‘Wife-Wooing’ by John Updike

‘We sense everything between us, every ripple, existent and non-existent; it is tiring.’

It’s not a feminist choice, and it’s a severely flawed story, but I return to this quiet little four-pager again and again. It’s an intimate second person sigh of a story that I can read as both beautifully tender and offensively misogynist at the same time, and not have a problem with both those things being true. Updike paints a portrait of family life: the husband (unnamed, but presumably Richard Maple) goes out to get Sunday night MacDonalds (presented as a Neolithic hunt), which the parents and two children eat around the fire while the baby sucks his bottle. Later the protagonist is disappointed when his ‘cunning’ wife falls asleep before sex. The next day brings work stress, child chaos and marital resentment; but a surprise toothpastey kiss ends the day, “moist and girlish and quick”. Yes, it’s about a selfish, unlikeable 1960s typical Updike man; but there is something searingly real in his depiction of the subtle marital pendulum, where things that are insufferable can be redeemed by a nice family evening.

The story is an indulgent elegy to language (“Once my ornate words wooed you”); an unashamed paean to Joycean playfulness (“smackwarm”), contrasted with his son for whom “language is thick vague handles swirling by; he grabs what he can”. There is a cutting third person shift in the final passage, where an abrupt cruelty descends (“I feast on your drabness, every wrinkle and sickly tint a relief and a revenge”) and we are back in familiar territory of the unhappy Updike man, trying on different male archetypes (the jouster, the hunter). Ending with the kiss returns us full circle to the opening words –  “Oh my love. Yes.” – echoing the wonky circuitry of marriage that sustains itself, for better or for worse, so that “seven years brings us no distance to the same trembling point of beginning”.

In Too Far to Go (Penguin, 1979)

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