Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3722
The interest of Updike as a moral fabulist is that his judgments are never univocal. By his own avowal, he has too much tenderness for his characters to condemn their follies. On the other hand, his sense of humor and his ethics do not permit him to let their foibles go unnoticed. He himself acknowledges this duality when he affirms that all his work says "Yes, but." We find the same ambivalence in the definition he gives of the people he considers as spiritually alive: "I feel that to be a person is to be in a situation of tension, is to be in a dialectical situation." Most of the charm of Updike's protagonists in general, and of Harry Angstrom in particular, is that, close to them as we may feel, we can never really anticipate the inconclusive ending to which their contradictions will lead them. We do not even know where Rabbit is heading at the end of Rabbit, Run. Perhaps it is because of this ultimate ambiguity that his existence leaves such a lasting impression on our inner sensibilities….
Ten years later, bringing him back to life in Rabbit Redux, Updike poses the critic another problem: must he consider this book as a continuation or just as another step in the novelist's itinerary? In recent years, as a reaction against the excesses of critical biography and literary history, there has developed a tendency to regard a novel as a self-contained unit producing its own logic, its own reference system. And indeed Rabbit Redux can be pleasurable and exciting even if one has not read the first book, Updike providing enough data to enable us to have a fair understanding of the factual links between the two works. Yet it is obvious that there exist shades of meaning perceptible only to those who are already familiar with Rabbit, Run. Elements of the decor such as the iceplant, the park, the quarry, images like those of the web, the net, the hole, carry latent connotations that the newcomer cannot grasp. He can neither fully enjoy the comical zest of the inversion of roles—epitomized by Harry's complaint: "Everybody now is like the way I used to be"—nor be aware of the similarities between the two novels, similarities in structure but also in tone since Updike returns here to the present tense he had almost completely abandoned after Rabbit, Run. Besides, through a series of echoes, reminders, and private jokes, he establishes with the initiated reader a complicity which greatly contributes to his pleasure. Mirroring scenes and motifs from the first book, even going to the length of repeating complete sentences, the author plays on an intertextual shuttle which modifies the separate meaning of each book. Following his example, one can imagine that it may be instructive to juxtapose or superpose fragments of his prose and either other passages of his books or the production of another writer used as external reference. The purpose of this article is to work out a number of variations on the character of Rabbit, concentrating primarily on his apprehension of "the poetry of space" … and on the metaphors which express it. (p. 95)
[Most] constituents of the beat mystique [of the 1950s] appear in the sensibility of Harry Angstrom: his sentimental involvement with the popular culture of his time; his bitter dissatisfaction with the standards of the era of conformity; his instinctive revolt against the forces of depersonalization; his somewhat inarticulate, though insistently asserted, belief in "something else"; his desire, unconsidered but persistent, to get away from it all and go back to nature; all this makes of him an archetypal figure now, that of the pioneer on the trail of modern disaffiliation. (p. 96)
The journey need not be long or eventful for Updike's heroes to relish the elation of going away. (p. 97)
[It] is typical of Harry's inconsistency that, while fancying himself an enemy of conformity, he panics at the slightest suggestion of the wilderness he is supposed to be returning to. The Amish passengers of a buggy past which he drives frighten him as "devils" and "fanatics";… a narrow, twisting "snake of a road" … strikes his high-strung senses as ominous; and he dreads to think that some ghost or beast might suddenly appear in the headlights of the car. Unnerved by the irruption of the unexpected, apprehensive of the unknown, Updike's hero cuts a sorry figure indeed as a would-be partner to the protagonists of On the Road whose stamina and natural gusto turn every incident between New York and San Francisco into an ecstatic experience. Surrendering in turn to instinct and reason without ever making up his mind as to which he should follow, Rabbit gets lost, narrowly misses having an accident, finally tears up his map, and drives back to Brewer. Of course, "The trip home is easier,"… symbolically made so by the assistance of numerous road signs that he had not noticed on the journey outward. (pp. 98-9)
The inglorious outcome of Harry's escapade is not only a sample of Updike's irony toward the thoughtlessness of his hero. It is also a warning against the solutions advocated by the beats to dodge the angst of modern life. This is not to say that Rabbit, Run was conceived as an anti-beat novel, even though Updike himself expressed in an interview his belief that a style of life based on cross-continental travel could not provide an adequate remedy to the suffering of the characters of Rabbit, Run, caught as they are in the meshes of small town life. Unlike Kerouac in On the Road he is not content with following the zigzag of his hero's quest but devotes important sections to the other side, to the grief, or rancor, of those who are left behind. Besides, flight appears at best as a form of illusory escapism. Rabbit has not driven twenty miles before he realizes that the road is "a part of the same trap,"… of the same net now enlarged to the intricacy of the highway system, so that he has no choice left but to turn around and head back to "the center of the net, where alone there seems a chance to rest."… (p. 99)
In Updike's fiction departure from one's home town somehow amounts to a betrayal of the self. For Shillington-Olinger-Mt. Judge is not only a compound of maples, telephone poles, neighbors, and brick houses: it is essentially "a state of mind." Hence the uneasy sense of guilt experienced by the characters of Of the Farm, "Home," or "A Traded Car" at the moment of return. Nowhere is this guilt more keenly felt than in Rabbit Redux, in which the very notion of travel is infected by the remorse Harry nurses over the death of his daughter…. Rabbit Redux turns on lack of hope, not only because it stresses the dangers and disillusionment awaiting those who boldly step from the middle of the road, but, more depressingly, because it instills from the first pages the feeling that escape is absolutely meaningless.
