John Updike wrote 18 stories about “the Maples”, a touchstone couple for him, over a long span. They have recently been re-issued in a beautiful…and cheap…Everyman edition. The stories themselves are anything but cheap. If you wanted to sample mid-20th century American storytelling at its peak; I’d say start here.
Please notice that the stories are chronological, a modern poetic sequence. The history of the Maples’ marriage progresses like a chess game…opening, mid-game (the most interesting part) and an extended endgame. Or it’s like something out of Goethe…a botanical study…it germinates, flowers and then decays into dust.
‘Snowing in Greenwich Village’ sets the stage. There’s a precious civility to this early story, the narration is just a little too cultivated…calls slightly too much attention to itself…but this is the only story in the set where that happens. There’s the shadow of a triangle…just a hint of a martial fissure.
Richard and Joan, the Maples, are having their off-center friend Rebecca over to their new digs on 13th Street.
Rebecca seems like a spinning gyroscope that’s about to tip over. She has lived with a couple and they all sort of camp out more than occupy their place. She has recently ditched them and now has her own apartment with an eccentric layout.
Joan and Richard…their newly minted marriage reminds me of a young man buying his first suit solo. He wants to look normal…like everyone else. He wants it to be “nice”. The Maples seem to be trying out normality, settling into their new roles as a couple, as if they had just discovered that vanilla is an exciting flavor.
Updike shows clairvoyance about body language before we had the expression “body language”. As Joan, Richard and Rebecca grope through a casual conversation, every position of their limbs, which limns their emotional posture, is specified with Cartesian precision. Later Richard walks Rebecca home to her apartment warren and normalcy comes into focus as milk in an glass that’s about to tip over.
When you read fiction, be a fan of the small touch. It’s like the spice that surprises you. Here’s one: It’s Joan who urges Richard to walk Rebecca home. Joan doesn’t want to leave the flat on a wintry night but she likes the idea of melting snow on her husband’s overcoat.
In ‘Giving Blood’ we have a power move of genius…talk about contrasting body language…as the Maples give blood side-by-side on adjoining cots. In ‘Twin Beds in Rome’ a marriage dissolves on vacation, curing Richard’s psychosomatic holiday illness. It’s as if he were subject to a voodoo doll where the pins have just been removed. Twin beds, adjoining cots in a hospital…Updike looks for ways, under the radar, to suggest a pairing…and to suggest ways that it’s breaking up…as when you walk down your house stairs in the dark and your shoe feels ahead for a step that turns out not to be there.
In ‘The Red Herring Theory’, Beaumarchais couldn’t have done better than this manically complex plotting. The red herring is the person who you trick your partner into thinking you are interested in…so that you can pursue your real erotic target. A further complication: you can form a liaison with your red herring, a deception squared. The only reason to go to a suburban party is either to participate in this game or watch others do it. If either spouse picks up on who the other is sleeping with, then the game is over.
What is really happening in ‘The Red Herring Theory’? This is all talk. The foundation of marriage is talk. Joan and Richard are sitting in their living room late at night. It’s an after-party conversation. It’s marital deconstruction. Do they really mean all this crap? That’s the beauty, in ambiguity…kudos to Updike.
The endgame stories are not quite as effective. The earlier stories explore…discover..the latter stories mourn a loss, document a slow bleeding. That’s harder to convey. But the last story, ‘Grandparents’ is a knockout. Joan and Richard, in a bleak city setting, go to a hospital to meet their grandchild. Joan is accompanied by her new partner, Andy. Richard goes solo. Updike has decided that Richard’s new partner. Ruth, will sit this experience out. That’s a very interesting writer’s call. Richard is cast into relief in isolation.
The choice center of ‘Grandparents’ is not the encounter with daughter and infant in the hospital, and it’s not Richard freezing his ass off in his hotel room…this story is full of cold images…it’s a trio of middle-aged people looking for a parked car.
Joan and Andy head for their car but discover a closed parking lot. So Richard offers to drive them. He parked on some frigid side street. But where is his car? Joan helps him with this thought-process. It’s like a ghost fragment of their marriage still exists…like they’re still somehow a couple.
Couples have three eyes. There are the regular two and then there’s the third eye that belongs to the marriage. This is from one of the late stories in The Maples. Updike has lent us a third eye: urbane, ironic, obssesssed with the erotic but never off-balance. Read.