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« The Ghost Writer | Main | Bunin, "Одиночество" »
Wednesday
May112016

Brother Grasshopper

Why do some only children slosh through their childhood and even a significant portion of their adult life longing for siblings? Loneliness, curiosity, having someone with whom to conspire and share the blame and memories and more practical tasks as age overcomes our elders – these are some of the most common reasons. Numerous movements, most of which are vulgar excuses for mass thought and uniform foolishness, have encouraged us to form brotherhoods and sisterhoods and generally hoodwink ourselves into believing we all have natural bonds. We may be human and equal in dignity; but the individual must triumph if he is to fulfill his potential, the goal, admitted or otherwise, of every living being. It is natural for us to love our parents and children, and it is also natural, in a somewhat different way, to love our spouse who is our counterpart, our witness, our shade. But our siblings? Do we not have friends who grant us almost all the benefits of sibship and far less of the grief? We do; but as those who have brothers and sisters may tell you, nothing can flow in your veins quite like blood. A soft introduction to the hard truths of a story in this collection.

The only child in question is Fred Emmet, a good egg who will have a torrential affair with a woman he will decide is not worth the price of bourgeois happiness. Even much later in life, we learn how much he regretted choosing children, familiar flesh, and peace over passion:

A decade later, he still missed the woman he had given up – dreamed of her in amazing, all-but-forgotten detail. He would never love anyone that much again. He had come to see that the heart, like a rubber ball, loses bounce, and eventually goes dead.

This doesn't sound terribly much like a family father of three who consecrates his precious days to the furtive accumulation of riches (Fred "was, like many only children, naturally meticulous and secretive, and it warmed him to think his growing personal wealth was cunningly hidden"). But adultery is a continent on Updike's earth, and adultery is nothing more than the power of suggestion. So while we may adduce a few wonderful things about Fred, about the new life he begins fresh out of Harvard with a nice, sweet girl called Betsy, about his real estate dealings and the satisfaction he derives from such games, we note that the most distinctive thing about Fred is his suggestibility, which means there is nothing distinct about Fred at all. He is the perfect sinner, the plain and Philistine mind who looks forward to forming better habits while secretly envying the possessions and values of others. And the main target of his envy is the brother he never had, a lanky and befuddled man by the name of Carlyle Saughterfield.

Some biographer may have found the original Carlyle Saughterfield, but you and I know that such a being could not possibly have existed. Fred meets the brother he never really wanted when the latter is finishing Harvard Business School, a dangerous place with dangerous friends if you are not, shall we say, of the right mindset. At that time Carlyle was "exotic and intimidating, a grown man with his own car, a green Studebaker convertible, and confident access to the skills and equipment of expensive sports like sailing, skiing, climbing, and hunting." Readers of these pages will know precisely what I think of "expensive sports" and their purveyors; but more fundamentally, one should ask why such people cannot read a book or watch a film for their adventure – and when you can answer that question with confidence, you will have solved one of life's greatest mysteries. Yet as we witness the slow demise of Carlyle – few have seeds within them that are so self-destructive – we note an inconsistency. At first blush, our praying mantis of a businessman does expensive things with expensive people (Updike's definition of business, "putting on a suit in the morning, working for other men, travelling in airplanes to meet with more men in suits," may never be topped). But as his life and faint grasp on reality both elude him, he engages in things that no sane man of affairs would ever contemplate, including, of course, investments of the high-risk, low-yield category that continue to attract the gullible and ignorant. Soon he bears an uncanny resemblance to the titular orthopteran:

Carlyle's weakness, perhaps, was his artistic side. His Harvard major had been not economics but fine arts; he took photographs and bought expensive art books so big no shelves could hold them .... He became a partner in an avant-garde furniture store in the Back Bay .... The store did well .... but Carlyle got bored, and became a partner in a Los Angeles firm that manufactured kinetic gadgets of Plexiglas and chemical fluids. This firm went bust, but not before Carlyle fell in fatal love with California – its spaghetti of flowing thruways, its pink and palmy sprawl, its endless sunshine and perilous sense of being on the edge .... As his children grew and his hair thinned, Carlyle himself seemed increasingly on the edge – on the edge of the stock market, on the edge of the movie industry, on the edge of some unspecified breakthrough.

We may recur to Fred's rather plebeian observation that "all these upper-class skills involved danger," or maybe we need not do so. Carlyle, who ends up marrying Betsy's sister Germaine, has mistaken the adventure of the body for that of the soul; but it is the soul of Carlyle that should test and imperil itself, not his physical person, wallet, or taste.

The years "in parallel" pass, two brothers-in-lie married to two very true sisters. Carlyle's promise, however, as an older sibling, as someone whose every gesture spelled "power and entitlement," as the embodiment of modern manhood, is never fulfilled because such a promise, in most, is a sham. Many facets of Carlyle, "a tall, bony New Englander with a careless, potent manner," lure Fred into contemplating such nonsense, even things that first seem like shortcomings:

His voice, husky and hard to hear, as if strained through something like baleen, was the one weak thing about him; but even this impressed Fred. Back in New Jersey, the big men, gangsters and police chiefs and Knights of Columbus, spoke softly, forcing others to listen.

But Fred does not listen. The calculating, somewhat venal part of him recognizes that Carlyle Saughterfield will die a failure, if only because the goals he establishes for himself are both vague and unreasonable. At some point in our story it becomes clear that Fred is determined not to be a failure, and his recipe for success is to be in every way his brother-in-law's foil. Indeed, once flush with funds from a series of inheritances, a Carlyle of waning affluence asks his brother-in-law for a loan in a roundabout way and gets just as indirect a refusal. And it is here that we ponder another power among siblings, that of the "brusque restoration to one's true measure," because "as an only child, Fred had never been made to confront his limits." No one possessed the threat of revealing, from the deepest part of his childhood, his most embarrassing moments, a tool siblings and enemies have in common. The same biographer might note that Updike was also an only child, also married right after Harvard, also had three children and then divorced his first wife, and also was a prolific producer in his chosen profession. But there remains no one on earth who can tell us about all the quirks, eccentricities, and fears of the young Updike. Perhaps because those will turn out to be the most common things about him. 

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