We went to a county fair in Manassas, Virginia this weekend (Caryn took the photo above from the ferris wheel). It was a nice day, though naturally I can't go to a county fair without thinking about James Joyce's short story Araby, in which a boy yearns to go to a local bazaar but, upon finally reaching the place, finds only a sense of unreality and a crushing metaphor for the sexual and philosophical anxiety that awaits him in adulthood.
This is one of those perfect short stories. It's also a great first James Joyce story to read, and is thus well-placed near the beginning of the 1914 collection Dubliners, Joyce's most accessible volume.
Yesterday's county fair also reminded me of a powerful early John Updike short story, You'll Never Know, Dear, How Much I Love You, first collected in Updike's 1962 volume Pigeon Feathers. This story has almost exactly the same plot as Joyce's Araby: a kid is excited to go to the town fair, and then finds his naive dream bitterly punctured. As in Araby, the younger kid in You'll Never Know, Dear, How Much I Love You experiences a purely private assault of disappointment barely connected to any external event; in both stories, an attentive reader will realize that the author is committing the actual inner experience of deep psychological depression into prose, sharing a sensation of a debilitating mood swing that must be universal in human experience, or nearly so.
One reason I've been thinking about Updike's story in comparison to Joyce's story is that I recently picked up John Updike's extensive 2003 collection Early Stories. The story about the boy at the fair is the book's opening piece, and this prominent placement led me to think again about the story's significance, and to wonder if it is in fact an homage to Joyce's Araby.
Is it intentional homage? I think it must be, especially since Updike names James Joyce in the book's introduction as one of the writers that inspired him most (the others are Franz Kafka, John O'Hara, Mary McCarthy, John Cheever, Donald Barthelme, Vladimir Nabokov, James Thurber and Anton Chekhov).
Both stories are wonderful, sad, deeply memorable. James Joyce's Araby ends like this:
Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.
John Updike's version ends like this:
The injustice. They pretend he's too little to lose and then keep a dime. The waste. The lost dime seems a tiny hole through which everything in existence is draining. As he moves away, his wet knees jarring, trying to hide forever from every sailor and fat woman and high-schooler who witnessed his disgrace, the six nickels make a knobbed weight bumping his thigh through his pocket. The spangles, the splinters of straw and strings of light, the sawtooth peaks of houses showing behind the heads of grown-ups moving about the scent of grassy mud are hung like the needles of a Christmas tree with the transparent, tinted globes confusing his eyelashes.
Thus the world, like a jaded coquette, spurns our attempts to give ourselves to her wholly.
Fortunately, though, we had a very nice time ourselves this weekend at the Manassas county fair, didn't experience any kind of existential horror, and even won a couple of stuffed animals.