‘Hair Jewellery’ by Margaret Atwood

Hair Jewellery by Margaret Atwood, 1977 Continue reading

‘Here Come The Maples’ by John Updike

John Updike

Here Come The Maples by John Updike, 1976

The magic trick:

Filling the story with small, razor-sharp truths

Hmm. Small, razor-sharp truths? I just typed that. I’m not totally sure what that means. That’s a pretty stupid way to write. John Updike does not write like that. He doesn’t use phrases like “small, razor-sharp truths,” and for that we are grateful.

These stories about the Maples, evidently, are drawn from Updike’s real-life divorce from his real-life first wife. I find that kind of autobiography dangerous ground for a short story. Things can get too claustrophobic real quick, and, make no mistake, this story is not big in any way. This is small stuff – the range of feelings a man experiences as he approaches a divorce hearing in court. That’s it. Our world here, as a reader, is limited to this guy’s brain, his memories and his feelings.

But recall those aforementioned small, razor-sharp truths. They are Updike’s saving grace. In the hands of a lesser writer, this story could fall apart as a maudlin diary entry. But Updike sprinkles in all these little moments that make the reader feel the feelings of the protagonist. These details are so spot-on, the reader can’t help but relate and say, “Oh, yes, that’s it exactly. That’s how it was for me once too.” The story no longer is a thinly veiled Updike autobiography; it stands in for the reader’s own personal history as well. And that’s quite a a trick on Updike’s part.

The selection:

As they drove to court, discussing their cars and their children, he marveled at how light Joan had become; she sat on the side of his vision as light as a feather, her voice tickling his ear, her familiar intonations and emphases thoroughly musical and half unheard, like the patterns of a concerto that sets us to daydreaming. He no longer blamed her: that was the reason for the lightness. All those years, he had blamed her for everything – for the traffic jam in Central Square, for the blasts of noise on the mail boat, for the difference in the levels of their beds. No longer: he had set her adrift from omnipotence. He had set her free, free from fault. She was to him as Gretel to Hansel, a kindred creature moving beside him down a path while birds behind ate the bread crumbs.