John Updike - Couples

John Updike - Couples
Rating - 7.0

There is a scene toward the end of the novel where the protagonist, Piet Hanemas, is discussing a separation with his wife, Angela. After four hundred-odd pages of infidelity, middle-class dinner parties and topical conversations, Angela has discovered one of Piet's three affairs, and is preparing herself mentally and emotionally for the inevitable collapse of the relationship. Piet 'found his downstairs lights off and Angela upstairs in the bathtub. The veins in her breasts turquoise, the ghost of a tan distinct on her shoulders and thighs, she was lying all but immersed, soaping her pudenda...Her breasts slopped and slid with the pearly-dirty water; her hair was pinned up in a psyche knot, exposing tenderly the nape of her neck.' This is an intimate scene, true to the casual openness of a long relationship as much as it is a comfortable realisation of the commonality of a relationship in strife. Updike has built the scene to a certainty of exposition, relaxation, aggression and closeness between the characters, but then, out of the blue, he makes a disastrous literary mistake and the worth of the scene crumbles into misguided farce. Piet, contrite, apologetic, somewhat affronted that his affair has been revealed, and willing to make amends, suddenly comes down with explosive diarrhea and proceeds to void his bowels in shattering bursts alongside Angela's attempt to have a conversation of the heart. Why, Mr Updike? The same could be said of many aspects of the novel Couples, which bear all the flaws, and all the strengths, of John Updike's oeuvre.

Fiction is a strange beast. It must be written ecstatically, as Updike commends Nabokov, but it also must cohere to the strictures placed upon it by the author. A novel is spun out of nothing we can see, but it creates a reality that has its own contours and method for interpretation. Every action of the characters, and every plot twist, comes from within the author's mind, and is chosen over any other possible eventuality. An author has the literal power of God over their creation, which brings with it responsibility as well as power.

The novel Couples deals with, appropriately, a number of couples in the fictional town of Tarbox. Piet Hanemas is the anchor for the story, which ricochets between the Thornes, the Geurins, the Constantines, the Saltz. There are more, and it is to Updike's credit that the characters generally stray from the inevitable stereotyping that must occur when so many people equally occupy the space of a novel. These people are bored, wealthy enough that they may do as they wish outside of work hours, and cultured enough that they can discuss politics, world affairs, art, celebrities, religion and relationships with aplomb. They would make remarkable dinner guests, except they cannot leave off swapping partners, all behind one another's back. The characters in this novel generally lack a moral centre, which expresses itself as a complete disregard for the ramifications of continual adultery among a small group of people. Virtually every single one of the characters in every relationship has an affair, with some jumping from bed to bed with all the vigour and enthusiasm of kangaroos on heat.

The story, at its essence, is very simple. Boiled down to remove the superfluous couples who serve as mirrors to the behaviour of Piet and his mistress Elizabeth 'Foxy' Whitman, the story involves Foxy's illicit pregnancy, and the reaction of the characters to her relationship with Piet. What Updike is attempting with this novel is an examination of the sexual mores of the 1960s, that heady time when free love was in the air and the Pill had released women from the difficulty of the monthly cycle. Sexual irresponsibility was available to all, which allowed a level of promiscuity unknown to their parents or grandparents. All this was very timely when the book was written in 1968, and it is to Updike's credit that the setting and incidental plot elements have not dated too much since then. Where the novel does not succeed, however, is in situations such as the one described above, where a denouement of sorts is shattered by the explosive interruption of Piet's bowel movements.

In each and every scene, Updike has chosen the dialogue that is to be said and the actions that are to be taken. Events do not spring up on the author in the same way that they surprise the characters and, it is hoped, the reader. Why, then, has Updike chosen to give Piet diarrhea at such a time? Why does he spend a good hundred pages describing the frolicsome swinging antics of two couples who play a very small part in the novel's story proper? Why has he made Piet such a disagreeable, unsympathetic fellow, when for all intents and purposes, he is positioned as the sympathetic hero cast adrift amongst a society he does not particularly like? Piet is the worst of the bunch, if we are to use Piet's own definition of worst, which is the casual acceptance of meaningless sex between people who should be friends and nothing more.

The characters within the novel float from one booze-filled party to another. The vast majority of their lives must be spent with their families and at work, yet we are privy to only the alcohol fuelled times. Piet's job is described and displayed for us, but it is a job in ruins. He is a contractor, joint owner of a building company, but he is distant and reserved from his work and a short step away from dissolving the partnership. These people are loose, they are wandering and aimless, and it shows in their casual disregard for themselves and for their partners. Happily, Updike does not moralise so much as present these lives, with the onus of judgement on the reader. While Piet is the protagonist of the novel, so many of the scenes are shown from other eyes that we perceive the couples not through the lens of one main observer but through them all, watching the lives of others not with an intent to judge but to see. Updike very cleverly allows the characters to express their dissatisfaction through words and actions rather than thought, which allows us to consider this novel as almost a historical document, aimed at exposing the shallow nature of a time that has since past.

But there are great flaws to this mirror. As shown above, the bizarre characterisation choices simply defy belief. The work is riddled with sudden shifts that make virtually no sense, and seem to serve only to dismay any sense of cohesion within the reader. Not a person is likable except for John Ong, perhaps because he hardly speaks a word and is left to die in a hospital from vancer, virtually forgotten while missing his friends as they continue to party without him. We are unsure who to root for because Piet is unpleasant and the rest are fragments rather than completely coherent people.

As with much of Updike's work, the novel is filled with the little touches of grace and observation which lift even his most mediocre work to a level that shows us why his work is so valuable as a chronicle of American values. 'On days like this Monday when Piet returned home before Angela, he felt his daughter busy above him; she was bused back from school by four. The silence behind her closed door, broken when she rearranged objects or crooned to herself hymns learned at choir, intimidated him; he had scrubbed her diapers and warmed her bottles and now his only function was to safeguard her privacy, to make himself unobtrusive.' This is the plaintive cry of many a father; Updike has captured well the difficulty of paternal care. The familiar Updike flourishes are there, such as when a man is seen driving: 'his pink head poked from the metal shell like the flesh of a mollusc.', or a fan: 'The electric fan in the kitchen swinging its slow head back and forth like an imbecile scolding in monotone.' Again, this is why we read John Updike. He has a gift and flavour for words unrivalled in all but the very best of today's writers.

Couples is, ultimately, a mixed bag of a novel. It is very well written, and captures the decade of the 60s with precision. And yet there are so many significant plot choices which are difficult to understand, and so many minor character decisions that seem as though they could only happen within the artificial world of a novel. Piet's diarrhea is emblematic of the problem of Couples, which is a novel that, for all its promise, falls apart due to too many bizarre choices with which the reader is forced to struggle and, finally, give up on understanding. Controversial when it was written, Couples has not fallen into the stagnant waste of the period novel, but nor has it ascended to the heights of Updike's greatest works. Recommended, but only if you have already read the Rabbit series and Updike's staggering wealth of literary criticism.

See Also

The Afterlife and Other Stories
The Complete Henry Bech
Hugging the Shore
Rabbit, Run
Toward the End of Time
"Rabbit in Retrospect", posted to the South Wing website.


Wikipedia - Author
Wikipedia - Novel


American Authors