Pygmalion by John Updike, 1981
The magic trick:
Letting the reader know intimate details about an emotional life but also keeping the reader’s quest for truth at an arm’s length at the same time
How does he do it? Really, I can’t imagine. Updike managed to turn one life of moderately interesting relationship difficulties into five billion words of fiction. Here, we have another slice of romantic life cut out – from the man’s point of view, of course, always from the man’s point of view.
“Pygmalion” is standard-issue Updike in another way as well. It has that odd combination of arm’s length intimacy. On one hand, it’s remarkable the details we are privy to here – the way a couple talks in bed, the things that turn a man on. But all the while, the narrative tone puts up a veil of irony. The story – as often is the case with Updike’s work, I find – shows no real interest in getting down to a hard truth. It’s clever and amused with itself. These stories seem to think that the process of attempting to connect the dots through various chapters of our emotional lives is an acceptable stand-in for actual emotional growth. In fact, the process we see in this story is simply a high-art defense mechanism designed to shield us from the truth.
But damn that defense mechanism makes for interesting reading. And that’s quite a trick on Updike’s part.
“I thought he was perfectly pleasant,” Gwen said frostily, and turned her back to remove her silvery, snug party dress. As she wriggled it down over her hips she turned her head and defiantly added, “He had a lot to say about tax shelters.”
“I bet he did,” Pygmalion scoffed feebly, numbed by the sight of his wife frontally advancing, nude, toward him and their marital bed. “It’s awfully late,” he warned her.
“Oh, come on,” she said, the lights out.
As always, join the conversation in the comments section below, on SSMT Facebook or on Twitter @ShortStoryMT.
Subscribe to the Short Story Magic Tricks Monthly Newsletter to get the latest short story news, contests and fun.
Your commentary’s a great summary of the legacy and puzzle of ‘the Updike case’. He’s always equal parts elevated intellectual overview and sensual underpinning; conscience-struck morality but brash; modest and welcoming but also, as you say, “clever and amused with (him)self”. Most emotional when nostalgia reminds him of what we all lose along the way. Ultimately, a major voice — a blend of American setting, British articulation, and European sensibility?? ;
Ah, that’s such a great summation of Updike!