‘The Brown Chest’ by John Updike

Updike, John 1992

The Brown Chest by John Updike, 1992

The magic trick:

Beautiful prose

“The Brown Chest” takes us time traveling down the branches of Updike’s family tree using the old brown chest that gets passed down through the generations as the platform for various symbols and ruminations relating to time and aging. Ho-hum.

Why should we care? It’s clearly Updike’s story; not ours.

Well, I’ll tell you why. Read the end of the story’s first paragraph. The narrator describes the writing desk in his childhood home where his mother would work. The writing is beautiful. That’s really all there is to it. If your topic isn’t exciting, your structure not inventive, your scope selfish, well then your prose had ought to be something special. In this case, it sure is. And that’s quite a trick on Updike’s part.

The selection:

… and a little desk by the window where his mother sometimes, but not often, wrote letters and confided sentences to her diary in her tiny backslanted hand. If she had never done this, the room would have become haunted, even though it looked out on the busy street with its telephone wires and daytime swish of cars; but the occasional scratch of her pen exerted just enough pressure to keep away the frightening shadows, the sad spirits from long ago, locked into events that couldn’t change.

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