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« Preface to Les Diaboliques | Main | Tieck, "Herbstlied" »
Wednesday
Feb182009

The Journey to the Dead

There are many things to admire about this prolific author, recently deceased, not the least of which are his attempts to embellish what has already been written by writing it again, this time with more perspective.  Readers familiar with his massive oeuvre of novels, short stories, poetry and reviews would probably concur that for all his cosmopolitan education, Updike was very repetitive and very American.  And what, pray tell, might "very American" mean?  Americans are an interesting breed in that they do not share a common history, nor for that matter a common faith, package of interests or definition of nation or patriotism.  Unfortunately such a lack of commonalities often leads them and those who vaunt their culture to glorify the baser aspects of existence, the easy bourgeois pleasures of money, material wealth and commercial success.  Some would even go so far as to aver that typical American culture begins and ends on the sets and director's chairs of Hollywood.  A fair claim, but incomplete.  However much one wishes to and should criticize their subsequent treatment of the natives, the first American settlers came for political and religious reasons, mostly as a consequence of this movement.  Their goals were isolation, revitalizing their community in these new surroundings, and basking in the sunshine of a world that still had fresh and untampered pockets in which the persecuted could roam.  There is something artistically reclusive about such an approach: the return to nature, the inculcation of basic human values, the emphasis on self-reliance and propriety, the softness of familial bliss.  Of course, not of all these things happened as planned (never mind the relations with said natives), and the conservative factions that obtained in many places were quite the antithesis of artistic liberty.  Still, the austerity of their basic ideals lives on in many of their descendents, which might be one of the more typically American topoi from which Updike drew his inspiration.  And one topos that can never be exhausted because it can never be understood is the subject of a fine story in this collection.

Martin Fredericks has recently divorced after spending half his life unmarried and the other half with a wife to whom he rarely speaks.  He is past the midpoint of life's career and unpleasant thoughts jactitate within him, not really regrets but rather hints of disorder, infirmity and confusion.  The slow march of death he sees embodied in a friend of his wife's, a woman he knew from college called Arlene Quint.  For the totality of the story, Arlene will be his portal to another angle of why we are alive and what happens to us when our spirit leaves, but she will not do it out of magnanimity.  No, Arlene's main preoccupation is life itself – making the most of it, ignoring her age and past (she has "a certain air of benign defiance"), and pretending that it is all still in front of her like a grassy lea atop a distant hillock:

Her happiness glowed through her not quite healthy skin and her legs kept kicking friskily – the drumstick-shaped calves, the little round-toed Capezio flats.  Those shoes dated her; Fredericks's former wife, too, had worn ballerina shoes in all weathers, in rain or snow, as if life at any moment might become a dance.

The two of them, both divorced although Martin already has another, unnamed partner, meet after many years and begin to explore their past through the common medium of Martin's wife Harriet.  In time, Martin learns that Arlene is sick; she has had many valiant battles with cancer and seems to have gained some dominion over the disease.  But as this is a story about death we expect and are quickly confronted with a relapse (indeed, the very first paragraph has Harriet asking Martin to drive her to the hospital).  Martin then mulls what death has meant to him in his fifty-odd years of sentience: he thinks of another friend who passed away a few years ago and held a farewell party of sorts; of the depictions of the moribund in two great classical works that remind him of his college days; of what he himself would be like as he lay dying.  He deposits Arlene at the hospital where "from behind, she seemed, with her little suitcase and bulky coat, an immigrant, just arrived," and spends the rest of the story calling her and paying occasional visits to her artsy loft apartment.  Arlene may have been attractive at one point in the not-so-distant past, but her condition, the weird infidelity of cavorting with an old friend of his wife's, and the overall necessity of moving on collectively prevent Martin from performing what might be done in other, lesser works.  Yet they seem to have a good time together, perhaps mostly out of mutual solitude:

The sun of youth dappled their reminiscences, as Arlene stiffly adjusted her legs on the sofa from time to time and Fredericks sank lower into the chair and into alcoholic benignity, and the sky with its traveling clouds sank into evening blue.

Little by little, Martin learns about some of his wife's indiscretions as a much younger woman and is puzzled not by their occurrence but why they seem to mean nothing to him, why his memories are constantly warped to meet the needs of his current state of mind.  He continues to chatter on with Arlene despite the vacillations in her health until one day, particularly worn out, she informs him that, "I just can't do Harriet for you today" – at which point our story takes a drastic turn.

Connoisseurs of Updike's works will have seen, heard and touched the details of this story many times before –though never quite in this morbid combination that, upon closer scrutiny, offers us quietude and redemption.  Martin may have been oblivious to much of life before befriending someone whose hours were numbered, yet such is the slow progression of the scythe.  Throughout a lifetime esoteric elements of our consciousness dive and surface often at random, and when we come to the end, to a summary of what has passed and a glimpse of what might come, we will dwell on the small discoveries that made us realize how many layers of truth this reality possesses.  Perhaps we are nothing more than evolved amoebae; but before the bourdons wail we need to close our minds to certain tasks that will never be completed, certain people we will surely never see again, and certain accomplishments that will be mummified with us as darkness gains.  Some people, even heroes, however, will just close their eyes and hope that they wake up.

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