‘The Full Glass’ by John Updike

Updike, John 2008

The Full Glass by John Updike, 2008

The magic trick:

The conflicting feelings of satisfaction and desire that hang over the narrator’s life and the story

I wish I had something more insightful to say about this story. I am but a scrambling amateur after all. This is a remarkable story. It’s slippery, though. I can’t quite figure out why it’s so good.

First of all, we can agree that it’s absolutely remarkable that the final story Updike published in The New Yorker – at the age of 75 no less – could be this good. Talk about going out on top of your game.

It’s a gift to the reader, too, because it’s rare that we get this level of detail and honest point of view from a octogenarian narrator. Updike is doing what he’s always done: squeezing his autobiography into a stylized fiction. It just so happens that now he’s writing from the perspective of someone who knows his life is nearly complete.

OK, so that’s something. What else? I think the one thing that stands out to my idiot eyes is the use of contradiction. There is a nagging discomfort looming over the story.

On one hand, there is a sense of peace. The aged narrator takes comfort in his little routines and domestic chores. He talks of his wife and their life together.

But he also continues to flash back to sexual memories of the past, an affair that must have caused many people anguish. He seems to hunger for the excitement, the newness and adventure of younger opportunities.

The clash between satisfaction and desire keeps the story oddly tense, and it never really resolves in one direction or the other. So, yeah, I guess that’s why this story is so good. And that’s quite a trick on Updike’s part.

The selection:

Before we were spoiled for each other, she saw me as an innocent, and sweetly tried to educate me. With her husband’s example in mind, she told me I must learn to drink more, as if liquor were medicine for grownups. She told me the way to cure a cold was to drink it under. Rather shyly, early in our love life, she told me my orgasms told her that this was important for me. “But isn’t it for everybody?” I asked.

She made a wry mouth, shrugged her naked shoulders slightly, and said, “No. You’d be surprised.” There was a purity, a Puritan clarity, to her teaching, as she sought to make me human. At some point in the ungainly aftermath of our brief intimacy, she let me know—for I used to seek her out at parties, to take her temperature, as it were, and to receive a bit of the wisdom a love object appears to possess—how I should have behaved to her if I “had been a gentleman.” If I had been a gentleman: it was a revelatory slur. I was not a gentleman, and had no business putting on a suit each morning and setting off to persuade people wealthier than I to invest in the possibility of their own deaths. I had begun to stammer on the mollifying jargon: “in the extremely unlikely event” and “when you’re no longer in the picture” and “giving your loved ones financial continuity” and “let’s say you live forever, this is still a quality investment.”

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