(I’ve been holding onto this blog post for a few weeks, so let’s see if my rant holds up.) Back in November, the Selected Shorts podcast had a “John Updike Redux” meaning the stories were all Updike all hour. I haven’t read any Updike, so I was curious what his stories would be like. After Sally Field’s reading of “Playing With Dynamite,” I was disgusted with Updike’s story about an older man reflecting on his own life. And, because I’m the kind of person that makes lists when I’m upset, I decided to compare the protagonist Fanshaw against another reflective older man, Barney Panofsky to figure out exactly why. (I will admit my own preferences up front: I love Barney’s Version & I’m a Dostoevskian–I prefer a multitude of contradictory voices in a story.) BV stands for Barney’s Version and PWD stands for Playing With Dynamite, natch.
BV: The character’s past is substantial because Panofsky’s dementia destroys his sense of time and place. Memory and current action are equal.
PWD: The character’s past is substantial because the fragile structure of Fanshaw’s life has become more apparent with age and fear. Memory reminds Fanshaw what he once took for granted & how lucky he was to get to the end of his life as unscathed as he is.
BV: Panofsky does not recognize his friends, family or nemesis because dementia has stolen his cognitive abilities.
PWD: Fanshaw does not recognize his children because the nuances of many relationships (multiple marriages, step-children) have eroded into meaninglessness and require too much effort to keep straight.
BV: Despite the story being Barney’s final summation of his life, multiple voices intrude and contradict, indicating connections (good and bad) to others
PWD: Told from Fanshaw’s perspective only. When others argue with him in the story, he accepts their version with little contradiction to keep the routine and comfort of his own life running uninterrupted.
BV: The actions and consequences of others’ choices complicate Barney’s efforts to think of them one-dimensionally, particularly women.
PWD: People pass in and out of Fanshaw’s life without much insight into them. He also really doesn’t care enough to pursue any insight.
BV: The Second Mrs. Panofsky, a typical shrew of a wife, gets some sympathy because Barney paints a portrait of their marriage that implicates he’s to blame for some of their problems.
PWD: The shrew of a wife (also the Second Mrs. Fanshaw) who scolds Fanshaw for what he does or doesn’t do, without getting any reaction from him, is locked in a certain cliché routine of provoke & react.
BV: Despite any success, Panofsky knows & values what he has lost/is losing, mainly because as a lower-class Jew in Canada in the 1940s, he’s not been privileged to much.
PWD: Fanshaw has had multiple children and marriages & his life is looked back on as one full of literal and metaphorical riches. He simply doesn’t know what to do with what he has now, often reverting back to an uncomplicated, child-like view.
So, did the list help subdue my anger at Updike’s character? Some. But I also often realize that the people (or characters) or make me the angriest are often closer to me than I might admit. So while I may love Barney & his charming, difficult, regretful voice, I know that Fanshaw’s self-interest & shallow sense of fortune may ring true for me in many of my own experiences. Maybe I can take a warning for myself from this character after all.