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, the lilacs, and the trash can converged, all but blocking the steps to the back porch, which was cluttered with skis and snow shovels and last summer’s flowerpots and rusted garden tools. The door opened between the washer and the dryer, in a side portion of the kitchen. A previous owner had built an unhandy set of shelves over the radiator; on the lowest shelf a cat napped on a nest of drying mittens and gloves. Jean was at the sink, the other cat rubbing around her ankles. She looked over in mock astonishment. “Well, look who’s here!”
“Where’s everybody?” Fraser asked, keeping his distance. It had been relatively easy to wean himself from kissing her in greeting. Living together, they had seldom kissed; the kissing had come along as part of the separation, when they were still unused to saying hello and goodbye.
“Get away,” Jean said, to the cat, and with a flip of her foot sent the animal skidding across the linoleum.
[“Domestic Life in America”]
Only rarely does Updike seek to embody the typical for its own sake, as in “How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time,” which is not so much a story as a meditation on what it’s like to be staying overnight with the kids in a sunbaked California town.
Family life in the throes of dissolution—that is the situation to which Updike brings his skills most impressively in this collection. One story—“Separating”—seems to me a small masterpiece in the genre of domestic realism. In it his “perennial couple,” Richard and Joan Maple, choose a homecoming celebration for their daughter Judith as the occasion for telling their children of their decision to part. In the midst of the dinner, before anything has been revealed, Richard finds himself in tears.
He blinked, swallowed, croakily joked about hay fever. The tears would not stop leaking through; they came not through a hole that could be plugged but through a permeable spot in a membrane, steadily, purely, endlessly, fruitfully. They became, his tears, a shield for himself against these others—their faces, the fact of their assembly, a last time as innocents, at a table where he sat the last time as head. Tears dropped from his nose as he broke the lobster’s back; salt flavored his champagne as he sipped it; the raw clench at the back of his throat was delicious. He could not help himself.
His children tried to ignore his tears….
Finally, in the kitchen, his fifteen-year-old son John asks the dreaded, cathartic question: “Why is Daddy crying?” Updike achieves striking characterizations of each of the children—including the older son Dickie, who is not at the dinner but comes home late that night from a rock concert in Boston—through their diverse reactions to the news. John, for instance, who is a little high on champagne, decides, after an angry, hurt outburst, to clown: he lights a folder of matches, eats a cigarette, then wads lettuce leaves and a paper napkin into a ball and eats that too. “Separating” is full of surprises, all of which seem psychologically right. The confusion and pain and choked love inherent in the situation are conveyed in language which, though characteristically thick with metaphor, gives a final impression of moving simplicity.
Other stories in this vein that work well are “Domestic Life in America” (which begins, “The wives get the houses. It’s easier for the lawyers this way…”), “Here Come the Maples” (in which Richard, in order to get his “no-fault” divorce, must obtain a copy of his marriage license from Cambridge City Hall, thereby igniting a powder train of memories of the marriage itself and its early days), and “Guilt-Gems” (in which a divorced man palpates, lovingly, those moments in his life as father, husband, and son that have provided him with the most perfect crystallizations of guilt).
Reflecting on these pieces, one realizes that the success in each case derives from the expert dramatization of emotionally charged situations rather than from the creation of characters of any special quality or interest. Despite the subtlety with which their behavior and perceptions are recorded, the spouses and lovers are almost totally assimilated to what is taking place in their lives at that moment; they somehow lack the stubborn selfhood and waywardness of the truly memorable figures in literature. Can one reasonably be expected to distinguish Richard and Joan from Fraser and Jean or from Ferris and Eileen? Yet the moment by moment presentation of what they say and do and feel is made to seem magically accurate—like the rendering of a nail or a scrap of paper in a still-life by W.M. Harnett. When he is writing out of what well may be firsthand experience, Updike apparently does not share D.H. Lawrence’s ability (to be seen most notably in the case of Birkin in Women in Love) to endow his fictional stand-ins (or their mates) with an objectified, physically present existence of their own; Updike’s give the impression of being mere spinoffs from an authorial self-involvement whirling at the center.
Another small cluster of good stories centers upon the father-son relationship, a subject that has elicited—in The Centaur, in parts of Rabbit, Run, and elsewhere—some of Updike’s most affecting and skillful writing. Updike has always been able to infuse more individuality into characters of a different age (children, aging parents) or a different educational or ethnic background (Rabbit Angstrom, Bech, Ellellóu) from his standard protagonist-persona than into the protagonist himself, who was once a collegiate whiz-kid and is now a still bright but rueful fellow in early middle age. Among these stories I would single out for special attention “The Gun Shop,” in which Updike plays off a grandfather-grandson alliance against a father (that rueful fellow again) caught in the middle. The tensions between the unwell but spirited grandfather, the son who (as a lawyer) has risen in the world, and the stormy fourteen-year-old grandson are expertly handled by Updike, who adds a delicate class coloration to the relationship when the three of them go to the house of a local gunsmith on Thanksgiving night to have a .22 rifle repaired; there, in the presence of the gruff old craftsman and his crony, the grandfather is in his element, while the son is made to feel like an emotionally clumsy intruder.
