The Intimate Satisfactions of Craft
John Updike is often a writer who gives the impression of fragility within stability. A marriage might be in trouble, but the nature of marriage itself would seem quite robust. Individuals feel they might not be able to connect with each other, but this a problem of inter-personal communication more than one of semiotic crisis. Language itself works fine; the individual is having a bad day. In ‘Meet the Maples’, Richard and Joan are getting divorced. Updike offers the tale in the third person but from a restricted point of view. This is Richard’s story as he wonders what went wrong, and now living alone he will read whatever comes through the post as he takes an opportunity musing over physics to help make sense of the marital collapse when a leaflet comes with the mail. It also, of course, gives the reader a metaphorical insight into a failed marriage. Living with Joan and the kids, he would have “thrown it away without a second look, but now, as he slowly took on the careful habits of a Boston codger, he read every scrap he was sent, and even stopped on the alleys to pick up a muddy fragment of newspaper and scan it for a message.” There is the suggestion here of a lonely man, someone for whom the hectic happiness of family life within a marriage that had its problems has become the flaccid loneliness of a man with time on his hands: he might as well spend it looking at a leaflet on physics as at the hands of a clock.
Updike’s story is a clever and clear account of fragility within stability as a creative act, as though he wanted the story to hold together rather like an atom. What we have is the present divorce and the past marriage as Richard and Joan are calling it a day in the very place where they took their vows: Cambridge City Hall. It allows for a wonderful unity of place over time, a point the narrator addresses. “Though they had lived in New York and London, on islands and farms and for one summer in a log cabin, they had been married a few subway stops from where Richard now stood, reading his mail.” The story is also firmed up by the thematic content meeting the biographical enquiry. Richard reading about quarks gives the narrator the chance to include a connotative account to the denotative biographical detail. Richard reads “the theory that the strong force becomes stronger as the quarks are pulled apart is somewhat speculative but its complement, the idea that the force gets weaker as the quarks are pushed closer to each other, is better established.” Richard could see this is what happened to the marriage: “In life there are four forces: love, habit, time and boredom. Love and habit are immensely powerful, but time, lacking a minus charge, accumulates inexorably, and with its brother boredom levels all.” Physics both serves a connotative function as it abstracts the story from the concrete as for example a trip to a psychoanalyst would not, but it also gives the story a robust certainty beyond the flaws of the tired self. Physics helps explain why the marriage failed, an explanation Richard knows he couldn’t easily offer in simple human form. In front of his lawyer, Richard tries to come up with good reasons why they are divorcing. “So you’d be prepared to say there was personal emotional incompatibility?” Richard knows this to be profoundly untrue, but says he will say it if he has to. How to explain a marriage on the rocks that wasn’t itself a rocky marriage? Richard seems to clutch at straws because there was no last straw; nothing that broke the camel’s back except love and habit up against time and boredom.
Here we notice the denotative and the connotative aren’t at odds but interwoven into the story as the thoughts on particle physics leads Richard to a vague understanding of his time with Joan. The information on physics symbolises aspects of the relationship, but it is also incorporated into the diegesis itself: into the story as Richard reflects on the links. The device might be a little too literary and neat, but it is a useful way of bringing the abstract into the realm of the concrete.
If the story has the past interweaving with the present and the literal and symbolic realm working in conjunction, the story offers a neat irony in its conclusion, as it draws together a failed gesture on the day of Richard and Joan’s marriage with the capacity to learn from one’s mistakes on the day of the divorce. During the wedding ceremony, Richard had “forgotten to seal the vows with a kiss. “Joan had glanced over at him, smiling, expectant; he had smiled back, not remembering.” After their divorce, in the closing lines of the story: “Obsolete at their own ceremony, Joan and Richard stepped back from the bench in unison and stood side by side, uncertain of how to turn, until Richard at last remembered what to do; he kissed her.” And here the story ends, ably contained by location, particle physics and a gesture forgotten that is now remembered after the event.
In the Paris Review Updike talks of a “craftsman’s intimate satisfactions”, and more than most modern American writers we feel in Updike’s work the sense of a job well done. It comes through of course in his use of language, where we witness a writer who will not especially change our perceptual framework (as Sartre would do with Nausea), nor destroy the linguistic ground under our feet (as Beckett would), but who knows how to tweak verbs and adjectives for a quiet and effective impact. Here are several examples. “as the subway racketed through darkness”, “the subway lurched to a stop at Kendall”, “the lawyers sagged with relief”. Describing a hospital the narrator sees it as a “grand maze of unhealth”, while at another moment observes: “not for the first time in these two years did he feel an eggshell thinness behind which he crouched and which Joan needed only to raise her voice to break.” They allow the story to feel both neat and complete; that we are in the hands of a writer who is at ease with language and the representational milieu in which he writes.
James Wood once dismissively suggested that “it seems to be easier for John Updike to stifle a yawn than to refrain from writing a book. “ (London Review of Books). Yet Updike always saw himself as a writer living by his pen and eschewing the creative writing gigs that became so popular among others of his generation. “I cannot greatly care what critics say of my work; if it is good, it will come to the surface in a generation or two and float, and if not, it will sink, having in the meantime provided me with a living…” (Paris Review) We might wish for a greater intrusion into the form, and a greater socio-political enquiry in the content, but Updike always appeared to be a satisfied writer without at all becoming a smug one. He had his terrain and explored it, and if we come away from ‘Meet the Maples’ believing that little has changed and that language and social conventions remain entirely intact, then our disgruntlement might almost pass for a category error.