‘Gesturing’ by John Updike


Gesturing by John Updike, 1980

The magic trick:

Writing very lyrically about the protagonist’s present and past through the reflection of the windows around his new apartment

Welcome to another John Updike Week here on SSMT. It’s interesting to be reading these stories, as I am or was, during the Trump campaign debacle of October 2016. Obviously, Updike is NOT in his fiction advocating for sexual assault. But one finds a casual sexism in Updike’s work that isn’t dissimilar to Trump’s attitude.

It’s stunningly out of date in its morality, something that I think will – and certainly should – compromise the future reputation of an iconic American writer. So does that aspect get in the way of appreciating it as a whole? A lot of times, yeah I think it does. When a writer’s central subject matter is peeling apart human relationships, having an almost-sociopathic inability to recognize and understand and respect half the population (i.e. women), well, that’s a problem.

Everything in his work is filtered through a single focus: Updike. His is a white man’s world. Trump worked real hard to bring that back, but it ain’t happening. And yet if you do enjoy that limited point of view and that permission to tunnel into self-obsession for a half-hour reading experience (and I admit I do sometimes), Updike is a wonderful writer.

In “Gesturing,” the sexism isn’t even casual, and the self-absorption is almost comical. But wow that section about the skyscraper windows. It’s essentially a beautiful poem about the way the past reflects upon who we have become, tucked perfectly within the context of the story. It’s enough to make you keep reading this guy’s endless stream of sex and condescension. And that’s quite a trick on Updike’s part.

The selection:

Blue, it showed greener than the sky. For a time, Richard was puzzled, why the clouds reflected in it drifted in the same direction as the clouds behind it. With an effort of spatial imagination he perceived that a mirror does not reverse our motion, though it does transpose our ears, and gives our mouth a tweak, so that the face even of a loved one looks unfamiliar and ugly when seen in a mirror, the way she – queer thought! – always sees it. He saw that a mirror posed in its midst matched the half of another beyond the building’s edge, moving as one, pierced by a jet trail as though by Cupid’s arrow. The disaster sat light on the city’s heart. At night, it showed as a dim row of little lights, as if a slender ship were sailing the sky, and during a rain or fog, it vanished entirely, while the brick chimney pots and ironstone steeples in Richard’s foreground swarthily intensified their substance. He tried to analyze the logic of window replacement, as revealed in the patterns of gap and glass. He detected no logic, just the slow-motion labor of invisible workers, emptying and filling cells of glass with the brainlessness of bees. If he watched for many minutes, he might see, like the condensation of a dewdrop, a blank space so glassy, and reflective, and greenish-blue. Days passed before he realized that, on the old glass near his nose, the wavery panes of his own window, ghostly previous tenants armed with diamonds had scratched initials, names, dates, and, cut deepest and whitest of all, the touching, comical vow, incised in two trisyllabic lines,

With this ring

I thee wed

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