‘Separating’ by John Updike

Updike, John 1975c

Separating by John Updike, 1975

The magic trick:

Punishing the protagonist’s selfishness while also seeming to celebrate it

Way back when, on the SSMT website, we checked in with the Updikes – I mean the Maples – as they were finalizing their divorce. That story, “Here Come The Maples,” fleshed out the feelings of loss by flashing back briefly to the happier past the couple was giving up on. “Separating” is a prequel of sorts, showing the Maples trying out a separation before the inevitable divorce. There is no flashback or wider scope of time and maybe the story suffers for those omissions.

Suffers is a relative term, however. This is a very strong story. If you’re going back to the mid-1970s divorce stuff from Updike, I’d probably suggest “Separating” as an ideal story with which to start.

Updike simply seems to have no filter between his life and the page. He never tells readers about subjects; you feel his subject matter. Sometimes too close for comfort. Every detail is accounted for, every thought is given spotlight, every feeling is magnified.

The result of course is a claustrophobic world of self-absorption surrounding these autobiographical protagonists, Updike stand-ins. But in a remarkable twist, Updike both acknowledges his own selfishness and doubles down on the self-absorption. He clearly thinks highly of his own thoughts and insights or he wouldn’t assume as he seems to that his every autobiographical anecdote would be of interest to the reader. But he also very clearly loathes this quality in himself. He punishes the protagonist here for his selfishness with eternal dissatisfaction and ennui. It’s a paradox that drove much of his career, as far as I can tell, and one that shows itself expertly in “Separating.” And that’s quite a trick on Updike’s part.

The selection:

“Why is Daddy crying?”

Richard heard the question but not the murmured answer. Then he heard Bean cry, “Oh, no-oh!” – the faintly dramatized exclamation of one who had long expected it.

John returned to the table carrying a bowl of salad. He nodded tersely at his father and his lips shaped the conspiratorial words “She told.”

“Told what?” Richard asked aloud, insanely.

The boy sat down as if to rebuke his father’s distraction with the example of his own good manners. He said quietly, “The separation.”

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