Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Two Readers Project, Ch V


"Giving Blood" by John Updike

Instead of trying to talk about this entire story I thought I would pick out a few paragraphs and talk about those specifically.  The point is to isolate an effect--in this case the way Updike transforms going to a hospital to give blood into something mysterious and otherworldly.  (It's very much in keeping with what I think is one of the thematizing sentences in the story; "Romance is, simply, the strange, the untried.")
At the desk they were directed down a long corridor floored with cigar-colored linoleum. Up and down, right and left it went, in the secretive disjointed way peculiar to hospitals that have been built annex by annex. Richard felt like Hansel orphaned with Gretel; birds ate the bread crumbs behind them, and at last they timidly knocked on the witch’s door, which said BLOOD DONATION CENTER. A young man in white opened the door a crack. Over his shoulder Richard glimpsed—horrors!—a pair of dismembered female legs stripped of their shoes and laid parallel on a bed. Glints of needles and bottles pricked his eyes. Without widening the crack, the young man passed out to them two long forms. In sitting side by side on the waiting bench, spelling out their middle names and recalling their childhood diseases, Mr. and Mrs. Maple were newly defined to themselves. He fought down that urge to giggle and clown and lie that threatened him whenever he was asked—like a lawyer appointed by the court to plead a hopeless case—to present, as it were, his statistics to eternity. It seemed to mitigate his case slightly that a few of these statistics (present address, date of marriage) were shared by the hurt soul scratching beside him. He looked over her shoulder. “I never knew you had whooping cough”
“My mother says. I don’t remember it.”
A pan crashed to a distant floor. An elevator chuckled remotely. A woman, a middle aged woman top heavy with rouge and fur, stepped out of the blood door and wobbled a moment on legs that looked familiar. They had been restored to their shoes. The heels of those shoes clicked firmly as, having raked the Maples with a dazed, defiant glance, she turned and disappeared around a bend in the corridor. The young man appeared in the doorway holding a pair of surgical tongs. His noticeably recent haricut made him seem an apprentice barber. He clicked his tongs and smiled. “Shall I do you together?”
We're going here to give blood but we're also entering into a kind of strange almost phantasmagoric forest.  It contains a witch, whose door says BLOOD DONATION CENTER.  In it, there are dismembered legs, and medieval barbers with tongs who offer to 'do you together.' Elevators are alive (or at least alive enough to "chuckle") and "glints of needles and bottles" prick our eyes.  (What a great, great sentence) like deadly weapons.  If romance is, as the narrator asserts, simply the strange and untried then this experience is undoubtedly romantic.  It's romantic in the strict sense, the one given by the narrator, and it's romantic in they way probably most of us define it; it leads to romance, to the birth (or rebirth) of love.  After they've made their journey into this strange forest, the Maples emerge newly joined.  Their fragile relationship is at least momentarily healed.    ("Hey, I love you.  Love love love you." Richard says as they leave the hospital).    

The prose of course is beautiful but it's subjected to an organizing idea; without that larger structure, the individual sentences would never pop the way they'd do.  

For more on Updike's basic thesis--check out this post, and the accompanying article.  

1 comment:

Katherine said...

Breaking Updike news:
word on the street is that there is going to be a TV series based on "The Witches of Eastwick."
Just a rumor, but that's what I heard.
Though the movie would get my vote for worst literary adaptation of all time. Ever.