Fiction Responding to Fiction: James Joyce and John Updike

APOne of John Updike’s early and most anthologized stories, “A & P,” from Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, is a modern retelling of James Joyce’s “Araby” from The Dubliners. While almost 50 years pass between their publications, both stories consider how a boy’s romantic crush leads to heroic deeds that are ultimately unfulfilled. It is clear that Updike used “Araby” as a model for his story, both mirroring and updating key elements.

In “Araby,” the first person narrator is in love with his friend’s sister who lives on his street. Again and again, Joyce presents us with images of this idealized woman as the boy observes her standing outside of her home, a building with a “brown imperturbable face”:

She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.

Because the Dublin of “Araby” is so dark and constrained, the lamplight is key here, as it lights up everything about her, and allows us to see her as the narrator does. She is, literally and figuratively, above the narrator, and we feel his adoration for her in the way that he describes her. As a student at the convent, she is clearly drawn as a madonna figure but there is also—as often with Joyce—a bit of the whore symbolism woven in as well, as we end with a look at her undergarments. The narrator is dramatic in his love for her and that dramatic tendency returns at the end, in his epiphanic moment, as his disillusionment reaches its peak.Continue Reading

Tyrants big and little

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How would an onlooker have described the scene at the 2nd hole of the golf course I played on during the summer after high school? The tee overlooked the pin far below, nearly a vertical drop, and way in the left-hand distance were mountains that looked serrated down the middle. It all seemed to converge at once: my future looming large, big mountains, plate tectonics, the years and years, the 9 iron or the pitching wedge?, my own small and un-forever life. My friends were rummaging in their bags as I tried to keep my heartbeat quiet. Those mountains could’ve killed me. This is how the 2nd hole felt to me.

This was Joan Didion’s reason for keeping a notebook, to record “how it felt to me.” The mountains that could have taken the onlooker’s breath away to me were dark and devoid of majesty. This is differential construal: how we judge life’s circumstances differently. That afternoon I was at the losing end of it.Continue Reading

Writers and Their Pets: Nathaniel Frank

The ‘Writers and Their Pets’ series began with my own desire to celebrate my dog Sally, and since then I have also invited other writers to share with the rest of us the details of their lives with beloved pets.

We also ask contributors to the series to tell us about their favorite pets from literature. Here’s what Nathaniel told us: “The summer I graduated college I took a road trip across the country in my parents’ minivan, to discover in person what I’d been writing about as a student of “American Culture.” Reportedly this was also the impulse behind John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, a touching account of driving cross-country with his 10-year-old poodle as he rediscovered America. I read it on my trip as I discovered America for the first time. Who wouldn’t want a sounding board like Charley, trusted tour guide and guarder against bears?”

We hope you enjoy Nathaniel’s essay.

—Ladette Randolph, Editor-in-Chief

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Romeo was a rescue dog from a city shelter in East New York. He was all Brooklyn from the get-go. So it wasn’t hard to figure out where to scatter his ashes when he finally left us.

Every morning for years, we had started the day trotting through Fort Greene Park, which Walt Whitman helped create and Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison used as a writing perch. That seemed the obvious choice. Still, I had to spend some real time deciding. After all, Romeo was one of the most widely traveled dogs I know, choosing only the poshest destinations: he romped the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard, East Hampton and Fire Island; hiked the rustic roads and grassy hills of Sullivan County, enjoying nothing more than a wild back roll on the 15-acre farm he inspired us to buy; he lived with me in London, taking a weekend home in Notting Hill; he even spent a month in Aix-en-Provence, visiting cobbled plazas, daytriping to vineyards and fording the moats of medieval castles.

So where was his favorite place? For someone who’s not always great at making decisions, this was an easy one: because I came back to beginnings, to roots.

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Blurbese: Direct Quotations

If you happened to read more than one review of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy last month, you’ll never look at a condom the same way again. That’s because of a single line from the book, which the New York Times, The New Yorker, Time, the Daily Beast, and Library Journal all quoted as evidence of, well—something. The now notorious words were describing a used condom,

glistening in the grass beside her feet, like the gossamer cocoon of some huge grub.

I’m not sure whence stemmed the gleeful concupiscence—or was it prudery?—that prompted so many critics to latch onto this one line; by most accounts, there were many more equally lascivious ones to choose from. I suspect for many of them, focusing on Rowling’s newfound raunchiness was a way to sidestep the more germane topic: that they really didn’t like The Casual Vacancy much.

But I bring up the grub line less to speculate about Michiko Kakutani’s motives than because it’s a great example of something I’ve always found baffling from the ten commandments of book reviews: thou shalt always quote directly.Continue Reading