Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Poorhouse Fair by John Updike


A circadian novel, in which the action all takes place in a single day, The Poorhouse Fair relates the story, set some time in the 1980s (but published in 1959) of the annual fair of the Diamond County Poorhouse, which is threatened for the first time in living memory by bad weather. The future setting is important. Updike, according to Norris Yates, is telling us that even if nuclear annihilation – a concern of the time – could be averted, the fate for mankind – a secular vacuum – might not prove spiritually uplifting.[1] This is a reasonable, albeit narrow, interpretation: such is the complexity of The Poorhouse Fair Updike’s conclusion may be interpreted in either a religious or a humanist way. God may indeed have been abandoned but, equally importantly, man’s love of man may also have been lost. Buddy, the assistant to the manager of the poorhouse, is in his twenties: he would therefore have been born around the time this novel was written; thus, for Updike’s original audience, he was literally “the child of today”. And in a telling passage, we are told: ‘Buddy’s mechanical generation had never learned how to laugh’.[2] Life, Updike is suggesting, will become darker, harsher.

The Poorhouse Fair was Updike’s first novel, and for a new, twenty-something novelist the choice of subject matter – the travails and beliefs and worries and lives of a group of old people – is extraordinarily bold. Although set in the future, there is no posturing or hiding behind fanastic or sci-fi constructs here: these characters are wholly human and, in their frailty, their irascibility, their hope, their mischievousness, they are all too recognisable. (Consider, too, that Updike’s second novel, The Centaur was a brave mixing of Greek myth and modern Americana, this time centreing on a middle-aged teacher who considers himself a failure, and it is easy to see how fresh and distinctive Updike’s voice was at the turn of the sixties.)

In The Poorhouse Fair, Conner, the poorhouse manager, is a decent man who is ‘devout in the service of humanity’,[3] but is nonetheless bored. He is ambitious, anticipating promotion in two years, but along the way he genuinely wants to help the inmates. He introduces innovations which he thinks will make life easier for them, such as putting nametags on the chairs in the main sitting room, and cannot understand the scepticism and mistrust these actions instil in the residents. In his mind, he is helping; in theirs, he is controlling. In the central incident of the novel, Conner is stoned by a group of residents, led by the aggressive Gregg and, although he cannot understand what has driven them to such anger, thinking it ‘unjust’, he nonetheless ‘forgives’ them.[4] (That Conner, the rationalist humanist, should respond in such a way, clearly evoking Christ, is of course deliberate, part of the constantly shifting points of view of the novel.)

Granville Hicks, in a contemporary review, calls The Poorhouse Fair a parable of the welfare state.[5] That is so, but it is much more than that. It is the welfare of the mind as much as the body that is Updike’s subject matter here. The novel debates the existence of a God who can sanction seemingly capricious suffering and pain and, whether or not he does exist, what the consequences of that might be for humanity. Thankfully, though, there is no didacticism here. Characters have their viewpoints – Conner the humanist, Hook the believer, Gregg the unbeliever, Buddy the spiritless, Heinemann the hopeful – but each interacts, scores points, wins or loses arguments, and the debate circles restlessly, never – quite – reaching a conclusion. Indeed, the novel ends with a question – “What was it?”[6]

This, an immediately wistful recall of the past, takes us into typically Updikean territory – a lament for the loss of traditional values. Such themes, for example, suffuse the Rabbit novels: indeed, these inmates of the poorhouse are, one senses, the future of a mankind composed of Harry Angstroms. Hedonistic, solipsistic, shallow, not forward thinking, not especially bright, they will live a twilight existence of small frustrations and petty rebellions. It is a sad prospect but, unlike a writer such as Flannery O’Connor, who would have flapped her moral indignation around them like a settling shroud, Updike allows us to share the sadness of these people, and even to see their nobility, some innate goodness, the final flowerings of their once youthful ambition. It is impossible not to be moved by Mrs Mortis, still making her intricately sewn quilts for sale each fair day, hoping to enjoy an afternoon of steady selling and being disappointed every year when a “sharper”, who both we and Mrs Mortis know is taking advantage of her, buys them all in a job lot at a knock-down price. Giving one of the blankets away free to a young couple who liked it but could not afford it is her final, quiet, moment of triumphant rebellion and even though she subsequently suffers further indignation at the hands of the “sharper”, who renegotiates down his price for the rest, we quietly cheer her spirit. As with Harry Angstrom, even people with failings need not be complete failures.

