Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 183: John Updike, The Lovely Troubled Daughters of Our Old Crowd (#188)

John Updike, "The Lovely Troubled Daughters of Our Old Crowd" (1981) from John Updike: Collected Later Stories:

Clueless destroyers are some of my favorite narrators. In some way, this story works as a mirror-companion to Cheever's "The Swimmer": in "The Swimmer," the protagonist/focal character was this delusional guy who discovers all of the failure that he's been repressing. So his family is all gone and his house is sold and his fortune has disappeared. In Updike's version, the narrator is clueless, but much of the harm that he's been part of has been other-directed: so the focus of the story isn't how he's been affected by his failures but how those failures impacted the daughters of his hard-drinking, swinging, divorcing social set.

So, the story opens and ends with questions about those daughters: "Why don't they get married? What are they afraid of?" Which are questions that only a clueless narrator could ask since the rest of his story is colored by the screwed-up marriages that these daughters were exposed to. While looking at these girls and their various deformities--the one who is only interested in antiques and the one who is interested in modern design and the one who tried to play guitar for a living--what the narrator really shows us is how "Our Old Crowd" pushed all these traumas onto them.

So, read one way, this is the story of someone who fails to realize how his generation's feckless behavior ruined their daughters.

But look again: these girls went to college and are in their 20s. Maybe one of them only likes antiques and another only likes modern Scandinavian design, but these aren't life-crippling traumas. These are pretty ordinary traumas that are part of generational shifting. Put that way, the question "Why don't they get married?" seems pretty blinkered--maybe they're not getting married because 20-year olds aren't getting married.

I mean, if you told this story from the POV of the girls, it would be something like, "Our parents really seemed screwy, telling us one thing--marriage is great--and showing us another--marriage is terrible. But my life isn't terrible because they were screwed-up. My life is just different."

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