Life before death: a guided tour : BOOKS : FICTION

THE AFTERLIFE AND OTHER STORIES by John Updike, Hamish Hamilton £14.99
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The Independent Culture
The TITLE of John Updike's latest volume of stories has less to do with theological or transcendental considerations than with the old joke "Is there life before death?" For this reads as a thematic collection, the theme being ageing: the decline of the body and mind, the deaths of parents and contemporaries, the lack of balance between past and future, the procession of the generations, the altered texture and heft of things once we have crossed the shadow-line which separates the intellectual knowledge of our eventual extinction from its presence as a lived reality.

In the title story, this crossing takes the form of a physical blow. Visiting some old friends in rural Norfolk, Carter Billing gets up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet and falls downstairs, where he is struck in the chest by a handrail support. "I felt as if the whole universe had given me a nudge," says one of Lawrence Durrell's characters; Carter feels as though it has given him a punch, and all his subsequent experiences take on a heraldic quality, emptied of affect and weight yet filled with a dreamlike significance. When his host gets worried about their safety in a storm, Carter is "surprised and amused that Frank didn't know they were beyond all that now".

The sense of being "beyond all that" takes various forms. One is an absence of context. Like several of the other stories, "The Afterlife" takes place in a literal beyond, a foreign country where the characters are what they have effectively become in their own lives: tourists whose experiences are constantly undermined both by ignorance of local customs and a knowledge that the trip will soon be over.

But this feeling of estrangement is even more disturbing in a domestic setting. Updike's protagonists have always been blessed with an almost preternatural acuity for the way things look and feel and smell and taste; here that blessing becomes a curse. Unused or dispossessed, familiar objects float free like phantasms which nevertheless appear infinitely more substantial than the people they are haunting. Houses in particular - they are the main characters in three of the stories - become repositories of memory, a psychic black hole from which it is almost impossible to escape. In "A Sandstone Farm-house", the longest and most powerful of these, one man's painful relationship with his isolated childhood home ends with the realisation that "He had always wanted to be where the action was, and what action there was, it turned out, had been back there."

Certainly, there is not much action in these stories, and little variety either. The tone is resigned and elegiac, a set of variations in the minor which occasionally modulate to a surprising major key ending. The protagonists, too, seem largely interchangeable white Anglo-Saxon males from the North- Eastern United States, in their late fifties or early sixties, genteely pussy-whipped by a second or third wife, financially comfortable but existentially insecure. As their children grow increasingly strange and distant, their own childhoods loom larger and their parents, dead or dying, reassert a disturbing dominion.

The execution is uneven, too. At times, Updike's descriptive virtuosity seems to be operating in an aesthetic void, an end in itself, like Nabokov's in Transparent Things. At others, he tries too hard to force a conceptual mould on the material, as in "The Conjunction", where celestial events rather too neatly mirror those in a disjunctive marriage. "Farrell's Caddie", in which an American golfer receives oracular advice from his caddie at the Royal Caledonian, provides some much-needed light relief, but in a disconcertingly arch vein of New Yorkerish whimsy. In "Playing with Dynamite" Updike comes close to self-parody:

"He could scarcely distinguish his stepchildren from his children by his own former marriage, or tell kin from spouses. He was polite to all these tan, bouncy, smooth-skinned, sure-footed, well-dressed young adults ... who claimed to be related to him, and he was flattered by their mannerly attentions, but he secretly doubted the reality of the connection."

But such reservations are the in-evitable result of judging these stories by the standards set by the best of them. If Updike's squibs would draw oohs and aahs in any less sumptuous display, at least half a dozen titles here - an excellent hit-rate in this exacting form - are as good as anything he has ever done. Two of these centre on the retrospective reassessment of relationships long taken for granted. In "The Rumour", a marriage is perturbed by gossip about the husband having a same-sex affair. The story is eventually revealed to be one of mistaken identity, but meanwhile the tremor has revealed structural flaws in the couple's relationship - as always, Updike's grip on sexual politics is incomparable - and, more surprisingly, the husband has been forced to confront the reality of his long-repressed homosexual impulses.

"Brother Grasshopper" is an account of the lifelong relationship between Fred Emmet, a rather weedy only child, and his hearty, convivial brother- in-law Carlyle. Two passages from it encapsulate the emotional parameters of the entire book. Looking back on an old affair, Fred reflects that "he would never love anyone that much again. He had come to see that the heart, like a rubber ball, loses bounce, and eventually goes dead." The other occurs at the end, when the hoard of photographs which the dead Carlyle insisted on taking at the family get-togethers he insisted upon organising "were revealed to Fred as priceless - treasure, stored up against the winter that had arrived". The individual perishes, the collective endures: the message is neither new nor original, but it has rarely been as effortlessly or as movingly expressed.