June 3, 2004

The Music School

Category: Literature :: Permalink

Last night, I finished reading John Updike’s The Music School, a collection of his short stories, published in 1967. I particularly enjoyed “A Madman,” “The Bulgarian Poetess,” and “The Family Meadow.” There were several other stories I appreciated and a few that fell flat.

But what struck me about many of these stories, including some that I enjoyed, was that voice in all of them was distinctly Updike’s. I don’t mean that Updike himself necessarily talks the way he tells a story. I mean, rather, that the narratorial voice is almost always the same. Even when we’re supposed to be seeing things through the eyes of a character and even when it’s a character in the story who is telling the story, the voice stays pretty much the same. For instance, in the story “The Morning,” not one of my favourites, we have this line:

He realized within himself the intricate scaffolding of mechanical connection and chemical cooperation that upheld his life, and felt its complexity as a terrible tenuousness.

Or this, from “The Hermit,” the final story in the book:

Stanley felt the green and scurvy mass around him as so infinitely divisible that the thickness of a veil was coarse in comparison; Nature, that sturdy net of interlocking rapacity, dissolved for him in its own unsayable exactness, and ceased to exist, or existed merely as the description of something else.

Now perhaps that’s just how Updike’s characters are: they see things that way (even Stanley, who, Updike tells us, dropped out of school in Grade 11). That’s possible. But it sounds more as if we’re viewing things through John Updike‘s eyes, not Stanley’s or any of the other characters’.

And that strikes me as a flaw in these stories. Updike seems to want that kind of language to draw us into the character, to help us feel what he’s feeling. But he doesn’t express it the way the person himself would and that may serve, unintentionally, to distance us from the character and, given the complexity of the language, often to bog us down and distance us from the story. Style is great, but in Updike’s case I wonder if style doesn’t get in the way of story.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:36 pm | Discuss (0)

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