do this? He saw, dismally but indulgently, his prick as a product, mass-produced and mass consumed in a few monotonous ways. Poor dear child.”
The origin of the condescension is blurred: Ed’s? Updike’s? As always in Updike stories, the author does not respect Flaubert’s commandment to be entirely unseen, unfelt. He is everywhere. Earlier in the story Ed wonders: “Was a hotel merely a store that sells rooms, or is it our watchdog and judge, with private detectives eyeing every corridor through dummy fire extinguishers, and lawyers ready to spring from the linen closets barking definitions of legal occupancy?” But it is Updike who is the watchdog and judge, and in this story he manages to judge the prostitute a great deal more than the indemnified, Blake-reading whoremonger. Ann is softened, a bit fleshed out, but in patronizing ways. That “poor, dear child” tone.
Then it’s back to Blake and the goodbyes, the maneuvering out of risking her staying the entire night, the extra $10 for the babysitter, and the final goodbye, but not before another enigmatic, if not racist, line: “What color was the baby-sitter? What color was the child?” Since neither Updike nor Ed had until then made mention of Ann’s race, who the hell ask the questions? Why ask them regardless? The death theme had taken a respite during the “transaction,” but ti returns at the end as Ed implores, after she has left, in his mind: “Forgive me, help me, adore me, screw me, forget me, carry me with you into the street.” It is the exhortation of the prototypically self-absorbed, self-conflicted Updikean character.
“What she had given him, delicately, was death. She had made sex finite,” goes the opening of the final paragraph. It’s intended to lend the story a cosmic, metaphysical dimension that doesn’t wash. The rest of the paragraph is more convincing, less cluttered, with the last image a striking ending: Ed placing the dried up condom “where he had set it, on the glass bureau top among other Christmas presents.”
John Updike: The Complete Stories (Click on Links for Summaries and Analyses)
|Ace In the Hole|
|Friends From Philadelphia|
|A Game of Botticelli|
|Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth|
|Dentistry and Doubt|
|Snowing in Greenwich Village (The Maples)|
|The Kid's Whistling|
|Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow|
|Wife-wooing (The Maples)|
|Giving Blood (The Maples)|
|Twin Beds in Rome (The Maples)|
|The Bulgarian Poetess (Bech)|
|Bech in Rumania|
|Bech Takes Pot Luck|
|Rich in Russia (Bech)|
|Bech Enters Heaven|
|The Gun Shop|
|How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time|
|Daughter, Last Glimpse Of|