Rabbit is thus suspended in a vacuum of the soul, halfway between his dissatisfaction with his life in Brewer and the rooted conviction that no change of scenery could improve his existence…. Harry views his being settled in Brewer as an atonement for his past errors, the price he has to pay for his former mobility, but it strikes the reader as a dangerous form of inertia, a neurotic refusal to face the outside world. Harry turns away from it out of sheer cowardice, as he turns away from the road signs, "awesome insignia of vastness and motion,"… which remind him of the vagrant he used to be and of the hopes he once cherished. In the last analysis, his dogged allegiance to his home town essentially proceeds from a fear of being confronted with his former self. Feeling that he has already "lived twice,"… the antihero of Rabbit Redux tries hard not to resurrect the questing hero of Rabbit, Run and the illusions he entertained about space and flight. Though ten years' time has almost entirely silenced the romantic voice of "the great Harry Angstrom," he still has to be checked when he unexpectedly reappears on some familiar street-corner. Rabbit, cautious as he may be, is occasionally tempted by some mirage of the past, as for instance when he drives up the street where Ruth used to live:
At the end of Summer Street he thinks there will be a brook, and then a dirt road and open pastures; but instead the city street broadens into a highway lined with hamburger diners, and drive-in sub shops, and a miniature golf course with big plaster dinosaurs, and food-stamp stores and motels and gas stations that are changing their names, Humble to Getty, Atlantic to Arco. He has been here before.
In this passage Updike brings together, as it were, two different characters. The first part of the sentence echoes the words and feelings of the last scene of Rabbit, Run in which Harry substituted for an urban decor the landscape of his desires. So great was his urge "to travel to the next patch of snow" in the midst of a suffocating summer that he was able to turn asphalt into grass and streets into rivers…. This pathetic fallacy has rightly been analyzed by most commentators as the main cause of his ultimate failure. Rabbit's dream of returning to nature was certainly more a headlong, instinctive rush for shelter than the logical outcome of mature reflection. Besides, being based on an ideal which has been degraded by industrial civilization, it could only lead, in the present-day context, to disappointment and destruction. And yet, on the other hand, Harry's desperate faith in the regenerating power of nature was in a way his saving grace. It placed him on the side of spring as opposed to the dead season in which were sunk those he fled. (pp. 100-01)
Though Harry's adherence to the pastoral myth was largely anachronistic, even in Rabbit, Run, there remained a number of elements in the setting to justify his ambition to search for God in the woods. Central to the novel—both symbolically and typographically—was, of course, Mrs. Smith's garden, which, albeit an artificial Eden with its power mower and rhododendron plantation, looked primeval enough for Harry to reflect that "it was sort of like Heaven."… There was also the forest above the cemetery in the thickets of which he could stray, or the "pagan groves" … of the golf course. Concrete stairs now went up the slope of Mt. Judge, but he could still hope to chance upon a pioneer's cabin like the one he had found in his childhood. And even the pavement seemed at times "a buried assertion, an unexpected echo, of the land that had been here before the city."… All such traces of an idyllic past have disappeared in Rabbit Redux. Now, when remains from bygone days happen to be uncovered in the course of the demolition and reconstruction which modern Brewer is constantly undergoing, they are presented as historical curiosities in the headlines of the Vat: "Local Excavations Unearth Antiquities."… (p. 101)
Updike witnesses the degradation of his favorite locale with an acuteness of vision unparalleled in any of his previous books. Wherever he goes, Rabbit is confronted with the artificiality and cheap commercialism that have invested Brewer and its surroundings…. Updike reminds us through a Vat article that [this locale] used to be a lane of a few log cabins and inns in which George Washington once stopped for the night on his way west. Now it is all too clear that the pastoral world has been irremediably defiled and the inhabitants definitely severed from their past. (pp. 101-02)
But this other world [of an idyllic past] belongs to an age that has gone forever. By excluding it from the scope of the novel, Updike manages to convey that it is irretrievably lost in time. Not only buried in the past but irrelevant to the present. America has "fallen from grace," and the pioneer's ethics can no longer provide the bewildered contemporaries of the Nixon era with a meaningful standard of reference. Rabbit, Run ignores political affairs to concentrate solely on an egotist trying to sustain his rebellion on the last debris of a vanishing national myth. Couples deals with the collapse of domestic values in a country suddenly bereft of a president considered by a large section of the public as the man who had tried to revive the spirit of the frontier. Rabbit Redux, with postmythic lucidity, shows a concern with contemporary history which is all the more striking as Updike's involvement with America had been hitherto of a sentimental rather than a political nature. Against a background of ghetto riots, student protest, New Left militancy, Moratorium Day demonstrations, and war in Vietnam, the book pronounces, beyond any doubt, the death of the American Dream. (p. 102)
Rabbit's interpretation of a national ideal in geographical terms throws another light on the meaning of his present immobility. For all his old-fashioned chauvinism and "silent majority" cliché thinking, he is secretly persuaded that, the dream being over, the land in which it developed has lost its significance. This is why he pays no attention to Pajasek's advice to go and look for worf in another town, or to the motel clerk who urges him at the end of the book to travel to Santa Fe. When Jill mockingly remarks, "Everybody in America has a car except you,"… his patriotic pride is not hurt because for him there is no primal territory left to drive to. With the disruption of the myth, all space has been cut off. In this respect, Rabbit Redux overtly states what Rabbit, Run sketched in outline. In the earlier novel, to take a typical example, the frontier myth already takes a knock, if only because Harry is more receptive to the lures of advertisements than to the call of history when he decides to flee to Florida, paradise of middle class vacationists, instead of following the tradition of westward migration. We learn in Rabbit Redux that his sister Mim, in every way pluckier than he ever was, did go west: to become a prostitute. She now tells Harry that the West is a "desert" of heartlessness where people "live underground."… Ironically, the West is now gradually extending its tar and concrete eastward.
