Deal Me in Challenge: A&P by John Updike
Card Drawn: 3 of Spades.
One might think that my luck has run out for drawing another 'short-story anthology card' from the deck but lo and behold, it actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Ladies and gentleman, I am proud to announce the first 5-star short-story since embarking on this challenge. As the great J.G. Ballard once said: "There are no perfect novels but there are some perfect short-stories" and only a few come to my mind: Ernest Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephants, James Joyce's The Dead, Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find, J.D. Salinger's A Perfect Day For Bananafish, maybe even Shirley's Jackson's The Lottery. I feel confident in adding A&P by John Updike to that highly exclusive list. There are bound to be others but I am still on the hunt to discover them. To my mind, A&P represents a paradigm of the form and should be an inspiration for any aspiring writer who might have literary ambitions to dabble in short-stories. Or for those who might be curious to see how a masterful short-story is done, look no further. It is so polished and constructed with such painstaking delicacy but this only becomes apparent on a closer inspection. With understated craftsmanship, Updike somehow manages to redefine the short-story, perfecting the less-is-more technique with such exquisite nuance that left me in awe.
I can't believe it took me so long to finally read something by John Updike. As a preeminent literary figure of the mid-20th century, reaching international fame during the 1960's (along with others like Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote Philip Roth, Harper Lee, etc), he remained on my radar for many years and it is embarrassing to admit that I have only recently discovered his brilliant writing talents. At the end of the introduction to his Early Stories: 1953-1975, Updike sums up his primary artistic vision as thus: "My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me--to give the mundane is beautiful due." Keeping this in mind is a helpful way to approach his works but his writing is far too elusive and complex to be pigeon-holed into this one specific category. From what I can gather so far, he does tend to examine ordinary middle-class life with a microscope, often elevating the prosaic or banal into the sublime but he also happens to be a skilled prose stylist who uses language meticulously for dramatic effect.
So, what is this story about exactly? Well, on its surface, the story is pretty simple. It takes place at a grocery store (hence the title, for those who may not be familiar with American grocery-store chains) in a sleepy Midwestern town, narrated by one of the young male employees who works there. His boring shift starts off like any other except on this particular day, he is roused from his complacent stupor when three girls walk in wearing only their bathing suits. I'll leave the summary at that. What follows is an acerbic and razor sharp social critique of middle-class values that is unexpectedly poignant. I could easily write an extensive essay on the sociological underpinnings of the story from a Marxist perspective or on the way Updike handles gender. Or what about the importance of Updike's specific use of language and narrative devices? There is so much to discuss and endless interpretations but I'll let the story speak for itself. That ending though...talk about pitch-perfect. Some might view it as cynical but not me: It is the absolute TRUTH of the indifferent capitalist society we live in.
After doing a bit of research, it turns out that A&P is one of Updike's most famous stories, his most widely anthologized and one that has been taught in college classrooms since it's release in 1961. It's reputation does not surprise me but it is strange that I have not heard about it until now, John Updike was never mentioned once during my 20th century lit or short-story courses during university, nor does his name carry the same amount of prestige it might have when he was at his peak. Updike seems to have all but faded from public consciousness or at least it feels that way. I am beginning to wonder if he wrote anything else that could possibly match or come close to reaching the level of excellence achieved by this short-story. I aim to find out. Nonetheless, if he is still widely read and praised for his literary virtues, this is surely being carried out on the down-low.
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