Guest Author - Siobhain M Cullen
John Updike short stories often focused on marriage, relationships and couples and the often middle class world in which these relationships either prospered or died. The choice of the surname 'Maple' for one of his most famous couples may be evocative of all things sweet and American, evoking an atmosphere of spring and autumn greens, flames and coppers from the natural world and the great healthy outdoors of F Scott Fitzgerald's American Dream, but the 'Separating' story ends in sombre colors of mud-grey, a paralysis of emotions and of movement and a pervading aura of desolation - a love story unravelling.
Even in only one paragraph from one of his short love stories in the collection 'Early stories', Updike moves his readers from colorful gaiety and festivity to numbness and abject misery.Reading is a subjective process, but personal reflections by this short stories editor seem to include the possibility of mental health issues for the unlikely hero. The extract in question (from 'Separating')concerns a husband's reflections, on waking, upon the slow destruction of his family's newly built tennis court, and upon his feelings of emoptional detachment from his wife and family and his dread of the day to come.
He observes that the much-vaunted and celebrated pristine-new tennis court of warm breezy summer days has suffered badly from the inclement winter weather. In terms reminiscent of the image of bald honesty in seeing a woman for the first time without make-up, Updike describes how the court has lost its red color and reverted to clay. Further images of dust ensue, reminding us of death; the plaster dust of the kitchen renovation which coincided with the drifting apart motion of the relationship with his wife, the muddy plateau the court had become,a marriage trying to live by inventing false momentum and festivity through the distraction of home renovations - but actually dying with nothing but an empty nest to look forward to.
John Updike's theme of exposure continues with the mention of the revealed plumbing in the kitchen - something which was meant to refresh and renew but which only resulted in revealing flaws and unsealable fractures like those caused by the rivulets of water which turned cracks into trenches in the tennis court. Plaster also, which is usually used to smooth surfaces and render them more attractive is referenced in the light of superficial illusory effect. The husband may be realising that marital cracks cannot be plastered over for ever. For grey depressing image use, this must be one of the best short story examples to study.
Suddenly John Updike switches on a bright light and changes the mood. In a flashback to the past, he uses the imagery of summer to create a fantasy-like atmosphere. The use of the words describing the previous state of the tennis court ('daisy-dotted knoll' conjuring carefree dresses of summery women dressed for tennis,the canary-yellow of the diggers 'churning' like butter,)creates a deceptively happy tone. The use of a vivid color like yellow, also used by F Scott Fitzgerald, adds a high-viz focus and, together with the canary image, creates a mood of false cheerfulness.
This is soon to end, however, as John Updike reverts to even more ominous tones for his sad short story with the words 'their marriage could rend the earth' for fun. The reader may feel an omnipotent portent heralding doom, either for the husband or for the marriage or both. Images are used in curious juxtaposition - such as the 'barren' court now only being used by dogs which scuff the surface into pits and holes - his own marriage has been fruitful in terms of its four grown children.
The scouring rainwater ravines illustrate another theme where John Updike seems to contrast wet, living, elemental forces such as rain with the dead dustiness of the dry and the old, the wrinkled and pitted. The bittersweet description of tennis nets 'still' rolled up in the barn is likely to make readers ponder the nostalgia of exciting plans never realised.
John Updike's vocabulary choices (such as 'crumbling') evoke the husband's own sense of gradual loss, and the sliding sensation he feels on waking contrasts with an 'angles' theme when compared to words such as 'plateau' and 'tipping' elsewhere. The powerlessness and helplessness of his feelings of desolation, his emotional numbness suggested by the words 'sealed heart,' the early waking and the dread of the coming day suggest something more than just the separation of a couple - they are reminiscent of the symptoms of depression, a condition during which (to many sufferers) the feeling of 'the end of something' will be familiar.
With its moods of hollowness, emptiness and emotional absense, this story from John Updike's collection of stories about Richard and Joan Maple are not unlike those of Hemingway - particularly in the latter's story 'The End Of Something.'
Readers may wonder how many fruitful but faltering marriages could have been helped by the early intervention of a trained mental health therapist.
For readers interested in emotional and mental health issues, relationship and counselling practice, John Updike short stories, or in the love story genre - 'Separating' must be one of the most useful sad short stories to read.