State of Affairs

BY THE TIME COUPLES CAME OUT, John Updike had already published four novels, three story collections, two poetry collections, and a volume of assorted prose. He had been called, by the New York Times Book Review, “the most significant young novelist in America,” and had been sent by the State Department on a tour of the Communist bloc. And yet there was a growing sense that he had not made a major statement on the issues of the day. He could describe a barn well enough, but to what end? The man whose name will be forever asterisked with the insult David Foster Wallace made famous—“just a penis with a thesaurus”—was thought to be clever but a little small, too decorative, and overly fond of childhood reminiscence. Norman Podhoretz complained that Updike “has very little to say.” John Aldridge put him in “the second or just possibly the third rank of serious American novelists.” Elizabeth Hardwick admired Rabbit, Run, but thought there was “something insignificant, or understated, or too dimly felt in the heart of Rabbit himself.” As for his sexual frankness, Updike, like his contemporaries, had “not decided or discovered in what way this frankness will change the work itself. It cannot be merely interlarded like suet in the roast.”

With Couples, Updike served up a whole plate of suet. (Do you understand the genius of Hardwick’s metaphor? Suet is the hard white fat on the loins of beef or mutton.) He worked out the plot in church, jotting down notes on the weekly program—maybe that’s why the book has the air of being so scandalized by itself. It’s the story of twenty alcoholics living in a charming rural outpost called Tarbox, which is starting to get built up. (The nearest abortionist is in Boston.) Their hobbies are drinking gin, frugging, sleeping with each other’s spouses, and gossiping. For members of the Silent Generation, they are very chatty, and make constant efforts to outdo one another in wit. “Welcome to the post-pill paradise” is the book’s most famous line. As Wilfrid Sheed put it in the Sunday Times review, these are “the people who wanted to get away from the staleness of the Old America and the vulgarity of the new,” who wanted “to raise intelligent children in renovated houses in absolutely authentic rural centers.” They are too young to have fought in World War II or believe in God, but too old to join SDS. They will be replaced, at the book’s end, by Boomers who prefer LSD to gin and bitter lemon.

Updike dedicated Couples to his wife, Mary, a decision that his biographer Adam Begley calls “an ironic gesture, certainly, and possibly hostile.” It was no secret that the book was based on the Updikes’ own clique, the horrible-sounding “Junior Jet Set” of Ipswich, Massachusetts. He had so many flings, so close to home, that one female friend found herself wondering, “Am I the only woman in our crowd who hasn’t slept with John?” His editor at Knopf worried about lawsuits, so the New Yorker’s libel lawyer read the manuscript. Updike took out all references to volleyball (his characters instead play basketball), moved Tarbox from the North Shore to the South Shore, and deleted someone’s hair. In a time when novelists write directly about themselves and their friends, these superficial gestures at fictionality are cute, like going to bed in curlers.

I almost forgot—they have names. The principals are Piet and Angela Hanema, Foxy and Ken Whitman, and Freddy and Georgene Thorne. Piet is having an affair with Georgene when the book opens, and begins an affair with Foxy when she moves to town. (Foxy is pregnant with her husband’s child for much of the affair.) In a comic B-plot, the Smiths and the Applebys regularly swap partners and are referred to as the “Applesmiths.” Some people are hard to tell apart, but everyone has “their thing.” Frank Appleby quotes Shakespeare. The Guerins can’t have children. The Saltzes are Jewish. John Ong is a brilliant physicist, and Korean, and no one can understand his accent; the group barely notices when he dies. (His half-Japanese wife is referred to as “the yellow peril.”) You are expecting me to quote some of Updike’s silly sex writing, so fine: “her tranced drained face swims to his and her cold limp lips as he kissed them wear a moony melted stale smell whose vileness she had taken into herself.” Now I’ll quote a sentence that fills me with rage: “Angela and Foxy, their crossed legs glossy, fed into the room that nurturing graciousness of female witnessing without which no act since Adam’s naming of the beasts has been complete.”