Thaddeus Muradian observes four recurring themes in this novel and the other early works of Updike: childhood memories or the past; pain and loneliness; death; and ‘the Hope’.[7] It is not so much memories of the past that matter, however, but their great distance, or as Hook, at ninety-four the oldest resident, observes, ‘the small condensed grief – that the past was so far, the end so near’.[8] He further laments:

“[I] have outlived those that were stronger by nature. The penalty I’ve paid for this has been burying all of my kin, until there is none living who remembers me as I was before.”[9]

That is not to say that Updike paints childhood as some form of Rousseauian natural idyll, a perfect state to which we all yearn to return. In the middle of a highly charged debate between Conner and Hook on theology, there is the following exchange:

[Hook said:] “And who is to say how the ailments of my childhood may have been the fruit of my father’s shortcomings, or of his before him.”

“You believe that too?” Conner was sincerely surprised.

“Indeed and double… If the size of a mouth is passed down, why not the burden of wrongdoing?”[10]


Even so, Updike, although pessimistic, is not hopeless. There is a beautiful inversion of this ‘sins of the father’ motif near the end of the novel, where he opines: ‘The old continue to be old-fashioned, though their youths were modern. We grow backward, aging into our father’s opinions and even into those of our grandfathers.’[11]

But essentially the past, one’s childhood, one’s upbringing, is not so much a theme of Updike’s as the canvas on which his themes are laid down. It is the latter of Muradian’s themes – pain, loneliness, death and hope – that are integral to a reading of Updike.

Pain certainly suffuses The Poorhouse Fair, from the odd but trivial habit of Gregg deliberately irritating his ear with a wooden stick to keep it infected, to the diseased and dying cat which Conner has Buddy shoot to put it out of his misery, to the stoning of Conner which results from that act, and to the difficult and tormented discussion between Conner and Hook about the nature of pain, arising from Buddy’s story of the slow and painful death of his brother from cancer. But pain is only part of the story. As Hook observes: ‘“it is an error now to believe that the absence of evil will follow from the elimi-nation [sic] of pain.”’[12] Pain is only a part of this tapestry.

Loneliness is also an essential feature. In the way the point of view of The Poorhouse Fair slides into different characters in turn, it seems, at times, to be meditating on a life outlived and left to run dry. It reaches the stage where life is decried and death, that ‘third participant in every conversation’,[13] is almost to be desired. Hook, who has been ‘old a third of his life’,[14] can ‘picture no job he would ever be ready again to do’.[15] Mrs Mortis knows she will make no more quilts and is resigned to loneliness. Death will come next. And in this way, just as pain elided into loneliness, so loneliness now elides into death. Everything in Updike is connected.

In a peculiar interlude, wrongly characterised by Bryant N. Wyatt as ‘forced and discordant’,[16] we are given a reprise of the preceding comic scene when Lucas tries to recapture his wife’s escaped parakeet, this time told through the eyes of a man dying in a bed, with Lucas being hallucinated into the form a bear and the parakeet a green flower. This is a beautiful scene which captures the essence of Updike’s worldview. It is worth quoting in its entirety:

The green flower had sprouted unsurprisingly; the appearance of a bear seemed to follow from that. Now the bear growled. It seemed sorry for something, but then he was sorry too, and though there was no need to say so he smiled. The bear pointed; the flower leaped; the flower skimmed over the ceiling, and at a command from the bear the door dosed sharply, saying "Idiot." The bear lifted its black arms and sank from view, and the flower bloomed on the bed, its bright eye frightening. He was glad when the bear came again. A chair fell lazily, and the bear was of course sorry about that, and ashamed. Then the bear grew very clever and plucked the green flower from a picture on the wall. He was so proud, he tried to show it, but of course if he opened his hands too wide the flower would leap again. It occurred to him that it all had been arranged to amuse him, and he laughed obligingly, so they would not feel sorry, and continued laughing when they had gone through the door, for them to hear, thought curiously he was not sorry when they had left him alone again.

