A&P by John Updike, 1961
The magic trick:
Combining small-scale judgment with larger-scale ambiguity
“A&P” is precisely the kind of story for which I started the Short Story Magic Tricks blog. We’re told it’s good. We think it’s good. But why is it good? On the surface of things, it is simply a short story about a young supermarket clerk who quits his job in show of support for three girls who shop in the store wearing bathing suits. Surely there’s more going on there, right? Well…
Consider this but an amateur guess, but it strikes me that the story’s central appeal lies in Updike’s playing of two extremes against each other. He imbues his first-person narrator, Sammy the aforementioned supermarket clerk, with a lawyer’s eye for detail and judgment. Sammy describes the scene – particularly the three bathing beauties – with remarkable observations. He’s analyzing their tan lines, determining how long they’ve owned their bathing suits, how often they walk barefoot. He’s referring to other customers as “house-slaves in pin curlers.” He’s noting a customer’s purchase of pineapple juice. He is giving the reader the entire picture – observed, projected, and criticized – inch for inch.
The narrative voice alone elevates the story above the mundaneness of its subject matter. It’s the other extreme Updike mixes in, though, that really makes the story special.
In direct contrast to the narrator’s state-of-the-A&P address, Updike completely restrains himself from offering any detail or analysis as to the narrator’s actions or, really, what the story might mean. He leaves the meaning untold. As a result, the reader is free to analyze as he or she might wish. Is it a story representing the last innocent years in America; a society ready to transition into the chaos of the 1960s? Is it a coming-of-age story about a young man about to take on the world? What happens to Sammy now, having quit his job? What happens to the girls? Are they embarrassed? Are they even aware of the part they played in this drama?
All of these questions are left to the reader to ponder; and it’s a process made all the more tantalizing because the reader finishes the story still buzzing on the narrator’s tone of detailed inspection and analysis. It all adds up to the mundane made magical. And that’s quite a trick on Updike’s part.
You know, it’s one thing to have a girl in a bathing suit down on the beach, where what with the glare nobody can look at each other much anyway, and another thing in the cool of the A & P, under the fluorescent lights, against all those stacked packages, with her feet paddling along naked over our checkerboard green-and-cream rubber-tile floor.