I’ve long been a fan of John Updike’s short stories, although his novels—which are probably much more widely read—don’t do all that much for me. He was one of the most prolific writers of the last century, so there’s plenty of both genres from which to pick and choose.
Perhaps I like the short stories better because I prefer short stories to novels in general. I’m not sure why—some sort of reader ADD, perhaps But I think most novels allow the writer to be too self-indulgent, going on and on and often becoming a repetitious or meandering bore—whereas short stories require focus, focus, focus.
Well, I like tapas bars and tasting menus, too.
Right now I’m reading a collection of Updike stories entitled “The Maples Stories,” about a fictional couple called the Maples whom Updike followed for decades from early marriage through disillusionment and conflict to divorce. The Maples are surrogates for Updike and his first wife, who split in the 70s.
Updike’s world is not mine. I don’t live (and never have lived) among brittle, intelligent, hard-drinking suburban couples during the 50s, 60s, and 70s who compulsively engaged in multiple affairs with each other, both casual and non. Or at least, if I did, I was so out of the loop I never realized it.
But Updike’s Maples stories—of which I’d read two or three even before reading this book—have always grabbed me because they seem to express almost perfectly the sturm and drang, the bittersweet regret, and the strong centripetal force that even a failing and miserable marriage can exert on wretched and flawed spouses deciding whether to remain together or go their separate ways.
Updike is not only a master of poetically precise language and description (both of external and internal states), but he is a master of observation. Once an art student, he retained an eye for just about everything. He’s been criticized for focusing on the trivial, the slight, the non-heroic, but I think that misses the point—which is his love of almost everything on earth as a source of wonder.
To Updike, nothing is trivial. Or rather, the celestial is in the details. For, despite his emphasis on the physical minutiae of illicit sex (more often found in the novels than the stories), and the large and small failures and betrayals of the human race (including, quite prominently, those of Updike himself, through surrogates), Updike’s other great theme is religion, as well as the fleeting nature of a single human life.
It was a quiet story entitled “Plumbing” in the Maples book that prompted this essay of mine. The story is about moving from an old house to a new, but that doesn’t even begin to capture what Updike does with his description of the empty old house and the life the family had lived there, beginning with a plumber’s dissertation on the flaws in the pipes in the new home to which the family has moved. I suggest you read the whole thing, but this excerpt may serve to give you just a tiny idea of the splendors hidden there:
The old house, the house we left, a mile away, seems relieved to be rid of our furniture. The rooms where we lived, where we staged our meals and ceremonies and self-dramatizations and where some of us went from infancy to adolescence—rooms and stairways so imbued with our daily motions that their irregularities were bred into our bones and could be traversed in the dark—do not seem to mourn, as I’d imagined they would. The house exults in its sudden size, in the reach of its empty corners. Floorboards long muffled by carpets shine as if freshly varnished. Sun pours unobstructed through the curtainless windows. The house is young again. It, too, had a self, a life, which for a time was eclipsed by our lives; now, before its new owners come to burden it, it is free. Now long moonlight makes the floor creak. When, some mornings, I return, to retrieve a few final oddments—andirons, picture frames—the space of the house greets me with virginal impudence. Opening the front door is like opening the door to the cat who comes in with the morning milk, who mews in passing on his way to the beds still warm with our night’s sleep, his routine so tenuously attached to ours, by a single mew and a shared roof. Nature is tougher than ecologists admit. Our house forgot us in a day.
[NOTE: If you haven't read Updike on Vietnam, please do.]