A similar kind of inversion of the myth appears in the first pages of the book when Updike describes in minute detail a TV skit showing the Lone Ranger cuckolded by his faithful Tonto. This irreverent vision of a pair who were the most constant heroes of Harry's childhood is an apt metaphor both for the marital mishaps of the central protagonist—he has to share his girls with a Greek and a black—and for the growing disrespect of racial minorities toward the white establishment. But it is also meaningful as a token of spreading political awareness in a country which can no longer take its mythos seriously. (pp. 102-03)
Remembering the predilection for the galaxies manifested—either out of some vague desire of transcendence or just out of curiosity—by many characters in Updike's novels, one is not surprised that he used the first landing on the moon to give astral dimensions to Harry's plight. The craftsman in him could obviously not resist the pleasure of interspersing the book with lunar references: he mentions at least three times the "mauve moons" on Rabbit's nails; the film shown in the marquee on Weiser is Space Odyssey; Rabbit eats hamburgers called Lunar Specials and listens to "moonmood" music on the jukebox…. Each of the four parts of the narrative is preceded by an epigraph reproducing an excerpt from the tapes of the Soyuz 5 and Apollo 11 flights, the astronauts' words being used as a commentary on Harry's developing mood. As for the successive stages of the July 1969 flight, they provide an ironical counterpoint to Harry's vicissitudes. The spaceship is launched as he hears of his wife's betrayal, and the Eagle module reaches the moon after she has left home. Sitting on his mother's bed trying to make out what is night, what is moon, and what is man in the blurred image on the TV screen, Rabbit admits, as Armstrong steps on the new planet: "I don't know, Mom, I know it's happened, but I don't feel anything yet."… The numbness of his feelings toward his wife's departure is paralleled by his almost total lack of interest in the national exploit which is rendered in the book as an unreal, almost grotesque enterprise. (pp. 103-04)
To a large extent, Updike presents Rabbit's spiritual exhaustion and intermittent impotence as a consequence of the asceticism of excess that governed his life in Rabbit, Run. At the time, his mystical quest was undissociable from his activity as a womanizer, and Eccles had good reason to remark: "It's the strange thing about you mystics, how often your little ecstasies wear a skirt."… (p. 105)
Having "nothing to rise by,"… Rabbit finds that there is nothing to rise to. This is why it would be erroneous to believe that the moon and its pioneers are for him only an object of regret and bitter envy. In a way, as is the case with Ruth's neighborhood revisited, he has already been there. There was a time when, carried away by his metaphysical elation, he was able to soar in imagination into the blank sky, but it has procured him neither self-knowledge nor self-fulfillment. He was merely flirting with emptiness out of a suicidal, destructive impulse. Toward the end of Rabbit, Run Updike describes a nightmare in which Harry dreams he is going to found a new religion after having a vision of death under the form of an eclipse of the sun by the moon. In Rabbit Redux the moon is just "a big round nothing" … repeatedly qualified by the adjective "cold." It symbolizes death, no longer the "lovely death" … Rabbit the mystic was courting in the first novel, but death as a negation of consciousness, a fall into abysmal absence. For Harry has come to the dismal conclusion that, like the uncontrolled yearning for a higher spirituality, "Space kills."… (p. 106)
This is why he does not run any longer, except, twice in the novel, out of fright. This amounts to saying that he has condemned himself to silence, since running, besides being the small town equivalent of extensive traveling, appears in Rabbit, Run as the innate language of the "natural." Rather inarticulate when it comes to philosophizing, fundamentally unable to reflect on his essence, more interested in existence than in knowledge, Harry can find no better means of self-expression than the scissoring of his legs through the spring air. It is the moment of pure ecstasy when the outside seems tuned in to the urgent voices of the inside. The requirements of morals and society are then forgotten; there only matters the beauty of a life almost exclusively based on aesthetics. In the final scene of the book Harry, abandoning all sense of responsibility and all emotional problems, surrenders to the exhilaration of sheer instinct and plunges into "pure blank space."… Rhythmically, exultantly, "he runs. Ah: runs. Runs."