Couples earned Updike a million dollars and was on the New York Times fiction best-seller list for thirty-six weeks, six weeks longer than Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge, which probably had nothing to do with Vidal’s statement that Updike “describes to no purpose.” (Couples was number one for one week only, the week of June 30. It interrupted the otherwise uncontested seven-month reign of Arthur Hailey’s Airport, a thriller about the havoc wreaked by a winter storm on an . . . airport.) The book is set in the very recent past, spring 1963 through spring 1964, a period that another novelist would treat with historical irony but that Updike approaches with plausible deniability. We were so much younger then! The novel’s major set piece occurs the night of the Kennedy assassination, at a black-tie dinner dance that the couples do not cancel. They say that people are driven to desire by grief. In this case, Piet is driven to infantilism. He holes up in the bathroom and asks Foxy to nurse him (she’s left the baby at home for a few hours); when his wife knocks on the door, he jumps out the window. Does that sound like satire? The book lays it out like “the warm and fat and glistening ham” served at the party’s end, but Updike never picks up the knife to carve. He is too charmed by his couples, which is to say, by himself.

John Updike on the cover of Time, April 26, 1968.
John Updike on the cover of Time, April 26, 1968.

Diana Trilling didn’t think much of the book’s “fancied-up pornography,” but Updike dismissed her review as “a banshee cry of indignation,” and Begley calls her “prim”—as if the real problem here is the female reviewer’s frigidity, not the male writer’s misfires. William Gass thought some of its passages “genius,” but its form was still “carelessly old-fashioned. A character is introduced. We pause for his description. Gem-like renderings of nature seldom have a function, unless filling the book is a function.” Gass called Tarbox “a very tepid hell.” He claimed that “everyone is very civilized about his savagery” and “nobody hits anybody,” but that’s not true. Bea Guerin’s arms are covered in bruises from her husband, and when Piet sleeps with her, he slaps her twice across the face. “Already he had exploited her passivity in all positions; the slap distracted his penis and he felt he had found a method to prolong the length of time, never long enough, that he could inhabit a woman.” Bea tells him that Roger also hits her. “You invite it,” he explains. “You’re a lovely white hole to pour everything into. Jizz, fists, spit.” She asks him not to do it again, and he begs for forgiveness. This scene has not aged well.

Updike was on the cover of Time magazine shortly after Couples came out. A little banner advertised the story: “The Adulterous Society.” Updike later said the decision to put him on the cover had been made before anyone at the magazine had read Couples, and after they read it, they regretted it. Like several of the contemporary reviews, the article willingly picks up the religious motifs of the novel, going on about the “black mass of community sex” and the absence of the old “Puritan gods.” Such overwrought symbolism is everywhere in Couples, and is just as unconvincing. In the end, the church that Piet has occasionally attended is burned down, struck in a storm by God’s own lightning bolt. But this leaves no impression on the reader, because no one in the book has felt anything resembling guilt, and the book has no vocabulary for dread, despair, or liberation. This is both its literary failure and a historical symptom. As Tony Tanner wrote in Adultery in the Novel,“A novel like John Updike’s Couples is as little about passion as it is about marriage; the adulteries are merely formal and technical.”

“I cannot greatly care what critics say of my work,” Updike told the Paris Review in winter 1968. “If it is good, it will come to the surface in a generation or two and float, and if not, it will sink, having in the meantime provided me with a living, the opportunities of leisure, and a craftsman’s intimate satisfactions.” Fifty years on, Couples does not float. It is too smug, too pompous, and lacks the humor of Updike’s peers Mailer and Roth. It’s true that Couples beat Portnoy’s Complaint to market by a year, and earned the distinction, in the words of scholar James Plath, of bringing “down-and-dirty sex out of plain brown wrappers and into mainstream American literature.” Being first is something. But it hardly makes the book sing. Today we are awash in sexually frank literature, and the notion that there is something radical or even interesting about cheating on your spouse is a curdled one. It appears juvenile. The meaning of Couples no longer seems to be about sex. It’s about loneliness. The book is five hundred pages of people demonstrating again and again that they are incapable of turning down an invitation to a party at which they are guaranteed to have a bad time.

Christine Smallwood is a writer living in New York.