People read, not only in real life but in novels too. What does their choice of reading tell us about a character and about the writer who put that book in their hands?
This question occurred to me as I made my way through Of the Farm, an early and lesser known work by John Updike. Discovered in a second-hand shop, my copy is from an American paperback edition whose trashy cover mis-sells – or debunks – the urbane prose within. Updike’s narrator is Joey Robinson, a divorced, thirty-something advertising executive visiting his widowed mother on the family farm. His purpose is partly to see how she is managing on her own and partly to introduce her to his new wife, Peggy, and stepson Richard. Over the weekend of their stay a number of tensions reveal themselves: the mutual resentment between the two women; Joey’s guilt regarding his own children and doubts concerning his change of spouse; the burden to him and his father of the farm, whose purchase was Mrs Robinson’s idea; the old lady’s ill-health and what will happen to the property when she dies; Joey’s attempts to bond with Richard: the list is not exhaustive, but indicates the complexity of the psychological landscape which Updike unfolds.
As is often the case, however, these figures struggle to escape from their creator’s wordy and encyclopaedic shadow. Scribblers beware: that is the risk of a first-person narrative. Joey is as a know-all, a one-man factory of metaphor and so comically pompous about sex we are inclined to deride or disbelieve his character. But the same is true of the supporting cast. Joey’s mother cites Plato and knows her theology. Even the minister at their local church sermonises like a Harvard professor. And Richard is a kind of mini-me, improbably knowing and mature. Only Peggy stays close to, if not precisely within, the borders of the role allotted to her, which given the over-endowment of the others is hardly a compliment. At one point Joey and his mother discuss whether she is stupid. I have seen, and often been, stupid and believe me when I say Peggy does not even come close. But then Updike’s women tend to be defined less by their temperament or intellect than by their biology. The eyes through which we see them being male, her physical attributes (including, in this case, bleeding and cramps) are pored over with an attention to detail intended to suggest fascination but bordering on prurience.
How odd, then that into this over-powered ménage with its New World geography and neuroses should stumble the unlikely figure of P. G. Wodehouse. Well, not Plum himself but one of his novels. Joey, looking on Richard’s behalf for the science fiction of his youth, finds some old Thorne Smiths and Wodehouses. This moment stands out as one of the most truthful in the book, the incident, allowed to speak for itself, allowing us to imagine an entire history for the Robinsons in their ill-chosen retreat. The library composed of two authors suggests limited resources and tastes, the consolations of literature needing the extra spice of a collecting bug to justify the house room and expense. Perhaps, like an encyclopaedia paid for in instalments, they were bought from a travelling salesman pandering to the cultural shame of the poorly-read. As objects the books exude a kind of radium, taking Joey back to the long, uneventful summers of his youth before a driving licence provided the means of escape. And the fact that as many of them are lying down as standing up alludes to the passing of that dutiful interest in the written word and to a decline in standards of an old woman growing old alone. This depth-from-simplicity contributes more to our understanding than all of Joey’s Updikean musings. As William Carlos Williams said: no ideas but in things.
Adding layers to our engagement with the text, the question of how the Robinsons came by their modest library is matched by quizzing Updike’s own acquaintance with the books. Thorne Smith was an American who wrote comical ghost stories. He died in 1934, two years after our author was born. Things had a longer shelf-life in those days and Topper or The Jovial Ghosts may have been all the rage in the Updike family home. My father owned some so they must have crossed the Atlantic – as Wodehouse certainly did in the other direction. Were they next to the Smiths and devoured in the same precociously bookish childhood, a memory drawn on for Of the Farm; or did Updike encounter them while he studied in Oxford? And which book is it that Joey picks up and starts reading? Allusion is made to the stealing of a pig and this suggests one of the Blandings stories, in which the Earl’s beloved Empress is always being coveted by some felonious bounder. To his surprise Joey finds himself laughing, another moment of insight in which, their choices and mannerisms having always been derided, some merit is glimpsed in a parent’s tastes. Later Richard picks up the Wodehouse and starts reading, the whole cycle beginning again, his adoption of Joey as a father deftly implied.
Physical description. Intensity of feeling. The world-shattering importance of ordinary lives. Updike could be so good at these things that when the intellectuallism intrudes it feels like an insult to his subject and his audience, like an operatic voice drowning a popular song. In this case, however, a certain amount of redemption is at hand. The prose of the last few pages, as the visit nears its end and the tensions that separate the protagonists come to a head, is more in scale with their humanity and achieves what all great fiction is able to do, establish a connection with people far removed from the reader’s own experience. He had that gift, Updike, to which his other talents were not always conducive or kind.