I ate a piece of salt-rising toast today and forgot to set the cover back on the butter dish. We have a charming teal green cow-shaped butter dish, so for an hour or two the cow reclined next to the green base. When I walked through the kitchen I noticed the butter and the tell-tale rounded gouge at the end. Exactly as a cat’s tongue would work the soft butter. Exactly as Seneca’s tongue, I should specify. And Seneca, satiated, slept in his cat tower dreaming buttery dreams.
I tell everyone that I am both a cat person and a dog person. I believe that to be true. But when it comes to writing about my life, I find that the cats always own more pages than the dogs. It isn’t original of me to note that cats are intrinsically literary beasts. Their bodies, so elegant and expressive, even suggest alphabets and punctuation. I find myself speaking of the comma of a cat’s sleeping body, the exclamation point of a tail, the fluid S of a purring beast wrapping around my ankles. Cats and books also get along tolerably well. The best used bookstores have resident cats sleeping on stacked inventory. In my house, any book worth reading is also the book worth sleeping on, or sitting in front of, preferably when a human is trying to read it. Cats recognize the importance of the written word.
Perhaps because of that, just about everyone seems to write about them.
Today I read “The Cats” by John Updike, published in The New Yorker over twenty years ago. Updike is not one of the pillars of my literary world, and I do not remember when I last read something he wrote. Perhaps the reason for my disinterest is that I find it hard to give a damn about his characters; they always seem to be white men, suburban men, and frustrated middle-aged men. So I had forgotten the reasons he is a modern literary giant.
“When my mother died, I inherited eighty acres of Pennsylvania and forty cats. Eighty-two and a half acres, to be exact; the cats were beyond precise counting.”
With that, he got me. I fell into his story of a white, middle-aged, now-suburban man dealing with the death of his mother and his inheritance of a tidal wave of cats, which grew symbolically into the threatening, inundating, and yet nurturing nature of rural life. As I read the rather longish short story, I thought, “This is why I cannot write.” When people ask me, as they do, why I’ve never amounted to a hill of beans as a writer, it is right here in this story, in these words. Updike is spinning an entire universe of a life within a short story. Read it slowly, and then reread it. You will see what I mean.
When I reached the end of “The Cats,” I rejoiced that nothing tied up neatly. In that, the great mid-century novelists made their stories true. Things don’t end with the sun setting and problems resolved. Protagonists learn something, and that’s enough. The world is not going to end well, at least not for most of us. These cats are not going back to the halcyon days of yore. But oh the words he uses! The poetry of simple, direct language, and the sounds that are made! And through it all, I can see the cats clearly:
“As I drifted across the lank grass, a few shadows filtered out of the orchard and flickered toward the house, eagerly loping. Several more materialized from the direction of the woods. The cats had survived. They thought I was my mother and good times had returned.”
Perhaps it is time to revisit the Updike novels on my shelves.
Source for quotes:
Updike, John. “The Cats.” The Big New Yorker Book of Cats. New York: Random House, 2013. 77-90. Print