This is John Updike’s first collection of stories for seven years. There must have been problems, he says, to account for such a long delay. His preface glances ruefully at some of them – social and political disquiets between 1971 and 1978; but, in fact, the stories hardly move into the public domain. One of them is actually called ‘Problems’, and is cast in the form of exam questions. A, sleeping with B, a new partner who thinks he loves her, has a vivid and longing dream of his old partner C. Which has he more profoundly betrayed, B or C? This would serve pretty well as a paradigm for most of the present collection. Another is called ‘Domestic Life in America’; and if life there is interpreted as dull unease, half-hearted infidelity, not quite unbearable tension, this would describe the repeated theme. It makes for economy. The same apparatus can be infinitely extended, re-used with changed names for the indistinguishable partners, a different selection from an interchangeable set of unhappy offspring, and a slight shuttle to alter the setting. The family is the centre, but the family in decay, its bonds strong enough to cause neurotic dependence but not strong enough to give strength or support. The main activity is divorce – the glumly ‘civilised’ divorce that involves endless meeting, backtracking, wondering whether it is all worth while.
LRB 3 July 1980 | PDF Download