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Tuesday
Jun032014

The Persistence of Desire

One of the oldest narrative clichés, and perhaps the most bittersweet, is that of the ex-lovers' reencounter. The scene is not hard to imagine: Paris; autumn; late afternoon or early evening; a café half-empty and half-asleep; a large cup of steaming coffee, perhaps an ashtray stabbed to death; and upon the awning, pellets of rain messaging your most intimate thoughts. You have been away from the one you loved – the only one to whom that amazing verb has ever truly applied – for a couple of years, but somehow a part of you has remained with that person, you are not quite sure what part. Since your torrid months together you have considered her a little more than occasionally, yet your impression is that these considerations have been dwindling and will soon approach zero (zero would mean it never happened, which would be the worst of all fates). Your hand slides along the bumps of your leather tote and you recall when your hand used to caress her hip, as if to ask for her consent, and you decide with a heavy heart to gesture for the check. As you look up to find the garçon, your eyes – which have never stopped lingering on every doorway, every passing cab, every theater crowd – fall to someone who cannot be what she is indeed. You may ask yourself how destiny could have orchestrated such a moment; then again, you may be scared to think that you'll have nothing to say. You move towards her, as you always have been, and she moves towards you, or at least you think she does, and once identities are confirmed other facts must be verified as well. Most of us do have a little speech rehearsed, having practiced a few million times in our heads, and yet speeches have that unfortunate way of sounding as rehearsed as you make them. For a number of reasons, however, this brief description should not detract from our reading of a story in this superb collection.       

Our protagonist is Clyde Behn, a name that suggests a brewer or a rugby player, not a silly, sensitive family man with chronic twittering of the eyelid. We find Behn at the offices of an ophthalmologist called Pennypacker (no more needs to be said) as well as in the midst of a full-blown mid-life crisis. The thing is, although Clyde has "middle-aged eyes," he is still quite a young man, maybe short of thirty-five, as evidenced by the fact that Pennypacker has been his "aloof administrator of expensive humiliations" ever since he can remember. His trip back to his hometown flickers with old indigenous memories, precisely the ones you hope to relive by chance, meaning that you have actually made a conscious decision to increase their probability by coming home. It is quite possible that Behn does not see things as such – he doesn't see well to begin with, a point Pennypacker will underscore in more than one way – but let us not hastily omit Clyde's past in favor of his present.

While waiting in one of those anodyne waiting rooms that seem to presage only death and pain, Clyde reads that "the cells of the normal human body are replaced in toto every seven years" (a figure that coincides nicely with that popular barometer of adulterous impulses, the seven-year itch). The woman he has been waiting for is Janet, who dutifully appears in time before his appointment as to allow for more than a bit of casual conversation. She is a plump, pleasant woman now married to a career serviceman and freshly returned from several years in Germany. After an awkward exchange, he sketches for himself her husband's portrait:

Clyde had never met him, but having now seen Janet again, he felt he knew him well – a slight, literal fellow, to judge from the shallowness of the marks he had left on her. He would wear eyebrow-style glasses, be a griper, have some quite negotiable talent, like playing the clarinet or drawing political cartoons, and now be starting up a drab avenue of business. Selling insurance, most likely. Poor Janet, Clyde felt: except for the interval of himself – his splendid, perishable self – she would never see the light.

You will be hard-pressed to find a better summation of all jilted lovers at all times than this last sentence. Clyde makes his move, desperate yet sincere, and gathers a hoard of mixed signals for later decryption. Finally he is granted access to Pennypacker, "a tall, stooped man with mottled cheekbones and an air of suppressed anger," and, for once, takes a close look at his tormentor:

Pennypacker moved to the left eye and drew ever closer. The distance between the doctor's eyes and the corners of his mouth was very long; the emotional impression of his face close up was like that of those first photographs taken from rockets, in which the earth's curvature was made apparent.

There is more to Pennypacker than this; but Clyde, perhaps adhering to staunch habit, refuses to see what else he might learn from one visit to an eye doctor since, of course, he has already found the reencounter he had long sought.

Until his death five years ago, Updike was probably the greatest living American writer for a good three decades. His greatness is overshadowed by his voluminous production, usually indicative of mediocrity, and by his unflappable desire to be American and nothing less or more (one supposes that most writers of his talent would have erred towards the more). That is not so much a criticism as a compliment: only an American could have written about suburbia and the desires that bubble beneath its bourgeois sheen, and only a great writer could have chronicled such mundane crimes in a style both riveting and complex. So when a meticulous, professional Pennypacker "insolently raked the lights back and forth across Clyde's face," and his patient becomes "blind in a world of light, [afraid] that Pennypacker was inspecting the floor of his soul," we smile and wonder about that purportedly happy soul that has little if any happiness to share with the two people from his old life. We smile again when Pennypacker asks him whether he was "using his eyes a great deal," to which Clyde replies, "no more than I ever did." And we haven't even mentioned Clyde's eyelashes.

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