It would be too easy to generalize: the mildly titillating well past middle age sexual fantasy, the well worn territory--New England or Middle States middle class ennui... but why bother? Failure is all too common, and pointing it out even more so. It's not failure in itself that deserves attention. What does, is falling short. And what matters, is not the failure, but what it suggests, and fails to realize.
Updike is a consummate stylist. For pure "Sentence Lovers," he delivers. Like Cynthia Ozick. Though Ozick, perhaps, drawing from a deeper level of Jewish angst, tries harder--not necessarily with greater success. But there's more there, as a few of his earlier stories show. As Outrage hints at, and misses.
Again, where precisely, does it miss?
Brad Morris is working at home. By computer. His wife is in Boston, where she manages a boutique. Brad is not impressed by the news reports of an approaching storm. Rain as come and gone, and come again.
The worst seemed to be over, when, in midafternoon, his computer died under his eyes. The financial figures he had been painstakingly assembling swooned as a group, sucked into the dead blank screen like glittering water pulled down a drain. Around him, the house seemed to sigh, as all its lights and little engines, its computerized timers and indicators, simultaneously shut down. The sound of wind and rain lashing the trees outside infiltrated the silence. A beam creaked. A loose shutter banged. The drip from a plugged gutter tapped heavily, like a bully nagging for attention, on the wooden cover of a cellar-window well.
Here is the promise. More than finely crafted description. A contrast, multileveled, compressed--nature and our technologically conditioned projection of reality, repressed memory of an unmediated sensual perception.
He opened the refrigerator and was surprised by its failure to greet him with a welcoming inner light. The fireplace in the den emitted a sour scent of damp wood ash. Wind whistled in crevices he had not known existed, under the eaves and at the edges of the storm windows.
He drives into town (surprised that his car still starts). A list of the businesses... all gone dark. A world both new... and old.
... and there it is. The possibility to penetrate the veil of conditioned notions of what is "real"... an awakening. Even if it be an awakening beyond the consciousness of Brad Morris... or the narrator--an awakening like that of Edna Pontellier. Keep it within the fictional universe Updike is competent to deal with. Let the awakening be ironic? Metaphorical? But let it be for the reader, a lucid dream!
But no. There's no escape in this story from the middlebrow American delusions; the only awakening--from a middle-age wet dream, and here is the deepest betrayal, an awakening he tells us, to "reality."
That's it. Updike leaves us the choice: our masturbatory delusions, or their repressive denial.
Not only the limitation of our choice, but of "reality" itself. A fictive universe no larger than the fantasy of what a man would like to have done to his penis, and the necessity of foregoing that illicit pleasure... for the sake of "reality."
As though that were an "insight." As though that were enough to justify the failed promise...
Three posts on Critical Narrative analysis