Updike: A&P (1961)

After the Lord of the Flies epiphany, I went straight to Borders Books and Music and asked at the info desk for more books about “human nature” or “the human condition” or something like that. I remember they chuckled at me, handed me Catcher in the Rye, and suggested I continue down the path of post-war New Yorker writers, including John Updike. I remember sleeping on a sofa in Vermont, perhaps I had a fever, I’m not sure why else I’d be there, but in any case, my grandmother would wake me up every morning insisting I watch infomercials about calcium supplements, which I’m running out of time to take so I’d best start soon, she’d tell me. And I’d read Updike’s The Centaur. I wasn’t sure whether or not I appreciated it, but I finished it. It wasn’t until many years later that I decided I absolutely don’t like anything written by anyone born after 1910. And that’s final. Particularly John Updike, and Cheever, and Heller, and Vonnegut, and the whole lot of anyone born in the past hundred or so years. And that’s final! Mostly because it’s all the same: middle class kids and their middle class dreams and middle class lives. And what am I supposed to learn from that if I haven’t learned it already?

The funny thing about A&P is that you never quite get a grip on who the narrator is. The narrator sometimes speaks like a kid as written from someone who writes for the New Yorker, and sometimes speaks like a writer for the New Yorker.

But there were some lines I liked, and which made it all worthwhile for me, because I feel that same “Ah hah! Somebody gets it! I’m not the only one!” that I got from Catcher. 

…and a tall one, with black hair that hadn’t quite frizzed right, and one of these sunburns right across under the eyes, and a chin that was too long–you know, the kind of girl other girls think is very ‘striking’ and ‘attractive’ but never quite makes it, as they very well know, which is why they like her so much.

All this time, I wondered what girls were up to when they say stuff like that. You never hear guys say “oh, he’s handsome, what do you think of him?” to the girl next to him. Putting you on the spot, as a test, always looking for an excuse to feel badly about themselves or feel badly about your intentions. Human interaction is hard enough, and then there’s that shit too.

So, in conclusion:

You never know for sure how girls’ minds work (do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?)

1. Notice how artfully Updike arranges details to set the story in a perfectly ordinary supermarket. What details stand out for you as particularly true to life? What does this close attention to detail contribute to the story? 

The details that stood out particularly to me were the ones that reminded me of how things have not changed. It was 1961, and yet the whole system of the American supermarket was entirely in place–you walk in, push your cart, select items on your own, bring them to a register lane at the front of the store, pay, depart. This isn’t how it was in the USSR in 1961. There are still “Special” bins. The line driving this home for me included a list of things we still buy, still need: cat and dog food, breakfast cereal, macaroni, rice, raisins, seasonings, spreads, spaghetti, soft drinks, crackers, and cookies. Except that I don’t know what spreads are. You’re reminded of the decade when he mentions the cheap albums, including “Tony Martin Sings” — reminding you of Tony Bennett and Dean Martin, Updike himself being too young to fight in World War II, just over the age that would have purchased these albums, so young enough to laugh at them. Anyway, the point is that all these details draw a portrait of a place that seems realistic to me, and, in its realism, leads me to accept the rest of the episode as real.

2. How fully does Updike draw the character of Sammy? What traits (admirable or otherwise) does Sammy show? Is he any less a hero for wanting the girls to notice his heroism? To what extent is he more thoroughly and fully portrayed than the doctor in “Godfather Death“?

Sammy is drawn real enough that we can guess the rest of his life. His parents are friends with the store’s owner, he writes like someone who writes for the New Yorker, the girls are going to the beach, I’ll assume this is Long Island or New Jersey or something, right down to Queenie buying herring snacks for her mother, which I take as more of an second-generation immigrant than WASPy sort of treat.

3. What part of the story seems like the exposition? Of what value to the story is the carefully detailed portrait of Queenie, the leader of the three girls?

4. As the story develops, do you detect any change in Sammy’s feelings toward the girls?

5. Where in “A&P” does the dramatic conflict become apparent? What moment in the story brings the crisis? What is the climax of the story?

I suppose the obvious answer is the paragraph that begins “Now here comes the sad part of the story.” And then the dramatic conflict becomes apparent at the line, “then everybody’s luck begins to run out,” at which point the owner begins scolding the girls for wearing bathing suits in the store. The climax is likely the point where the girls begin hurrying out and Sammy says he quits.

6. Why, exactly, does Sammy quit his job?

7. Does anything lead you to expect Sammy to make some gesture of sympathy for the three girls? What incident earlier in the story (before Sammy quits) seems a foreshadowing?

“Poor kids, I began to feel sorry for them, they couldn’t help it.”

8. What do you understand from the conclusion of the story? What does Sammy mean when he acknowledges “how hard the world was going to be…hereafter”?

9. What comment does Updike–through Sammy–make on supermarket society?

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