"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

May 4, 2013

"Couples" (1968) by John Updike (Book Review)

John Updike (1932-2009) was the chronicler of American small town life among middle-class WASPs, most famously in the Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy (Rabbit Run, 1960; Rabbit Redux, 1971; Rabbit is Rich, 1981; and Rabbit at Rest, 1990), but not less incisively in the 1968 novel Couples. This last book was even a succès de scandale because of the for that time explicit love scenes. Due to its frankness, the novel is often paired with two other literary landmarks of the sexual revolution, Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge.

Couples tells the stories of ten young married couples living in the "post-pill paradise" (two decades of promiscuity, until the AIDS scare put an end to it) and sleeping with each other in various combinations. Discreetly swapping partners, coming together for parties, sports and outings, they use adultery as a tool to relieve the boredom of small-town life. Sex seems their only refuge, almost like an emergent religion.

We could also turn things around and say that all these vigorous and constant couplings are a means to hide a state of inner emptiness, where the cure proves worse than the disease because nothing is as vapid as such mindless rituals. The newly won physical ease and freedom of the 1960s seem to make the couples forget that we remain always responsible for our actions. Great social change brings new moral choices with it.

That is brought home to Piet Hanema, a home remodeler with Dutch ancestry and a rather rough type who seems to "know" all the women of the town, and the tall and winsome Foxy Whitman, the wife of a stiff academic researcher and newcomer to the community. Piet is married to the sublime but unapproachable Angela. The old home of the Whitmans requires extensive remodeling, giving Piet and Foxy the opportunity to start a complicated relationship. When Piet and Foxy reject caution in their affair, which has some grotesque aspects (Foxy is pregnant with a child from her husband), they manage to shock the other couples and are finally ostracized. Decayed from within, the community then also falls apart. Piet is described as a regular churchgoer, but he proves himself totally lacking in moral consciousness, like most of the characters in the book. They just float like flotsam on the surface of life. It is Updike's greatness that he never resorts to preaching, but tellingly, in the last pages of the novel, the local church is hit by lightning and burns down.

The plot evolves against the background of historical events, such as the Kennedy assassination, in the years 1962-64. The book is rich in social and historical detail and has been called a time-capsule of the era. There are detailed descriptions of the homes and the furniture, of party games and party talk. John Updike writes a beautiful, even poetical prose, his lyricism stands in sharp contrast to the banality of the characters and the goings-on.

But it is not a grim book, on the contrary. Despite snaps of stream of consciousness prose, it reads as fast as a soap opera and contains much humor, not only in some situations such as when Piet and Foxy are almost caught in the bathroom by Angela, and Piet has to escape via a narrow window, but also in the larger story. It is possible to read the final events as irony, by interpreting Foxy's breaking of the news of her affair to her husband as a willful act, so that she can get a divorce from the man she abhors and at the same time wreck Piet's marriage in the hope that he will marry her. She succeeds and in this way, the serial adulterer is caught and finally tamed.

John Updike was born in Pennsylvania, went to Harvard and spent most of his life in Ipswitch, a small town in Massachusetts - like the fictional Tarbox in Couples, within commuting distance from Boston's academia. He was a regular contributor to The New Yorker and wrote more than fifty books, among which over twenty novels. He was one of the greatest American fiction writers, a true man of letters with a far-reaching influence, generally praised for his intellectual vigor and the excellence of his powerful prose style, a writer also who was at home in many genres. Like Chekhov for Russia, he was the realistic chronicler of American life in the broadest sense, as he expressed it himself: "My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me, to give the mundane its beautiful due."