IF YOU WERE A KID in suburbia, your parents fought about the furnace, your mother's weekly grocery allowance, the missing pair to dad's tennis socks. They got divorced, saw psychiatrists, remarried other people with whom they could continue to wrestle over footwear and the price of broccoli. Your life had problems.
Wrong. John Updike, self-appointed myth-maker of the New York and Boston bedroom community, menacingly shakes a coffee cup and a lone sock at you and growls, "You don't have problems. You have PROBLEMS. BIG PROBLEMS. And they all MEAN SOMETHING. Every coffee stain on the dining room table, every trip to the vet for the family dog's shots, every play in the Little League baseball game. And I," Updike goes on, "am here to bore into each one with my unrelenting literary jackhammer. I will drill until I hit vast and oceanic symbolism."
And he does, amassing his devastated drilling sites in a collection of short stories called PROBLEMS. If you read them you will probably become depressed. Updike's over-powering stylistic genius overpowers his reader's better judgment, forces him to wallow in the miserableness of his archetypal suburban man, who wanders "an irreducible unit, visiting one or another of the pieces of his life scattered like the treasure of a miser outsmarting thieves." Updike outsmarts, creating melancholy without proposing how solitary suburbanites can collect these bits to make a life worth living. He collects problems without morals.
When Updike assumes the guise of a geometry teacher in the title story he presents a math problem:
During the night, A, sleeping with B, dreams of C. C stands at the furthest extremity or (if the image is considered two-dimensionally) apogee of a curved driveway, perhaps a dream-refraction of the driveway of the house that had once been their shared home. . .The sleep of B is not disturbed; she rests in the certainty that A loves her. Indeed, he has left C for her to prove it.
Problem: Which has he more profoundly betrayed, B or C?
No one expects the answer in the teacher's edition, but Updike refuses to provide even a dim peek at his own view of ethical marital allegiances. In short, what point is there in writing if you have no point to make?
Updike declines to extract and integrate into a morally significant vision his microscopic slide samples of suburban crises: divorce, guilt over divorce, guilt over not wanting a divorce, guilt over guilt. He focuses on the isolated nightmares with wrenching accuracy: the kid who phones his real father infront of Mother's new man because he instinctively knows it will hurt them and at the same time he knows they can't stop him Or the lone spouse who chain-smokes in "the blue light of midnight" while his unconscious wife snores contentedly beside him, unaware of his terrifying spiral into chaos.
Updike knows the upright Americans of Pleasant Avenue, U.S.A. are troubled; the price of gravel for the driveways has dropped dramatically and "it is a beautiful day, a bright blue Monday," but still they feel wretched.
Problem: Something feels wrong? What is it?
With misleading ease, Updike excavates the sources of this depression: the inability to establish intimacy, guilt, lack of self-awareness. But his sickness distracts from the absence of the logical next step. To adopt an Updike device--
Problem: What to do about it? His craftsmanship is clear in his depiction of supermarket and bridge-club life. But those in the John Gardner camp of moral fiction would charge that Updike's skillfulness does not become a vision until he guides his characters, and thus his readers, to the higher ground of moral purpose.
INSTEAD UPDIKE plunges us into a scrutiny of the alienated characters. In "Love Song for a Moog Synthesizer," for instance, he binds us in the "spirals of indignation" of a Cub Scout den mother. Throughout the collection of short stories, Updike stalks the problem of human disconnectedness from all imaginable angles, realistically fleshing it out in "Domestic Life in America," abstracting it in his geometric "Problems," sketching a symbolic outline in the opening piece, "Commercial," recasting it as classical tragedy in "Augustine's Concubine." But he refuses to hunt out the solutions in the diseased scenarios. His "maimed and fanatic and shy" victims have no options.
Only under the worst conditions does Updike envision that men can begin to dismantle the obstacles between them. Pain alone links Tod and his wife. Pumpkin, in "Love Song for a Moog Synthesizer." Tod responds to Pumpkin's need for human sympathy only when she offers a "piece of herself, transferred to his ribs, his kidneys, as pain." Love attaches itself only "to what we cannot help," Updike observes grimly. In another tale of marital wrangling, then, the wife gets through to her husband only by inducing desperation like a "hooked claw," evolving "psychic protuberances that penetrated and embraced his mind." Just in case you didn't get it, in "The Journal of the Leper," the leprous creature is no longer loved by his woman once he is cured. So instead his characters learn to withdraw; they stick wax ear plugs in their ears like the unidentified man in "Commercial" and block out all but the "subterranean whistling noise" of their own breathing:
He has buried himself. . .The cave of his skull furs with nonsense. Pan, fade, dissolve. That is how it happens every night.
By the time Updike has come to his final take, "Atlantises," the need for him to take a stand, to interfere in the stricken human landscape, to rip out his earplugs, is excruciating. But Updike settles for the absurdist message of ex-family man Mr. Farnham. As he speeds down the Connecticut highway he spys a huge gray tower, used for training submarine operators how to escape from their sunken vessel by blowing oxygen out of their lungs. The image is as oppressive as the tower is tall. Worse, though, Mr. Farnham is moved by the tower's presence to utter homage to the "frogman" who works inside the tower, grabbing men out of the water who forget to blow bubbles:
O rise frogmen, smoothly and without pain up from the depths, trailing your train of air; bring us news of sunken Atlantis, our fabled pasts. Keep us in touch.
Grafting Atlantis's mythic structure onto the suburban experience of lonely bedrooms and psychiatrist couches, Updike grows monstrous trees of mixed metaphors.
The "sunken continent," to which Updike appeals to show the unity between human individual islands is a tired thematic device. The frogman and the Cub Scout mother have very little to say to each other.
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