The feeling of magnificent ease and breathless perfection our memory retains from those last words sharply contrasts with the apathetic tone of the opening lines of Rabbit Redux describing Harry and his fellow workers leaving Verity Press: "Men emerge pale from the little printing plant at four sharp, ghosts for an instant, blinking, until the outdoor light overcomes the look of constant indoor light clinging to them." It is implicit in this first sentence that Updike is going to use again the inside-outside polarity that spatially structures Rabbit, Run and supplies its dramatic tension. Except that this time the poles are reversed. In the former novel Rabbit jeopardizes his freedom every time he approaches the precincts occupied by women and relatives who wish to trap the claustrophobic vagrant and tie him down with promises of sex or forgiveness. (pp. 106-07)
About one third of Rabbit, Run takes place out of doors; hardly one fifth of Rabbit Redux. The dynamics of Rabbit, Run proceeds from Harry's repeated departures, whereas the suspense of the other botk grows in proportion as more and more people trespass upon the privacy of his household. (p. 107)
Rabbit deceives himself into believing that his home is a shelter for meaningful values when it is only a prison of self-centeredness. (p. 108)
But, as Harry himself acknowledges in one of his most discerning statements, "what we most protect is where we want to be invaded."… At bottom he hates his house, which, with its "Martian" furniture and "tacky" aspect, reminds him of his own cheapness. Updike gives us ground to think that, just as Rabbit's fear of being raped or murdered by Skeeter goes with an undeniable sexual attraction—or at least curiosity—toward the young black, his obstinate protection of his property conceals an unconscious desire to see it destroyed. After the fire, as if awaking from a dream, Harry realizes there is hardly anything he would salvage from the wreckage…. His job lost, his house destroyed, his wife away, Rabbit enjoys a sudden freedom of which, of course, he takes no advantage. On the contrary, he falls back into his old blunders, enters "the same door" … to settle with his parents and fall in love with Mim again, and tries his hand at basketball to recover "the touch." With a mixture of compassion and irony toward his character. Updike toys in the last pages of the book with the idea that Harry might revive in himself the Rabbit of the first novel. But the echo sounded in the sentence "Globes of ether, pure nervousness, slide down his chest," is only nostalgic. The impetus is gone, Harry will not run any more. He sinks into unconsciousness against his wife's body, withdraws in his "burrow," in "a space of silence."… (pp. 108-09)
Yves Le Pellec, "Rabbit Underground," in Les Américanistes: New French Criticism on Modern American Fiction, edited by Ira D. Johnson and Christiane Johnson (copyright © 1978 by Kennikat Press Corp.; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1978, pp. 94-109.
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Updike has been a professional writer for two decades. His first decade's work, for the most part, records the strife, observation, and feeling of that pre-twenty year old wherein nostalgic recollections of boyhood are transmuted by an adult's imagination and youthful autobiography is altered into art…. [His] youthful memory informs almost all the fiction of [the] 1955–65 decade.
Updike wrote [the] Foreword to Olinger Stories in 1964 with the intention of saying farewell to Pennsylvania and to his boyhood memories. Except for brief returns in Rabbit Redux (1971) and Buchanan Dying (1974), he has sustained that intention. After the novel, Of the Farm (1965), his favorite fictional locale moves from Pennsylvania to New England (often Tarbox) and his themes no longer reflect boyhood recollections but adult concerns. In the decade 1965–76 the tensions of marriage, the process of aging, and the varied losses of "faith"—religious, political, sexual—become his central themes. (pp. 219-20)
The years 1964–66, therefore, mark an important transitional stage in Updike's pilgrim's progress and so are of crucial significance for a complete understanding of his writing career….
The Music School  collection holds a distinctive place in the Updike corpus because it contains several stories that, in addition to more familiar Updike themes, specifically engage the issues of artistic self-consciousness and the act of composition itself. In the story, "The Bulgarian Poetess,"… Updike created a spokesman who would explicitly engage these issues, Henry Bech. (p. 220)
Bech's character is only the most obvious alter ego in The Music School collection. Most of the remaining stories reveal a narrator or character wrestling with similar "writerly" problems of sterility and creativity and the tensions that result…. The primary and ostensible theme of almost every story is that of the mystery of sexuality and sexual relationships examined in the light of their sterility or vitality. Subordinate, but concomitant with it, is the secondary theme of the mysterious relationship between the imagined and the real, between artistic re-creation and Creation, between the sterile and vitalizing processes of the mind…. The most obvious clue … that Updike is addressing these twin themes is found in the epigraph chosen for The Music School, a quotation from Wallace Stevens' poem, "To the One of Fictive Music":
Now, of the music summoned by the birth
That separates us from the wind and the sea,
Yet leaves us in them, until earth becomes,
By being so much of the things we are,
Gross effigy and simalcrum, none
Gives motion to perfection more serene
Than yours, out of our imperfections wrought,
Most rare or ever of more kindred air
In the laborious weaving that you wear.
These lines represent well Stevens' continuing poetic theme: that the apparent dichotomy that exists between the realm of reality, disorder, the actual (earth) and the realm of the imagination, order and the ideal (music) is bridged only through Art. (p. 221)
Updike's choice of epigraph is most apt since most of the stories deal with the "Stevensian" theme of re-creating reality and the past via imagination and memory. (p. 222)
[In the stories of The Music School] composition and theme, frame and form are one in that each story's inner dynamic is heuristic in a composite way. We find the narrator, explicitly or not, seeking "connections" amid remembered or imagined events so that the resultant structure (i.e., where these connections intersect) both shapes and is shaped by this heuristic movement. Throughout, there is three-fold pursuit taking place as there is continually throughout the poetry of Wallace Stevens: (1) pursuit of the elusive, disordered reality (Nature and Woman); (2) the conscious effort to draw upon the resources of the imagination through the medium of metaphor; and finally, (3) this heuristic movement outward becomes simultaneously a search for the self, the symbolic center of the pursuit. But the goal and instrument of these three quests are the same; recovery and re-creation.
The dense and difficult story, "Harv is Plowing Now," illustrates well this triple-layered attempt at recovery. In it the controlling metaphor is that of an archeological excavation. Just as the archeologist "unearths" both the precious and the dross, and a farmer like Harv plows the dead earth in order to revitalize it, so too the narrator-artist must mine his memory (memory of a Woman) in order to effect a recreation by re-imagining, thus issuing in a "resurrection" of his very self at the story's end. (pp. 222-23)
"Leaves" is a very brief story, only nine paragraphs long, but in its integration of imagery and subtlety of structure it represents well Updike's successful effort to engage the Reality-Art-Imagination relationships, and, as a prose-poem, it exemplifies the Stevens epigraph.
