Problems, and Other Stories
For some time now, for a number of good reasons, there have been gloomy prophecies concerning the decline and fall of the short story as an art form in the English-speaking world. So it is heartening indeed to call attention to the appearance of Problems and Other Stories a collection of twenty-three short stories by John Updike that have been published in various magazines—seventeen in the New Yorker—during the past seven years. The event is heartening not simply because of Updike’s stature as a novelist or his previous contributions to the genre of short fiction. The true cause for celebration lies in the achievement of the stories themselves—in the extraordinary nature of the imagination that informs them; in the variety and virtuosity that results from the combination and juxtaposition of traditional and experimental techniques; and, above all, in the quality of felt life or the insight into human problems that is reflected in the best of them.
The typical protagonist in these stories is an upper-middle-class male who seemingly has no professional worries but who finds himself in the midst of some kind of domestic problem. In many cases, children are directly involved.
Culp, the protagonist in “Nevada,” picks up his two daughters after his divorce proceedings have been completed and drives across a bleak and barren landscape which serves as an appropriate backdrop for the overwhelming sense of loss that permeates his mind as he thinks of his former wife moving in the opposite direction toward Hawaii with her new husband. Gradually he becomes aware that his older daughter, who is sexually on the brink of womanhood, is attempting to take the place of her mother and assume a kind of proprietary control over him. During a night spent in a resort motel, Culp slips away from the room he is sharing with his daughters to accept the invitation of a prostitute. Returning home early in the morning, he is met by his white-nightgowned older daughter. He tenderly but firmly asserts his authority over her, thus exorcising the ghost of his first wife who is reflected both in his memory and his daughter’s desires. Another story with a Freudian undercurrent is “Son,” in which the narrator, made furious by the behavior of his teenage son, bears down on him with the intention of subduing him physically; but recognizing suddenly that he is becoming part of a ludicrous imitation of ritual or myth, he holds back, amused, and lets his son escape. In the moment of holding back, he experiences a rare moment of communion.
A different kind of revelation is at the heart of “The Gunshop,” one of the most powerful and profound stories in this collection. The central character is a highly successful lawyer who has surpassed his father professionally but failed to measure up to him in the more important business of human relationships. As a boy he had been unable to respond fully to his father’s efforts to reach him, and now as a man he finds that failed relationship paralleled in his own association with his son. During a visit made in the company of his father and son to a gunshop he admires the mechanical skill of the gunsmith who is able to shape something through experience and instinct out of the “hard heart of things.” In this story, which is permeated with the motif of death, the gunsmith’s exceptional mechanical ability to repair an instrument of death is ironically juxtaposed to and compared with the protagonist’s attempt to mend his relationship with his son.
In “Daughter, Last Glimpses Of,” a father takes us with wry humor through a set of memories that leads us to a recognition of how much has been taken out of his life with the sudden loss of his older daughter from the family. And in “Separating,” the narrator finds himself startled into the realization that he has no answer when his elder son, his “conscience,” after apparently accepting the news of the impending divorce of his parents stoically, breaks into tears and asks him why.
The theme of separation in a family context is one that is obviously important to Updike, perhaps because it is in family relationships that the most significant part of human nature, the capacity to express and respond to love, can be best exercised and is most often abused. One of the key stories in the collection, because of its theme and its structure, is the titular story, “Problems.” The protagonist, A, asleep in bed with his second wife, B, finds himself erotically and affectionately dreaming of his first wife, C. This leads to the first unanswered question or problem of the story: Whom has he more profoundly betrayed? The frame of the story is that of a series of similar expository passages and questions in the form of quasigeometrical or mathematical word problems. In this way Updike wittily presents the emotional and financial complications that come with divorce and remarriage at a certain time of life at a certain level of society. But the story is more than clever. The problem of handling the cost of college tuition for various children and the price of peastone for the driveway, the difficulty in synchronizing the essential purgative functions of the psychiatrist and the laundromat (there are, it seems, two kinds of dirty linen)—such details are cannily and absurdly juxtaposed in such a way as to make us aware of the enormous disparity between the measurable or calculable aspects of the physical world and the complex, mysterious A, B, C’s of human relationships and human desires.
Although their styles, as the discussion of “Problems” makes clear, seem at times, if anything, more than a...
(The entire section is 2312 words.)