‘Domestic Life In America’ by John Updike

Updike, John 1976b

Domestic Life In America by John Updike, 1976

The magic trick:

Somehow making the narrow vision of his own life feel like the story of a generation

Real-world tragedy interrupted this story for me, as word broke of the Paris terrorist attacks the Friday evening I was reading this on the train. Shaken as I’m sure everyone was by the news, I found it oddly comforting to return to “Domestic Life In America” later that night. This story of small-town Christmas traditions knotted up in emotional malaise and family tension suddenly seemed like a happy escape from the real horrors of the world.

Oh no, buddy, are your kids not making enough time for you anymore since you moved out of the house? Oh no, buddy, is your wife playing tennis with your old golf pals? Is your girlfriend letting her 5-year-old ruin your afternoon delight?

I mean these concerns are hard to take seriously on a good day, let alone one when the world appears to be caving in on itself.

But that can’t be the measure of a short story, right? The author is under no obligation to approach their subject with any particular sense of global perspective. So, pardoning the Updike-themed pun, let’s divorce the story from the vents in Paris that colored my reading experience.

I do believe the criticisms of Updike’s subject matter are valid. His world view is stunningly limited here. But maybe that’s the point. Consider the title. Perhaps he is nominating himself as a voice of his generation – caught awkwardly between the so-called greatest generation and the baby boomers. They went all in on the 1950s brand of nuclear-family America and 20 years later, by the time of “Domestic Life,” they’re left with boredom, anxiety, broken hearts and fouled-up Christmas plans.

All that said, I’m still not sure this story, in isolation, would make me care about any of that or any of them. But I’m sure it meant something to them then and represents their shared narrative now. And that’s quite a trick on Updike’s part.

The selection:

He awoke, once, to the sound of a match scratching; its flare filled the bedroom to the corners. The digital-clock face said 2:22. “What’re you doing?” he asked, irritated.

“Oh, stewing,” she said. The cigarette glowed as she dragged.

“What about?”

She named her husband, and Fraser went back to sleep, awaking again to the sound of her sons getting ready for church. Her youngest, Billy, came and sat on the bed and had Fraser tie his Ski-Doo boots. The child, five, in honor of the snowfall had put boots on over his pajamas; when Fraser attempted to point out the incongruity, Billy dimpled and laughed, as if this naked man in his mother’s bed were pretending that life isn’t made of incongruities.

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