Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Two Readers Project, Ch. 5

“Giving Blood” by John Updike
From The Early Stories, 1953-1975

(For an explanation of the series, see here)

I first read “Giving Blood” (though I don’t remember it, in particular) in college, as part of Too Far to Go, a collection of John Updike’s stories about the Maples, Richard and Joan, and their failing marriage. (It seems that Everyman’s Library is publishing a new edition of the book this August.)

It’s one of the few books that I’ve lost over the years, but I remember greatly appreciating it, perhaps because I was not-so-unconsciously dealing with my own parents’ divorce, though they’re quite different from the Maples. In “Giving Blood,” the couple is driving to a hospital in Boston to donate a pint each for a distant relative. Richard is exhausted and cranky; Joan is accusatory, chiding him for dancing with another woman during a recent party. We are immediately immersed in WASP disquietude.

Relative to some other stories about the Maples, which deal more thoroughly with their internal feelings or their impact on others, “Giving Blood” is slight. It combines the spousal carping of a sitcom with the somewhat detached suburban-emotional philology of the mid-century New Yorker short story that Updike, after Cheever, helped to patent.

My friend Tim -- the other reader in this “project” -- tends to cite the text more than I do, so I’ll try to make up for that by discussing Updike’s prose, which is famously meticulous. I’ve always been of the minority opinion that his prose (at least in fiction) is hit or miss -- not in its rhythm or craft, but in its intended effects. Just in the span of two sentences, we get “an elevator chuckled remotely,” which makes no sense to me, and “a middle-aged woman top-heavy with rouge and fur,” which is terrific. Then, as Richard and Joan lie on the tables, doing what the title of the story says, there is a wonderful moment when Richard, watching Joan get pierced first, focuses on the inner crook of his wife’s arm. He’s thinking of how he used to stroke that spot in their “courting days,” when suddenly, “without visible transition, the pale tendril planted here went dark red.” Richard was expecting some kind of gradual flow, but instead he’s shocked by “The instant readiness of her blood to leave her body...” That was my favorite moment in the story.

I’m picky about dialogue, and when Joan says, early on, “You honestly are hateful. It’s not just a pose,” I didn’t believe it. Likewise, in the opening page or two, Richard says a couple of things (one about his daily routine and another about his wife’s New England brand of smugness) that struck me as too planted. I found myself wishing that Updike had taken some of those things back from his characters and simply said them himself.

“Giving Blood” has a few lovely moments, and as I said, I would recommend reading the whole collection of Maple stories. But what struck me, at the very beginning and end of the story, was a shorthand for married malaise (similar to Don DeLillo’s shorthand for suburban malaise) that sounded lazy. I pushed to explore past that judgment -- because John Updike is John Updike, and I’m the guy with a blog -- and I think timing may have something to do with it. Perhaps in the ’60s and ’70s, the subject matter of superficially comfortable but emotionally disturbed postwar marriage was fresh enough. I’ve been reading knockoffs of this stuff my whole life, which might leach the original of some of its power.

In the beginning, we learn that the Maples have been married nine years, “which is almost too long.” And at the end, we get this, as Richard realizes he doesn’t have enough money on him to pay for a meal they just finished, and looks across at Joan:
Her hands dropped to the pocketbook beside her on the seat, but her gaze stayed with him, her face having retreated, or advanced, into that porcelain shell of uncanny composure. “We’ll both pay,” Joan said.
That last line is so purposely cryptic and doubly intended that it rankled. Still, I was glad that Tim chose this story and pushed me to meet the Maples again.

(Read Tim's take here. And since the next story is my choice, I can tell you we'll be reading "Rothschild's Fiddle" by Chekhov.)

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