I read John Updike’s Pigeon Feathers in high school, along with The Coup and, later, The Centaur in college. Having, recently, wrung myself out on Milton and, in general, having lost my bearings on what matters to me as a reader, I pulled a copy of The Afterlife and Other Stories from the public library. I’m halfway through it now … and halfway through this current life too. That makes me ten to twenty years younger than most of the characters in this collection of stories.
Thus far, halfway in, I do not like them–the characters. They are not likeable people; or, rather, it’s hard to feel sorry for them. Parini writes in his review of the collection that Updike was “unashamedly autobiographical” in his short fiction. Privileged men, momma’s boys, self-absorbed, painfully selfish–if autobiographical, his characters are not his best representatives. Their regrets, their affairs and divorces, their ailing aging bodies, their helpless dissolutions, seem to be worn as prizes, or (at best) as the assumed sacrifices of a life lived in comfort.
If there is a pleasure to be had in reading these stories, it is that of sharing in the joy Updike finds in writing, the joy and the talent. He wrote so much, so well and with such ease. Readers stand on the side as the author’s witnesses. We are not merely passive, but inconsequential. Updike would write (and did write) with or without us. He was a superb talent and to read him is to acknowledge this fact.
Of those that I have read thus far, the title story is the most compelling and challenging. (“Brother Grasshopper” is also memorable, for its portrayal of a friendship between men, and “A Sandstone Farmhouse” as a moving remembrance probably based on the author’s relationship with his mother.) Unlike the others stories, “The Afterlife” extends beyond Updike’s conceptual control. He seems less confident, less sure, less tidy in his conclusion. In the other stories, characters face regret and sentimentality with lonely resignation. Sad, even with their affirmations of sensual existence, the characters have disconnected themselves from their roots. In contrast, in “The Afterlife” they face the storm. Even what might have grounded them (social ties, memory, and experience) is a fool’s game in the storm of “The Afterlife”. Free of silly regrets and pointless sentimentality, “The Afterlife” is, ironically, the most hopeful of the stories.
Parini, Jay. 1994. All his wives are mother. The New York Times, November 6. http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/04/06/lifetimes/updike-afterlife.html.