The title "Leaves" itself suggests multiple meanings, each warranted in the story, for the word "leaves" can connote the product of Nature (as in grape leaves), and, as a verb, can indicate departure, loss, and time, and significantly, it can also suggest a book's "leaves," its pages, which are the outcome of art. The story is ostensibly a confession-meditation in that the narrator, now isolated in a forest retreat, is essaying to recover from the emotional disaster of imminent divorce by "sorting out the events" of his predicament. The story's framework is both heuristic and cruciform. The crux of X pattern is manifest in the sequence of reflections as the narrator pursues the "connections" among them. (pp. 223-24)
In both technique and theme we recognize similarities [in "Leaves"] between Updike and Wallace Stevens. Like so many of Stevens' poems, this story develops through an imaginative exploration of the potential implications of the central metaphor. The plurisignificant metaphor becomes an instrument for discovery, therefore, the vehicle for grappling with the mysterious relationship between natural reality and man's imaginative consciousness. The poem, or the story here, not only records this process of discovery and the problems engaged, but is the process.
Furthermore, not only does this story proceed like a Stevens "meditation," but it deals specifically with the Stevens problematic, and, in a sense, reads like a commentary on the Stevens epigraph. In "Leaves," the "real" autumn leaves at the story's start are both inviting and repulsive, and make the narrator aware that he is "at the intersection of two kingdoms"; these real leaves then merge with a memory of his wife's "leaving" so that once again "real nature" (symbolized by the spider) seems alien for they "inhabit … incompatible cosmoses." These memories and thoughts then conjoin with his recollection of the imaginative Leaves of Grass which, in its turn, once had united with the elm tree "leaves" in his own imaginative "awakening," so that finally, memory of this previous union of "leaves" brings a "new angle of illumination" to the real autumn leaves which he now imagines falling "flat at my feet like a penitent." The story's structure, then, records the central theme in Stevens: that, despite the apparent dichotomy between the realms of imagination and reality, a reciprocal interpenetration is possible, and the "leaves" of an artist's book can capture it briefly—"it" being a merger of reality, memory, and imagination. Nature informs the artist's imagination, and in turn or reciprocally, his imagination transforms Nature and the art-work is born. (pp. 228-29)
George W. Hunt, S.J., "Reality, Imagination, and Art: The Significance of Updike's 'Best' Story," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1979 by Newberry College), Vol. 16, No. 3, Summer, 1979, pp. 219-29.
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After the glittering and extravagant landscapes of The Coup, we return in [Problems and Other Stories] to more familiar domestic terrain—gas stations in Nevada, church basements, motels, subways, bathrooms. We are back in the world of Everyman's everyday suffering and everyday grace….
Heroically mundane, still desperately hopeful, their minds echoing with quotations from Blake and St. Augustine and esoteric scraps of information about extinct ungulates, Updike's characters stumble bravely on through the dark world, remembering past innocence and past delights, for they are aging and guilty, victims of the "curve of sad time" which Updike invokes in his dedication…. And yet, as always with Updike, there are moments of exhilaration, phrases that redeem the prevailing sense of loss. Something gleams just beyond the edge of vision, and one of his many particular gifts is his ability to suggest it, to catch it, to persuade us that after all this sorry pageant is not a pageant but a serious enterprise, and one worthy of serious endeavor, however inevitable the ultimate defeat. (p. 1)
There are readers who find [Updike's] union of the literary and the mundane highly artificial and self-conscious, too close to the bravura writing of a star performer in a creative-writing course. To me it seems natural, though one or two of the stories have a suspicious neatness—"From the Journal of a Leper," for instance, tells the tale of a potter with a skin disease who seeks treatment, is finally cured of his complaint and loses both his woman and his inspiration, a tale too tidy to be very interesting. But this is one of the rare failures; in other stories geometric plots (and problems) are used with considerable wit. Others, yet again, contain volumes….
There is a great deal in this collection that praises the decent and the orderly and the merciful—who but Updike would make "Minutes of the Last Meeting," about the nonfunctioning Tarbox Committee for Equal Development and Betterment for Young and Old Alike, neither satiric nor sentimental, but affectionate and funny? Yet the stronger winds still blow where they list, and man, even when stumbling down to the subway, still lives in the eye of God.
It is hard for an English reader to comment on Updike's portrayal of America, for to us the deliberately familiar has a touch of the exotic….
In The Coup Updike created an imaginary world, a Coleridgean fantasy, a myth; here he has reverted to the Wordsworthian, revealing hints of the supernatural in the events of everyday material life. He has braved the great themes, and noticed the unnoticeable, treating both with equal respect, an achievement that does him much honor. (p. 4)
Margaret Drabble, "Heroes of the Mundane," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), October 21, 1979, pp. 1, 4.
