Giving Blood by John Updike, 1963
The magic trick:
Bringing a marital argument to life with frightening realism
Here come the Maples, headed to Boston to give blood. Get excited. It really is amazing how well Updike can take the most mundane experience and bleed every detail dry (here, he does that quite literally) so that it takes on some kind of higher metaphorical meaning. And I mean he pulls that trick off just about every single time. I always learn something when I read him. Always.
Of course, you also have to take in a huge helping of misogyny every single time too. This story is at best hateful, at worst criminally predatory. You’ve got Richard Maple, the Updike stand-in, verbally laying waste to his wife because she has the nerve to not want him to cheat on her with a mutual friend. You’ve got Richard doing the classic Updike baby act, wherein he acts like a child – presumably thinking it’s charming? – to get his wife to mother him. And then at the end, when the couple has found some kind of renewed warmth again, Richard filters this excitement through the creep lens by comparing his wife to a secretary he’s taking out for lunch. Most problematic, though, is the paragraph in which Updike explains the way the Maples go through teenaged girl babysitters back home. He reveals far too much of himself, I fear, when he tells us that their babysitter was “a little sandy girl from down the street who would, Richard calculated, in exactly a year, be painfully lovely.” Yikes. It’s tough to read past that and continue to consider the story on any level other than “Damn, this John Updike was super messed up and no one seems to say anything about that, why not? Why does he get a free pass?”
He certainly can write. Just read the opening section of this story. It has all the problems and all the glories inherent to the Updike experience. It’s an argument between the Maples as they drive to Boston, and it positively bristles with electricity. The words jump off the page. The dialogue feels so real you figure it is literally just a transcript from a fight the author had with his wife the night before he wrote this. It’s ugly. Richard, as previously noted, is tough to like. But that’s not the point here. Just appreciate the realism and the ferocity. And that’s quite a trick on Updike’s part.
“Let’s not talk,” she said.
His hope, of turning the truth into a joke, was rebuked. Any implication of permission was blocked. “It’s that smugness,” he explained, speaking levelly, as if about a phenomenon of which they were both disinterested students. “It’s your smugness that is really intolerable. Your stupidity I don’t mind. Your sexlessness I’ve learned to live with. But that wonderfully smug, New England – I suppose we needed it to get the country founded, but in the Age of Anxiety it really does gall.”
He had been looking over at her, and unexpectedly she turned and looked at him, with a startled but uncannily crystalline expression, as if her face had been in an instant rendered in tinted porcelain, eyelashes and all.
“I asked you not to talk,” she said. “Now you’ve said things that I’ll always remember.”
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I know! He’s always amazing and incredibly awful at the same time!