Monday, June 13, 2016

Updike's Couples:
What's Adult in Adultery?

[See my John Updike page for many more posts about his work.  See especially my essay "More Fun with Couples." ]

Adultery among two or three couples makes your basic bedroom farce; but with ten couples, John Updike made an epic. I happen to have read his 1968 novel Couples around every ten years since age 27, an experience like returning to a favorite vacation resort: while there's pleasure in the familiar, I notice things differently. This time, from page one, I was thinking about the man writing it.

Anyone who sees Updike's photo on the book flap must wonder what he's up to with the first character to speak, Piet. The author, tall, thin, pale, and beak-nosed, describes in Piet his physical opposite: short, broad, reddish, flat-nosed (3). But the dissemblance ends there. Like Piet the carpenter, Updike's work made him available to the women in the suburb where he lived (Ipswitch, MA) while the men worked in Boston all day. Like Piet, his affair with a married woman broke up two marriages. Also, like Piet, his attendance at the congregational church was, in his circle of sophisticated couples, eccentric. So Updike has barely disguised his connection to the story.  

Updike and Piet share one virtue. We are told right away that Piet is "in love with snug, right-angled things" (4). Even making love to Georgene, his mistress when the story starts, his attention is divided between the construction of her body and that of her "gambrel-roof late-Victorian" home "with gingerbread eaves and brackets, scrolling lightning rods, undulate shingling, zinc spouting, and a roof of rose slates" (64); restoring a home for Ken and Elizabeth "Foxy" Whitman is his entree to their marriage. Piet's appreciation for old-fashioned workmanship puts him at odds with business partner Matt Gallagher, now developing cookie-cutter homes (67). Only in his craftsmanship can Piet claim to have any integrity; it's his one saving grace.

Updike's own love for "snug, right-angled" finishing touches extends throughout his career. After three decades, his novels about "Rabbit" Angstrom end where they began, on a neighborhood basketball court. The marriage of the Maples, depicted in short stories over decades, ends in divorce court with a reference to their wedding, in a gesture so unexpected and so appropriate that it seems Updike had planned it all along. Chapter by chapter, The Widows of Eastwick mirrors The Witches of Eastwick , effecting a kind of atonement. In a long poem called "Midpoint," Updike asked questions about his life at 40 that he answered beautifully on his deathbed in "Endpoint," a long poem that ends as it starts, with gratitude.

So Updike exercises the same care to lay parallel channels that will guide us through the messy events of his epic. He lays the tracks down on the first couple of pages.  We read, first, "What do you think of the new couple?" It's a night in spring. Thirty-something Piet Hanema and his wife Angela undress for bed following a party. The "new couple" are the Whitmans. Piet's question implies that a new couple might be good or bad for the established couples, as yet unnamed.

So, the spring night sets the story on a time track, as seasons will advance, lovingly described, from Piet's budding interest in Foxy to a heated affair in summer, to parts of the novel subtitled "Thin Ice" and "Spring Again." Updike reinforces his time track with allusions to current events of 1962-1963, with special focus on the young couple in the White House.

Other tracks of the first page will take us from this bedroom to others, and from this party to others: a party involving all the couples provides a climactic show piece in every section of the novel, among informal gatherings for basketball, skiing, and sailing. Supporting it all is the arc of Piet's affair with Foxy, with collateral damage to all the couples' lives together.

Keeping score for ten couples could overwhelm the readers, so Updike gives each pair a member with an identifying shtick.  It's speaking French or quoting Shakespeare; being sweaty, scientific, or dedicated to social causes; being a shy Korean, an earnest Jew, a crude Greek, or a moralistic Catholic. Once we've met everyone, Updike doubles back to fill in back stories for the Applebys and Smiths, in a section called "Applesmiths and Other Games." Later, we learn more about the Saltzes and the Constantines (or "The Saltines"). When dissolution and death come to the couples, Updike gives us a deeper look at the Gallaghers and Ongs.

But after the Hanemas and Whitmans, he focuses most of our attention on the Thornes: Piet's mistress Georgene, and her husband Freddy, Piet's "thorn" in the side.  Freddy is a dentist and lewd clown. With a thread of images, Updike makes this atheist a kind of priest who presides over couples that he calls "a church for each other" (9). Freddy preaches a dentist's gospel that sex (176) and self-deception (292) anesthetize the couples against decay and death, He serves up ham with the eucharistic formula "Take, eat ... this is his body given for thee" (386), appears "sacerdotal" in his white dentist coat (431), and encourages confession (434).  By the novel's end, he has taken a grave professional and personal risk to help Foxy.

All angles of the novel meet at the spire of the town's congregational church. Describing Piet in bed on the first night of the story, Updike uses the obvious pun to connect Piet to the cock on the weather-vane atop the town's highest steeple (18-19). At the end, when lightning sets the structure afire, the couples gather to witness the event.  Piet, now separated from Angela and the other couples, stands apart. If the lightning is the judgement of God, or maybe a deposing of a false god, Piet doesn't feel it that way: "Piet wondered at the lightness in his own heart, gratitude for having been shown something beyond him , beyond all blaming" (539).  Immediately, he spies a pamphlet washed out of the church by fire hose. Dated 1795, its message encompasses more than his personal gratitude:"But if there be any nation [with reason to thank God], the United States of America are that nation." Days later, when workmen remove the cock from its precarious perch over the town, Piet happens to be standing where he first saw Foxy. There's that symmetry Updike appreciates so.

The first time I read Couples, I felt the pleasure of discovering what the world was like for the grown ups who reared me, taught me, and awed me.  Now, at twice the age of Foxy Chapman, I'm sensitive to the childishness of these young adults: whatever Freddy Thorne says to elevate adultery, it comes across as just another competition (487), like one more party game;  Piet is disappointed to realize that the "first whiff" of adultery is best (354) before that relationship, too, traps a man in responsibilities. Updike lets us see that there's nothing adult in adultery.

I'm still left with the Piet problem. As Piet betrays loved ones, bullies friends, and says hurtful things to his little daughters, Updike clearly doesn't shield his protagonist from our dislike.  Was Couples Updike's 500 page rationalization? A plea for understanding?

In "Endpoint," Updike wrote of his pride in seeing his books, one for each year, lined up on a shelf. His daily work transforming experience with his loved ones also supported his loved ones.  Couples wasn't Updike's defense, or his therapy.  He simply calculated that an erotic expose, based on personal experience, layered with religious and social implications, would make both a popular best - seller and a literary reputation so that he could provide for his family ever-after. 

Updike, John.  Couples. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2012.

"Eric" at felt the last section of the book redeemed much that he detested in the rest.  The whole year of the story is "just a blip" in the lives of the community. See his excellent review here.

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