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John Updike [in his "Problems and Other Stories"] has some questions to put to us; "problems" to pose, as math teachers used to use the word, not in the contemporary, fallen sense of "Don't mind John Updike, he's just having problems at home." The problems concern divorce, the guilt of divorce, childhood memories, the guilt attaching to certain childhood memories, lust, the guilt that follows hard upon lust, and the fate of American Protestantism. (p. 1)
I find [the title story] "Problems" to be a work of really awesome literary cunning. The cunning, or much of it, is in the sudden darkening of the question: "Which has he more profoundly betrayed?" The words "more profoundly" rescue the passage from a weakening-by-cleverness. They lack coolness in exactly the right degree; they seem emoted rather than devised. They call us back from the play of wit—real wit, for once, like Thackeray's or Pope's—to remind us of the human costliness of an everyday situation. That is what John Updike does for a living: he reminds us of what things humanly cost. (pp. 1, 44)
[The title story] lifts the hood on John Updike's fiction …: it reveals by its very abstraction the machine that is forever intensifying and multiplying the moral complexities of "Domestic Life in America"—another of his starkly literal titles. It's implicit in this description of what Updike does in his fiction that he risks a charge of perversity: why should he intensify and multiply already immense and painful life problems? Is he, as critics like John Gardner bent on "moral" fiction might say, merely exploitive and indulgent? Is he finally lurid, in a book such as "Couples," about divorce and lust and guilt, rather than (I suppose) uplifting?
By way of answering, it's crucial to observe that the story called "Problems" does not come with answers, not even printed upside down or in the back of the book. Updike is, of course, powerfully learned in the handful of subjects to which he devotes himself almost exclusively in this book; his imagination has schooled itself assiduously on the relevant anguish and pain; but his acquired learning does not amount to a confidence in answers. No, the purpose of his meticulous and mostly melancholy discriminations of feeling, his sharpening of the teeth of every moment of ordinary life, the end to which all the metaphorical exactions of his style are tending, is roughly this: he wants to increase, to make more specific and empirical our sense of how difficult it is to perceive and judge clearly where love of any kind has entered. But the necessity of perception and judgment in Updike's world is constant. If this is wisdom, it is the Socratic sort, which abounds in questions and respects the hard limits of what we can truly know….
In general the issue of Updike's style is a difficult one, and all that can be said with any assurance is that it is part of Updike's own silent insistence that his style is the center, maybe the substance, of his art. Although most of the time it's bound tightly to the work of describing the world, it also has the means and the inclination to call attention to itself. Every few pages we are struck by what might be called a "writer's word," such as "claxon" or "cruciform." Or, more often, we come upon a metaphor of astonishing deftness and efficiency; so deft and efficient, paradoxically, that it's liable to distract us. (p. 44)
The opening story in "Problems" describes in deadpan a late-night television commercial for noiseless gas heating. Then it describes the man who is watching, after his wife has gone to sleep; then how he urinates, goes to bed, lies awake, goes to look at the stars … finally puts in his earplugs and then succeeds at last in sleeping. There is a peace in this story that is absent from the awkward and disorderly domestic situations that make up "Nevada," "Separating" and even "The Gun Shop"; a peace that has no place at all in the events or situations of the daylight world as Updike sees it. But some echo of the opening story, some sympathy with the point of view of a solitary man in a soundless, sleeping world is always present in Updike's prose, even at its busiest. It may be that an ultimate privacy is what gives his style its intrinsic tone. Yet Updike is also the finest living describer of the physical world we all share. The paradox in this is the one Jack Yeats built into his definition of art: "the public act of a private man."
One might go further: What gives poignance to so many scenes of intimacy in Updike's fiction is that they are "done" in the voice of someone who has some stubborn difficulties in truly being intimate. For isn't it, after all, the failure of intimacy that preoccupies him? It is the refusal to give, to yield, to share, to forgo, and above all the refusal to stay, the decision to leave, that relentlessly creates the dilemmas in the lives of his characters. They hurt each other by persisting in their privacy when they shouldn't; what they lack is the means of doing otherwise.
Something more needs saying about Updike as a student of the institutions of staying and leaving, marriage and divorce. There is something he leaves out, a possibility he fails to conceive, and that is the possibility that Eros can be a force for order. This book is haunted terrifically by a fear that the world will fall apart because some of our homes do…. This fear no doubt accounts for the enormous energy of description in Updike: as if those words could make solid a world threatened with disintegration. The source of the threat is sexual love. Its main effect in Updike's books is to separate people, not unite them (except on lonely beaches or in hotel rooms, and then not for long). Now this is most certainly an honest perception on Updike's part. But I submit that, whatever its status as a natural fear or an honest perception, it is still a cliché, the only unexamined idea perhaps in Updike's work.
But that is no note to end on. "Problems and Other Stories" won't be surpassed by any collection of short fiction in the next year, and perhaps not in the next 10. Its satisfactions are profound, and the proper emotion is one of gratitude that such a splendid artistic intelligence has been brought to bear on some of the important afflictions of our times. (p. 45)
John Romano, "Updike's People," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 28, 1979, pp. 1, 44-5.
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[In Problems and Other Stories] divorce is like a more profound kind of marriage. The relationship is purified by distance, ennobled by nostalgia. It becomes a tragedy, instead of a comedy of errors. Divorce releases a desire for the former husband or wife that can be neither defined nor satisfied.
Someone said about James Joyce that he gave up his religion, but kept his categories. Mr. Updike's husbands and wives keep their categories, too. Their future is framed by their past. They struggle to find new mistakes to make. (p. 539)
Not all the stories work in "Problems." Sometimes Mr. Updike merely toys self-consciously with the short-story form. Other times he tries to force the lock of our feelings with empty virtuosity. His characters have always had a weakness for portentous remembering. Once in a while, in rehearsing their sorrows, his divorced husbands are like men retelling old army stories.
But is some of these pieces are forgettable, others are not. At his best, John Updike stitches his stories into our skins….
While Mr. Updike has become the poet laureate of domestic life and divorce, the children in "Problems" are oddly boring. Perhaps this is because they were born and bred in a world where divorce is a commonplace. Their needs and their range of gestures seem limited and predictable, as simple as tropisms. (p. 540)
Anatole Broyard, "'Problems'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 2, 1979 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. II, No. 11, 1979, pp. 539-40).