There is a mysticism in this scene which is fundamental to Updike’s essentially religious worldview. The whole novel, and indeed much of his career output, has debated matters of religion; and so atheism, Deism, humanism and Christianity all have their beliefs aired here; but ultimately Updike’s view, albeit pessimistic, is that essentially there is, or should be, a supernatural, mystical element to humanity, that this is essential to its wellbeing, and that without it civilisation will stagnate in the manner of the lives of these poor inmates. It is Elizabeth Heinemann, the blind woman who lives in hope of being able to see in heaven – literally, “blind hope” – who best articulates Updike’s vision, in her description of heaven:

[I believe] we live in a house with a few windows, and when we die we move into the open air, and Heaven will be, how can I say, a mist of all the joy sensations have given us. Perfumes, and children speaking, and cloth on our skin; hungers satisfied as soon as we have them. Other sometimes will make themselves known like drops of water touching our arms.[18]

And so these themes merge and inter-relate to form a more powerful sense of emotions – more than pity, or sorrow, or admiration, or impatience, or anger, although all of those are present. They combine to form something powerfully human, something which can truly connect. And it is in the ending of the novel when this comes most brilliantly to the fore, in a bravura display which leaves the reader simultaneously awestruck by the quality of the writing and humbled by the plight of the characters. Gradually, as the day of the fair comes to its end, the old residents who have been our companions throughout the book retire to bed. In their place comes a host of new characters, young families with strident voices and proud hopes, the outsiders who have arrived for a day out at the home for its annual fair, and now it is they who begin to take centre stage. New stories abound, new concerns, new priorities. Almost without being noticed, the residents slip into silence, as the past, their past, is eclipsed by a present being towed relentlessly forward by the future. In their place, the chatter becomes more shrill, but it means less and less to us. Finally, from those voices of the past, from Hook and Gregg and Lucas and Mrs Mortis and Elizabeth Heinemann, there is nothing. Time has moved and the mortals have been left in its wake.

Finally, in assessing this novel it is important, too, not to forget the atmosphere of the times in which it was written. The fear of nuclear war and the annihilation of civilisation was strong. By setting the novel in 1980, Updike is telling us that we will survive, but at what cost? In the novel, there is a consistent conflation of the natural and the man-made, of nature and warfare. ‘”Perhaps the weather is more variable than it used to be,”’ one character says. ‘“Yes well: the bombs,”’ another replies.[19] The noise made by a lorry knocking down the poorhouse wall is compared to ‘thunder from a clear sky’ – the phenomenon that convinced Horace of the existence of the gods. [20] And Hook, recalling Matthew 24:27, observes: ‘“I wonder, now, if the lightning Matthew mentioned, as running from east to west, might have referred to the a-tomic [sic] bombs.”’[21] The corollary is clear: the future is as much in our own hands as in God’s. We fashion our own futures. This is why Norris Yates, in his assertion, quoted at the beginning, that Updike is telling us our futures will not be spiritually uplifting, is only partly correct. That may be so, but it is not Updike’s underlying message, which is that the tools with which to defeat spiritual decline are in our own possession.

This is also where Updike differs from fundamentalists like Flannery O’Connor, who see man as defenceless against the will of the almighty. Destiny is in our hands, too, he is telling us. Where O’Connor debates how to accommodate man in God’s world (her answer being to submit to God’s will), Updike considers the more useful question of how to accommodate God in man’s world: God and man are a partnership. Whether or not one agrees with this assertion, it at least leaves a fresher, more hopeful taste in the mouth than the religious nihilism espoused by O’Connor or, more recently, Cormac McCarthy. Characters are free to think and to act, and each possesses elements of honour. Donald Barr, in his contemporaneous New York Times review of The Poorhouse Fair, sums it up best: ‘No one is morally annihilated in this brilliant book. No one is a mere convenience of argument.’ Instead, the argument is the novel, and the novel is the argument, and the debate continues, fifty years later.

[references removed to deter plagiarism. If you wish to know a particular reference, email and ask me.]

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