Repetition in the American short story: how Amis got it wrong

Updike wrote enough to know better

Updike wrote enough to know better

I admire Martin Amis’ candid review of John Updike’s final collection of short stories, My Father’s Tears. Amis celebrates Updike’s influence by himself writing well, with the clear-eyed and unsentimental insight that Updike brought to many of his novels and short stories.

Accordingly, Amis doesn’t flinch from the notion that Updike had lost some of his powers in this final collection, his last following his death earlier this year. At the beginning of the review Amis suggests a reading test, to see if one can spot the error of Updike’s ways:

The following wedge of prose has two things wrong with it: one big thing and one little thing – one infelicity and one howler. Read it with attention. If you can spot both, then you have what is called a literary ear.

Craig Martin took an interest in the traces left by prior owners of his land. In the prime of his life, when he worked every weekday and socialised all weekend, he had pretty much ignored his land.

The minor flaw is the proximity of prior and prime. This gives us a dissonant rime riche on the first syllable; and the two words, besides, are etymological half-siblings, and should never be left alone together without many intercessionary chaperones. And the major flaw? The first sentence ends with the words “his land”; and so, with a resonant clunk, does the second. Mere quibbles, some may say. But we are addressing ourselves to John Updike, who was perhaps the greatest virtuoso stylist since Nabokov – who, in his turn, was perhaps the greatest virtuoso stylist since Joyce.

Leaving aside the improbability of confirming a ‘literary ear’ based upon a single short reading, Amis is wrong when describing the repeated phrase ‘his land’ as a ‘major flaw’. It’s my view that Updike almost certainly intended the repetition in order to reinforce the complex notion of what it meant for Craig Martin to own ‘his land’. Even from this short extract we feel the land, once owned by others and now owned by Craig Martin, has in turn began owning him: the repetition is a nag that persists despite him ignoring it. More broadly, reconnecting with ‘his land’ is a longing made desperate by the emphasis that repetition brings, an arrow aimed wide at how things ought to be. It’s too rich in meaning to be left to error.

The use of repetition in literature in general, and the American short story in particular, was likely well known to Updike. Ernest Hemingway pioneered its use within his richly multi-valent, minimalist prose. The beginning of ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ shows the extent to which Hemingway would adapt repetition to create meaning beyond his seemingly innocent prose style (full text here):

The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber. Nick sat down on the bundle of canvas and bedding the baggage man had pitched out of the door of the baggage car. There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. The foundations of the Mansion House hotel stuck up above the ground. The stone was chipped and split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney. Even the surface had been burned off the ground.

There are several words repeated, in one case within a single sentence: ‘baggage’, variations of ‘burnt’, ‘the ground’ and so on. The overall effect is created through a thickening of the overlapping but discontinuous phrases, a weaving of the strands of repetition into a rope that tightens into a knot as the passage ends: the town of Seney had been ‘burned off the ground’.

Hemingway’s story was first published in 1925, yet it’s lessons have not been forgotten. Within this context, and alongside my tentative groping towards its potentially rich effect in the story, Updike’s vice seems more a virtue.

(Picture credit: from SapphireBlue’s Flickr photostream)

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