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[Problems and Other Stories shows once again that John Updike] is pre-eminent among contemporary writers of the short story, once thought the most American of literary forms. It is not that he has moved the form forward, as, for example, Hemingway did by forcing it into a new idiom, but that he has brought the dominant type of today's story—the New Yorker story—to its highest excellence. The type is characterized by sophistication, texture, smooth craftsmanship, and, on occasion, ingenuity of device…. "Shallow people get hurt, too," wrote critic Tom Shales this year, commenting on the television treatment of Updike's characters, the Maples, and thus summed up the basic appeal of an Updike story.
Shallow people suffer, too! The middle class living their surface lives on "the curve of sad time" have found in Updike their chronicler. He is skilled in conveying the substance of that life by giving us its texture….
Updike is at his best in the world of domestic conflict. At least ten of these stories have to do with failures in love and communication, between parents and children, between husband and wife. Most of them are about people in the act of separation or divorce. The point of view of the protagonist in these stories, whether he is called Maple or Fraser or Culp, seems the mirror of one and the same narcissistic sensibility. Even the pending loss of these characters' children, or the children's pain, serves only as a fillip to their various nursed guilts. And yet an uncanny sense of the universal is evoked by the nuances Updike achieves—the father leaving the shoe store with his child "a touch more tender with her, having witnessed the tenderness of others," the son in collision with his father, and smiling suddenly….
Updike is simply not very effective with major themes—even in the interesting story "Augustine's Concubine"; "For a thousand years, men would endeavor to hate the flesh, because of her." In a collection like this, it becomes apparent that Updike has one theme—the cherished, weak, and vulnerable self and the hazards attendant on its indulgence. But the ingeniousness of the frameworks he develops makes certain of these stories—such as the title story and the brilliant "Commercial"—classics of form and style.
Abigail McCarthy, "The Master of the Minor," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1979 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 12, No. 45, November 19, 1979, p. 97.
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Seventeen of the stories in [Problems and Other Stories] first appeared in The New Yorker, and they have upon them the white, bloodless thumbmark of that publication. They do not bleed or cry, they do not hurt us in the chest or the throat; they are, instead, the work of a fine craftsman in cool, classic stone. Simple, directly written, they are pleasantly wry and often intelligently ironic. The plots are thin, clear, almost translucent….
In such tales as "Here Come the Maples," "Domestic Life in America," and "Separating," the pain is so refracted that it becomes self-depreciating, wry, and touching only in a carefully controlled way.
In perhaps the finest of these stories, "Separating," we watch the husband, Richard, break into tears at the dinner table; we see the curious reaction of his young son, John, to the news of his parents' separation—he eats a cigarette and a paper napkin at the table; and we listen as his oldest son, Dickie, "moaned one word, the crucial, intelligent word: 'Why?'
"Why. It was a whistle of wind in a crack, a knife thrust, a window thrown open on emptiness. The white face was gone, the darkness was featureless. Richard had forgotten why."
Contained in this description of Dickie's italicized question and of the similes that crowd his father's mind is all of Updike's bleak, analgesic vision of marital and parental life. We have reason to believe that the author has transmuted his own painful experiences into this skillful description of them, but the result is filtered, selective, and we are not directly affected. As in many of the stories in The New Yorker about pain, suffering, anxiety, and self-doubts, we are saved from direct confrontation. The stories are caged in glass, like the displays in natural-history museums; we cannot get near them and they, of course, cannot touch us.
Updike is a superb writer, probably the most supple prose stylist we have….
But Updike can also be flat and somewhat stale, dispassionate almost to the point of tedium. There are some unsatisfactory stories here ("Believers," "From the Journal of the Leper," and "Minutes of the Last Meeting," to name a few), and there are others in which a sense of artistic exhaustion dominates the telling, as though to echo Updike's own flagging spirits in the face of the enervating crises of domestic life. (p. 9)
Doris Grumbach, "Stories Caged in Glass," in Books & Arts (copyright © 1979 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.), Vol. I, No. 6, November 23, 1979, pp. 8-9.∗
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John Updike is an éminence grise of the short-story form. I imagine him writing them almost in his sleep, determined to retain a scrap of dream even as he dreams it. In Problems … Updike once again demonstrates how circumscribed his world is and how good he is within its limits.
Updike's style—his finicky choice of words, his love of adjectives—is a linguistic fence. The very mastery of it insures order, guarding certain subjects and keeping others out. Guilt, for instance, is a topic that nestles inside his dazzlingly-wrought sentences: "A guilt-gem is a piece of the world that has volunteered for compression. Those souls around us, living our lives with us, are gaseous clouds of being awaiting a condensation and preservation—faces, lights that glimmer out, somehow not seized, save in this gesture of remorse." ("Guilt-Gems") Crisis and tumult, on the other hand, are topics that are indirectly shut out by Updike's unremittingly attentive and courteous language. His stories seem to begin at a well-constructed distance from the immediacy of the emotion—hurt, anger or sorrow—that generated them. There is, in fact, something curiously closed about his vision; everything—children, wives, ex-wives, egg-races, sex, conversations—tends to get drenched in the pale-gold light of nostalgia…. Like Cheever, Updike is a sucker for poignancy; somewhere along the way all of his stories evoke that sense of "irrecoverable loss," even when the source of the feeling isn't entirely clear.