Another interesting piece is “The Egg Race,” in which there is not only a dead father but a dying father-surrogate for the middle-aged son to grapple with. In this story Updike, the unrivaled master of surfaces, cuts more deeply than usual when he has the son (Ferguson, an archaeologist) reflect that he could never have left his wife for another woman if his father—who was (paradoxically) the most encouraging, forgiving, and protective of men—had still been alive. The father’s presence hangs oppressively over Ferguson when he returns to his home town for a high-school reunion. The scenes of childhood revisited are wonderfully evoked by Updike, who, while responsive to the stimulus of nostalgia, is able to handle that treacherous emotion without sentimental blurring. And yet—once again—it is the dead father and the dying mentor and the high-school acquaintances who are brought fleetingly but vividly to life, while the son, with all his insight, remains little more than the sum of his situation.
The stories that I have thus far looked at make up less than a third of the total collection. And the remaining pieces? Some are trifles (“Minutes of the Last Meeting,” “Love Song, for a Moog Synthesizer,” “The Man Who Loved Extinct Mammals,” “Believers”) that some readers may find whimsically charming, others merely cute. Several strain for a quasi-theological dimension (“Augustine’s Concubine,” “From the Journal of a Leper”) and achieve little more than a deadening air of contrivance. Still others seem merely tricky, like the title story, “Problems,” which diverted me into a calculation of the divorced protagonist’s income ($92,000). Much the longest is “Transaction,” a sexually explicit account (originally published in Oui, rather than The New Yorker where most have appeared) of what happens when the familiar Updike husband, carrying Christmas presents for his family, takes a Times Square whore back to his hotel room. The material remains inert, unresponsive to the attempt to make a story out of it, despite repeated applications of highvoltage metaphor. Coming across the following astronomical conceit—
…when she would swing her ass around to his face its spread wet halves would swamp his consciousness like a star map of both hemispheres, not only the stars one saw but the southern constellations—Lupus, Phoenix, Fornax
—one’s response is less likely to be delight in such hyperbolic audacity than an awareness of the discrepancy between these flights and the dreariness of the encounter which they are meant to adorn.
It is always instructive to see what happens to Updike’s spectacular gift for metaphoric writing on occasions when his inspiration flags. Metaphor is an element of verbal art that he takes very seriously indeed, though as a critic he is broadminded enough to allow merit to a writer such as John O’Hara, who had no aptitude for it. In the following passage from a recent article on Bruno Schulz, Updike might well be describing his own aesthetic and practice as a writer:
Where importance is not political, a matter of social consensus (like that of, say, Oedipus, Hamlet, and Kutuzov), it seeks, through metaphor, priorly established planes of importance; “Ulysses” makes of the principle a great mock-heroic machine. More instinctively, writers in a world of hidden citizens work with an excited precision, pulling silver threads from the coarse texture of daily life. The hypnotized gaze upon local particulars turns objects into signs; objects with some sort of significance painted upon them are treasured, in the absence of symbols derived from an accepted exterior religion. [my italics]2
But the effort to “paint significance” upon objects through metaphor can succeed, I think, only under certain conditions. A kind of fusion must take place, a coming together of energies (not all of them verbal) at some level partly above or below the writer’s purely conscious control, before the gift to perceive or create unexpected identities/analogies/resemblances can be worked into art; otherwise it remains only an aptitude, like a sidewalk artist’s ability to draw a good likeness. The psychological conditions necessary for the coming-into-play of such synthesizing powers remain obscure, despite the efforts of artists, critics, and psychoanalysts to account for them. When the flow of the fused elements is strong and incandescent, almost any extravagance can be incorporated; when sluggish, the writer’s attempts at metaphor often result in banality or affection or some ludicrous imprecision. Encountering this simile—“His heart had turned over and over in jealousy like a lump of meat in a cauldron of stew” (from a frail little story called “The Fairy Godfathers”), a reader with some culinary experience might be tempted to call out. “You’ll ruin that stew if you don’t lower the heat—it should simmer, not boil.”
But when, in a story as highly charged as “Separating,” the weeping Richard perceives his daughter gazing at him “from the other side of his pane of tears as if into a shopwindow at something she coveted—at her father, a crystalline heap of splinters and memories”—we are at once moved and dazzled. It is at such moments—and in such stories—that Updike enhances our sense of what a good writer he can be and makes us willing to shrug off the lesser stuff that prevents Problems from being one of his better books.
November 8, 1979
Besides their magazine appearances, two of the stories—”Separating” and “Here Come the Maples”—had received a paperback publication earlier this year in Too Far to Go: The Maple Stories (Fawcett-Crest), advertised on its cover as “NOW A SUPERB TV DRAMA!” ↩
“Bruno Schulz, Hidden Genius,” The New York Times Book Review, September 9, 1979, p. 38. ↩