After the glitter and exoticism of The Coup, a novel that forced readers of Updike—admirers and denigrators alike—to take a new, hard look at him, the present collection seems as unsurprising as a gravel driveway in an affluent suburb. Having welcomed The Coup as an exhilarating departure from the coziness of A Month of Sundays and Marry Me—as indeed his strongest work since The Centaur—I found it difficult to overcome a nagging sense of déjà vu1 as I made my way through Problems, difficult to reach an assessment of the stories on their own merits quite apart from a consideration of the Updike oeuvre as a whole. But with any prolific author it is only fair to recognize the difference in impact between a novel of unusual concentration and a scattering of stories composed over a seven-year period, most of them predating The Coup. Though my final response to the collection was tinged with disappointment, I must quickly add that several of the stories are as good as anything Updike has written.
Entitled Problems (after one of its pieces), the book could just as well have been called “Domestic Life in America” (after another). I can think of no novelist since Sinclair Lewis in the 1920s who has focused such passionate attention on the tribal customs and artifacts of middle-class life in the USA as has John Updike. Despite a lapse of nearly sixty years, certain similarities can be startling:
“And another thing, I hate the way she drives the car. She’s going to kill somebody, Dad, and you’re going to have to pay for it.”
[“‘Daughter, Last Glimpses of”]
“Well, Dad oughtn’t ever to let you have it! You and those beastly Jones boys drive like maniacs. The idea of your taking the turn on Chautauqua Place at forty miles an hour!”
But for the most part, the documentation, while equally specific in both instances, works for very different ends. Lewis’s detailed observations are employed more to bolster a generalized view, more to entrap an American essence, than to “place” characters with exactitude within their particular milieu; he is of course a caricaturist, a soft satirist, an expert on the numerous (but not unlimited) varieties of Middle Western corn. Updike, on the other hand, is a soft realist in most of these stories, an expert on private moments, on shifts and restorations of psychological balance within or (as in the case of his church-going, college-educated adulterous couples) on the ragged edge of the nuclear family; for him the particulars of a milieu are hardly to be distinguished from the events or illuminations that occur within it. The fineness of Updike’s texture may be illustrated by the following passage, in which an errant husband approaches his former home:
…Domestic life funnels through certain centers of congestion; the back door was one, where the dogs,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.