The Afterlife and Other Stories Critical Essays

John Updike

The Afterlife and Other Stories

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Even John Updike, the former whiz kid of the lyrically understated form known as THE NEW YORKER story, has to grow old. Still, it is more than a little startling to be made so emphatically aware of that fact as this new collection does. Practically every one of the twenty-two stories collected here focuses on what Updike wryly calls the “afterlife”—not a transcendent other world to which one ascends, but rather a comfortable post-life just past middle age in which one settles down.

Typical of the stories in this collection, the title story is low key and resonant with realization. A man in his fifties visits a couple who have moved to England and has an encounter with his own mortality that unsettles his settled ways. Thinking of his life as merely going through the motions and realizing that there are vast areas of the world he no longer cares about, he begins a modest shift to the mildly unpredictable.

“A Sandstone Farmhouse,” the longest story in the collection and first place winner of the 1991 O. Henry award, is also understated and elegiac. As a fifty-four-year-old man goes through his dead mother’s effects, she comes alive to him as a young woman, with a life of hope and desire of her own. Comparing his own transitory life to the solidarity of the stone house where she lived, he discovers that although he had always wanted to be where the action was, what action there was had been there in the farmhouse.

Although there are comic and playfully ironic stories here, most of the pieces emphasize accepting the inevitability of the “afterlife” of middle age. All are told with the confidence of a man who is at peace with himself as an artist.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, September 15, 1994, p. 84.

Chicago Tribune. November 20, 1994, XIV, p. 3.

Los Angeles Times. November 14, 1994, p. ES.

National Review. XLVI, December 31, 1994, p. 64.

The New York Review of Books. XLII, January 12, 1995, p. 20.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, November 6, 1994, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, September 5, 1994, p. 88.

Time. CXLIV, November 14, 1994, p. 96.

USA Today. November 17, 1994, p. D5.

The Washington Post. October 26, 1994, p. C2.