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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Life and art: Updike's semiautobiogrpahical Olinger Stories

Really enjoying looking back and reading John Updike's Olinger Stories. Thought Updike never wrote a formal memoir or autobio (he did collect a series of autobiographic essays under the title Self-Consciousness), the arc of his work over time gives us a sense of his life that in many ways is more true, deep, and insightful than any "self-conscious" attempt to tell his own life story. These stories from the 1950s and early 60s tell of his childhood in Shillington, aka Olinger, Pennsylvania, and we see the familiar tropes emerge: the father hard at work and underpaid in the high school; the mother over-educated and unappreciated, an aspiring artist herself who puts too much faith in and burden on her only child; the grandparents int he background, lost in a world that has moved away from the agrarian, lifted them up to prosperity, then crashed them into poverty in the Depression; the son himself, the brightest among his schoolmates, on a course to leave Olinger behind, yet drawn back to it all the time, witty and sarcastic, using his wit to be accepted by the in crowd, wealthier, more graceful, more athletic, both shy and blundering in his relationships with girls and, later, young women. Two key narrative themes emerge in two of the great stories: In Pigeon Feathers, U depicts the move from the small house in town to the much more rustic and crude farmhouse outside of town, the family having to move in with the grandparents because of the hard times, where the teenage son develops various phobias and death obsessions and finally, on murder and flock of invasive pigeons, develops a faith in a god who creates both natural beauty and death. In Flight, U depicts the epic battle between son and mother, as he falls in love with a girl whom she sees as not good enough for him, worried that his falling for her will tie him to Olinger when she wants him to take "flight" and find the life and fame that eluded her. The collection includes U's first published story, by his account, Guests from Philadelphia, and it's actually one of his weaker stories, teenage son stops by a neighbor's house to ask for a lift to liquor store to buy a wine for expected guests - following some teasing by the father about how successful he is without an education and the poverty of the boy's family despite father's education, the father, as we learn in the last words of the story, buys a very expensive bottle of wine - kind a cheap, "catchy" ending trick that Updike would never, to my knowledge, resort to again.

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