Still, there is more to praise in this collection than to complain of. For one thing, Updike remains our most unabashedly heterosexual writer, revelling in the femaleness of women at a time when the sexes are portrayed as approximating rather than complementing each other: "… her breasts drift in their starched carapace inches from my nose. I want to suck them, to counteract the outward flow of my blood. Yin and Yang, mutually feeding." ("From the Journal of a Leper") Although separation and divorce figure in many of the stories, remarkably little acrimony is engendered; there is, instead, a surfeit of tenderness toward the wife who is being left, as if to atone for the failure of intimacy that led to the parting in the first place. (p. 18)
Several tales here cover what is for Updike new geography: "Transaction" narrates an encounter between a reluctant prostitute and a family man who is prepared for an evening of abandon. Lacking the sacramental attitude that often cloys Updike's descriptions of sex, the story has a grainy candor that renders both the situation and the characters in it startlingly life-like…. Interestingly, "Transaction" was originally published in Oui, a makeshift home away from Updike's usual patrician home at the New Yorker; it made me wonder whether he would do well to exercise some of his less finely-spun gifts more often than he does. (p. 19)
Daphne Merkin, "Mastering the Short Story," in The New Leader (© 1979 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXII, No. 23, December 23, 1979, pp. 18-19.∗
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Compelling and revealing and brought off with superb control of language and theme, [Problems and Other Stories] confirms Updike's growing position as the foremost master of the genre in our time.
The stories … appear in chronological order and together form an unusually lucid record of many of the social themes and influences of the decade just past. From the smooth perfection of the television commercial to the increasing gains of the psychoanalyst as the mythical father of being for the modern psyche, Updike's telling prose captures images of the recent past with a kind of comic sadness which gives the reader a needed perspective and a sense of his own place in the spectrum of time.
Updike's central subject in these stories is the impact of the sexual revolution on the American family and particularly on the male psyche. Probably no other writer of the present generation has explored the intense nature of the prime relationship of marriage more vigorously.
The heroes in these kind and intelligent stories are mostly in their forties and are generally involved in a guilt-ridden love affair wherein they must choose between a competent, motherly wife with touchingly vulnerable children and an equally compelling mistress whose sexual powers they are unwilling or unable to dismiss and forego. Love, while unable to conquer all in the quasi-religious heart of our hero, still survives….
And no one can evoke like Updike the lonely happiness achieved by lovers who have forsaken all other commitments to fulfill the promise of their love….
Other writers have condemned the seventies as the "me generation" of self-seeking narcissism. Updike partially redeems his heroes and heroines through their penance in guilt, though in a story called "Guilt Gems," he condemns the hero who soothes himself with the guilty feeling he can recreate instantly in recollecting the grief he has caused those closest to him over the years….
Despite its grim themes, Problems is finally an affirmative reading experience, because it once more demonstrates the cathartic power of art to render intelligible the fragmented life, to make whole the broken dream, to absolve the sinner.
Martha Heimberg, "The Fragmented Life," in The Lone Star Book Review (copyright © 1980 Lone Star Media Corp.), Vol. 1, No. 8, January/February, 1980, p. 5.
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At least five out of the 23 stories [in Problems and Other Stories] rivet: "Transaction," "The Egg Race," "Separating," "The Faint," "Daughter, Last Glimpses Of." But Updike can be portentous and pretentious in his short-shorts, which, while dealing summarily with the same subjects as his full-bodied stories (separation, divorce, grieved children, living alone, middle age), are built upon arty structures and laced with significant quotes…. (p. 231)
The stories of separation and divorce that constitute the core of the book all manifest the thought the narrator's wife (who has left him) has in the story "Nevada": turning forty was "as if then you began a return journey that could not be broken." In these stories, whether the husband or the wife has been abandoned, the passion of life remains linked with the first partner and the time life was still hopeful. The second wives are pale ghosts beside the vividness of life lived with the first. Bonds remain because of this, and equally because of the children (all of whom suffer intensely in these stories because of their parents' separation). The remarried husband cannot quite remember, as he faces his first wife and his beloved children, why he has left her. The detritus of middle age is present: infidelity, arthritis, friends who are cancer victims, hospitals, prostitutes, class reunions. The winding down.
There is a curious interchangeability about the separation stories. Despite the strong writing, they don't remain individually in the mind—until the transcedent "Separating." Here the passions break through, the muted emotions are released. (p. 232)
Updike manages to transfigure, both in this story and others, what initially appears to be familiar material—middle-class domestic life—with expressive language and the grace of his caring. And when Updike strays, he comes up with the book's brilliant, bizarre blockbuster, "Transaction." No account of trying to squeeze blood from a stone has ever been better. A forty-year-old man, heading for his hotel at midnight after a conference and carrying his family's Christmas presents in his arms, picks up a prostitute and takes her to his hotel room. Read this blow by blow, and you will know that Updike can do almost anything.
Then there is "The Egg Race," as pure and enchanting a story as can be found. Here are most of the themes of Problems and Other Stories coalesced into a collage of memories: the race itself, an apt metaphor for life…. (pp. 232, 234)
Here is the America that Colonel Ellelloû hated (and envied) in The Coup, and which Updike celebrates in these stories. He is writing now of lives wearing down—the inevitable waning after the times of youth and rapture. It is a wearing down that comes with the seasons, not hastened or pre-empted by extermination camps and mass marches—and is therefore marked by a sad, natural, and unmistakable beauty. (p. 234)
David Evanier, "Wearing Down," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1980; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, February 22, 1980, pp. 231-32, 234.