Thursday, March 06, 2008

More Fun with COUPLES

(reflection upon re-reading John Updike's COUPLES, with some research into JOHN UPDIKE AND RELIGION edited by James Yerkes, and a survey of web blogs and the NYTimes web page about the book.)

Two of John Updike's novels are puzzles to which I keep returning because, following hundreds of pages of incidental pleasures and insights, they leave me unable to sum up what I've read, yet with the strong sense that they do add up to something important. Updike says the same thing about novels by the late philosopher Iris Murdoch, and his COUPLES (1968) shares more characteristics of her novels than this. Like many of hers, this one flits from one love affair to another so frequently that I've had to keep a table of couplings in the back flap of the book. I've dealt with Updike's SEEK MY FACE elsewhere (see Updike's Underappreciated Seek My Face); now I'd like to see what I can nail down in COUPLES.

More than I can remember the details of Updike's book COUPLES (1968), I recall the world it conjures up, and how it felt to explore that world when I read it the first time. That was back in 1987, when I was still young enough to see the 30-something characters as older, middle-aged types. For me then, it was a glimpse into what it was like to be one of the grown-ups when my parents entertained neighbors at our home in Pittsburgh in the year that the novel is set, 1963. I still don't drink a martini without its aroma taking me back to that time. I asked my parents about the book in 1987, and about my vague sense that those neighborhood parties were very much like the wife-swapping flirt-fests that Updike describes. My parents admitted that's exactly what was going on, though they were the newcomers and slow to figure that out.

About that time, I've written elsewhere how it seems in retrospect to have been the last time that there really were grown-ups. (See my blog entry about the Rat Pack.) A recent book called THE DEATH OF THE GROWN UP sees a decline in our national maturity level dating from the end of the 60s, but Updike had it covered at the end of the 50s. "Are we the last generation to be ambitious?" the character Foxy Whitman asks, observing the slightly younger generation's easy-going "peace and love." But earlier, character Piet Hanema describes the USA as one big adolescent: "God doesn't love us any more . . . . We're fat and full of pimples and always whining for more candy. We've fallen from grace" (p. 200 in the original edition).

This time around, I didn't immerse myself in their world, and may have a clearer view for that. I read about the first gin-soaked party when the new couple Ken and Foxy Whitman first meet the others, including Piet and Angela Hanema. Then I skipped to the denoument: the Hanemas' visit to the Whitmans to clarify exactly who had slept with whom, for how long, and who was complicit (around p.416 in the 1985 Fawcett Crest paperback).

What I saw in those few pages was a distillation of the whole book. Ken Whitman, cuckold and host, pours drinks and proceeds to question his guests. We don't have to have read the preceding four hundred pages to appreciate the pain, embarrassment, and calculation that underlie each line of dialogue:

Ken [asked Piet's wife] Angela, "How much did you know of all this?"
"Ah," Piet said, "an oral exam,"
Angela said, "I knew as much as you did. Nothing."
"You must have guessed something."
"I make a lot of guesses about Piet, but he's very slippery."
Piet said, "Agile, I would have said."
Ken did not take his eyes from Angela. "But you're in Tarbox all day; I'm away from seven to seven."
Angela shifted her weight forward, so the leather cushion sighed. "What are you suggesting, Ken? That I'm deficient as a wife?"
Foxy [Whitman] said, "One of the things that makes Angela a good wife to Piet, better than I could ever be, is that she lets herself be blind."
Another sharp exchange a bit later recalls the plot's crisis, when Piet arranged an abortion for Foxy performed by dentist and Tarbox's high priest of parties, Freddy Thorne -- in exchange for a night with Piet's wife.

Ken turned to him. "Among the actions I'm considering is bringing criminal charges against Thorne. You'd be an accessory."
"For God's sake, why?" Piet asked. "That was probably the most Christian thing Freddy Thorne ever did. He didn't have to do it, he did it out of pity. Out of love, even."
"Love of who?
"His friends."
The interconnectedness of the friends, the ten couples of the title, is what makes this book unique. The earliest review of the book that I've seen, by Wilfrid Sheed of the NEW YORK TIMES in 1968 (available on the web) observes that we meet these couples "vaguely," the way we would meet them in life. They come into sharper focus as we discover, with some of the same wicked pleasure of real gossip, how this or that spouse is secretly trysting with another.

But the newness wears off, and so do the erotic attractions, and so does the friendship. Mutual betrayal, disappointment, and natural processes (John Ong's cancer, the Saltzes' moving away, the childrens' growing into teens) all crack the ring apart. By book's end, nothing remains of this too-tightly-knit group except some bad reputations discussed among Tarbox's younger, newer couples.

Clearly the character Piet Hanema comes closest to being protagonist, though he disappears from the book for dozens of pages at a time. Of all the promiscuous people in the novel, he's most promiscuous. He's also the most prominent character whose thoughts and words about God are given consideration, often in contrast to his nemeses Freddy Thorne and atheist scientist Ken Whitman. He's also, let's not be too blunt, a despicable man. Updike allows us to see him in all his evasive, rationalizing, back-stabbing, woman-abusing boorishness, and he affords this moment when Piet sees himself as others do (p. 431 in the paperback):

"All I can do is let things happen, and pray," [Piet said to his business partner Matt Galagher].
"That's all you ever do." Matt spoke without hesitation, as a reflex; it was one of those glimpses, as bizarre as the sight in a three-way clothing-store mirror of your own profile, into how you appear to other people.
What are we to make of Piet, his name so close to Piety, his last name close to "hand made," and his one virtue of caring about the integrity of his carpenty work?

These last pages of the book could have ended with the lightning bolt that levels the town's church also striking Piet down with it -- he's there watching. Maybe the Puritans' old all-seeing weathercock could have toppled and skewered Piet right there in the storm. Instead, Piet and the others muddle through, life goes on (or not: John Ong dies shortly after Piet's uncomfortable visit through an oxygen tent), and it's as if none of this mattered.

But in those sharp lines of dialogue, the pain is acute and real.

A survey of comments about John Updike's novel COUPLES (1968) turns up a lot of references to sex, religion, sex as a substitute for religion, sex and religion as two responses to death, and to explicitness of the religious purpose (especially God's own bolt of lightning that ignites the congregational church) almost as often as to the explicitness of the -- umm, physical functions, not excluding those that are more digestive than erotic. 

Critics have always called for more judgement of the characters in the book. I'd say, what they do to themselves carries its own judgement, and what they do to redeem themselves after could be seen as grace, at least provisionally, until the next time they screw up. I'd have to say, COUPLES cannot be pinned down in terms of good and bad, final judgements, clear meanings, clear narrative lines -- and in this, reading it is much like living real life, only blessed with Updike's acute vision of detail and his wide frame of reference.

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