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July 5, 2011

On "Mad Men" and the Maples

At our house (thanks to Netflix), we have just bid a wistful farewell to the latest season of "Mad Men." Reluctant to exit its high-gloss world, I recently scrolled through the online summaries of past episodes. Turns out I had forgotten a lot, especially the many affairs Don Draper indulged in before winding up Season 4 with a proposal. (Remember Sally's teacher? I didn't.)

Alas, however enjoyable they may be, synopses are about as satisfying as a box of Dots. I would direct anyone suffering from "Mad Men" withdrawal to the Maple stories of John Updike.

The Maple stories were recently collected in a misleadingly prim Everyman's Library edition. Over several years, like time-lapse photography, Updike used them as a vehicle to chart the disintegration of a marriage. Uncannily, Don and Betty Draper now lurk on every page, particularly in the earlier stories. The main difference is that Richard and Joan Maple are leagues ahead of the Drapers in self-knowledge. That it does not help them makes these stories truly harrowing.

As a young reader I had admired Updike's fiction (like many people, I was dazzled by "Rabbit Run"). But I began years ago to steer clear, preferring the essays and criticism. The novels seemed mired in the sexism Updike's (mostly male) postwar literary crowd had inherited. He never quite seemed to pull himself free of it either, or from the idea that sex was everything. At first it was off-putting; eventually it was just embarrassing. Now though, perhaps because enough time has passed, the Maple stories seem fresh and even urgent to me, like a lost archive come to light.

Updike's generation did not invent divorce; it can just seem that way when you read him. And in fact the feeling is not completely baseless. Helped by laws making it easier for couples to part, the country witnessed a sharp increase in divorce in the late 1960s. The trend continued strong into the '70s.

It has been said that baby boomers' fascination with "Mad Men" is driven by the wish to understand our parents and their world, now that we have adult eyes of our own. It's certainly plausible. For all the show's subplots and side dramas, the relationship between Don and Betty Draper is its organizing principle. Both characters project an essential unknowable-ness. And what could be more Mom and Dad than that?

Like the Maples, the Drapers at one point travel to Rome. Briefly, they rekindle their union; the Maples seem to discover theirs is over. Richard, Updike's ruthlessly observing proxy, puts it this way: "Their marriage let go like an overgrown vine whose half-hidden stem had been slashed in the dawn by an ancient gardener." (I would imagine the writers of "Mad Men" are diligent students  of Updike, and Cheever too.)

But it turns out nothing is really over; endings are a human construct, fulfilling exactly the kind of need Madison Avenue was invented to supply. At least that's how it must have looked to Updike, when he sat down to invent the Maples.

July 5, 2011 4:40 PM | | Comments (1)


You are right about endings for sure. I should know, being an ancient gardener...

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