Commercial by John Updike, 1972
The magic trick:
Setting up a series of compare-contrast opportunities between the would-be family happiness of a commercial and the would-be family happiness of a family
We looked yesterday on the SSMT blog at “A Full Glass,” featuring an aging Updike narrator. Today’s story gives us a glimpse of what could reasonably be pictured as the same man 40 years younger. Curiously, both men enjoy nightly rituals in the bathroom. Hmmm.
Anyway, “Commercial” is something close to brilliant. It feels tossed off, more of a fun little experiment than serious story. But the more you look at it and consider its counterpoints, the more you admire its achievement.
It’s a binary structure – the first half breaks down in detail a cheesy early ’70s commercial. It feels like a funny, amusing gimmick until the story’s second half – a breakdown in detail of a man’s thoughts and feelings as he goes to sleep next to wife.
The comparisons and contrasts are rich. Why doesn’t the man’s life measure up in home-sweet-home goodness? What bogus produce are he and his wife trying to sell with their performance? It’ll keep you thinking. And that’s quite a trick on Updike’s part.
And now (there is so much to see!) she relaxes her arms in front of her, the fingers of one hand gently gripping the wrist of the other. This gesture tells us that her ethnic type is ANGLO-SAXON. An Italian mama, say, would have folded her arms across her bosom; and, also, wouldn’t the coquetry of Mediterranean women forbid their wearing an apron out of the kitchen, beside what is clearly a front STAIRCASE? So, while still suspended high on currents of anticipation, we deduce that this is not a commercial for spaghetti.
Nor for rejuvenating skin creams or hair rinses, for the camera cuts GRANDMOTHER to the BOY. He is hopping through a room. Not quite hopping, nor exactly skipping: a curious fey gait that bounces his cap of his hair and evokes his tender dialectic of the child-director encounter. This CHILD, who, though a child actor acting the part of a child, is nevertheless also truly a child, has been told to move across the fictional room in a childish way. He has obeyed, moving hobbled by self-consciousness yet with the elastic bounce that Nature has bestowed upon him and that no amount of adult direction can utterly squelch. Only time squelch it.