From the May 13, 1968, edition of The Nation
John Updike lives with his family in Ipswich, Mass., and during the weeks before publication date of his new novel, everyone began to call the book “Ipswich Place.” Perhaps because of its sexuality. Perhaps because of the hundreds of thousands of dollars the movies had paid for it. Updike is very unpopular with much of the literary establishment–that part of it still flaying away at The New Yorker–and he makes a perfect butt for them a kind of embodiment of the literature of the fifties that no one wants to defend any more. The critics are very hip now they want Experimental Prose and Large Statements in fiction. They gave him up three years ago–there was almost a gang-up on Of the Farm–and it is very galling that he continues successful and widely read. That his present novel has all the stigmata of a bestseller will seem a confirmation–he can be flung on that heap where John Steinbeck and John O’Hara lie.
Yet the most striking thing about Couples is Updike’s attempt to break out of the intimist, unpolitical, miniaturist mold that had become his official bust. He seems to be responding to the critics who wrongly argued that he had “nothing to say,” by choosing the “larger social canvas” from which, ipso facto, significance must emerge. This is a presumptuous guess–writers, it is safe to say, respond mainly to their own vision–but Updike’s novel is full of evidence that he is simply being his critics’ dutiful student. Dutiful but unconvinced. The result is an uneasy mixture, as if James T. Farrell had been persuaded to sprinkle one of his laconic novels with metaphors and conceits.
It would appear that Updike started out to depict a group of married couples in Tarbox, a town sufficiently like Ipswich to have its quota of Boston exurbanites, but the early promise of equal time for each couple is soon dissipated. Piet Hanema, partner in a local construction firm, partner in an uneasy marriage, takes the center of the stage and becomes the single point of view from which we gaze at his circle of friends, an aesthetic for the construction of the novel that Updike seems incapable of abandoning. He cannot forgo, either, his marvelously developed talent for the exquisitely observed detail, the sensual nuances of physical response–as out of place in this flatly naturalistic scene as in the anonymous “Talk Of the Town” items in The New Yorker that Updike signs with his style. The pull of old habits is strong with writers. Updike’s real accomplishment in finding a perfectly jointed phrasing and construction for his short stories and past novels becomes a manner and a lazy habit when imposed on a traditional novel about social relations.
In a sense, Updike is forced to settle on the single point of view–on a hero whose feeling for building things well comes close to Updike’s own craftsmanship–to pour into his hero’s life all the poetic images he (Updike) can with seeming ease scoop up from the simplest action. To do otherwise, to follow the action with other characters, is to run the risk–unwilling as he is to give up his mannerisms–of peopling the book with a cast whose sensibilities are all the same.
Though he abandons the fictional construction for a group portrait to the demands of his style–rather, mannerism we tend to call inept protuberances style–he never gives up his subject, an acrid landscape of middle-class couples, coupling and uncoupling as the sociologists and scandal sheets have informed us has become usual. To their coupling Updike brings another transplanted old virtue: his sweet sensuality. It is a minor dividend–in a book with many minor pleasures–to find, as in all his novels, love for the flesh of women, affection in sex, naturalness and magic in the intimate touch. But, again, so inappropriate–in their effect–to these characters that one is tempted to hand Updike the ambiguous compliment of being the most sensitive heterosexual writer around. Like his metaphors, the fineness of sex feeling finally seems an overlay, a gratuitous display of “sensitivity.”
Thomas Mann in one of his last essays, at the time he had finished the dense Doctor Faustus, with its style of scholarly qualifications, and about to embark on the light, cynical Felix Krull, said that the only stylistic approach left to the bourgeois writer was that of parody. Parody dictated by his subject or his narrator, for Mann believed that bourgeois social relations could be fruitfully described only in a satirical tone. Piet Hanema, asking his wife to sleep with the local dentist to get him out of a jam and his wife complying–all with no questions asked–might be made a believable scene, but not in the humanist style–either his own or Chekhov’s or Edith Wharton’s or any of those writers who straightforwardly expect that the most aberrant action can be salvaged by the essential human worth of their subjects or their unawakened potential. Something new has happened in the bourgeois world and you cannot do it justice with affecting metaphors. When his wife agrees, Piet is unable to answer for a moment “he lay on the bed like a man lying on water, only his eyes and nostrils not immersed.” It would make Aristotle laugh.
What has happened is that Updike has not allowed his partner-switching couples to say anything to him and, therefore, there is no tension between him and his subject, no stylistic consistency, and no interest for the reader. His doggedly pursued story turns into one of those overlong novels to which one surrenders dully in order to complete it. You can see it being read in snatches–in subways, lunch hours, before falling asleep–by readers of bestsellers used to skipping “poetic” passages to get on to the titillating moments of sex and the improbable dramatic turns.
Of course Mann’s dictum works only with writers who know the class nature of their society and have some feelings and desires about it. Rather concrete desires too, even if they’re not expressed in political, programmatic terms. Updike has chosen as his subject a recognizable social group engaged in specific activities (business, the professions, academia), and has refused or been incapable of judging it on its own terms. I do not mean overt judgment–though any lapse is forgiven a writer who confronts his subject–but that implicit judgment that creates the unifying tension in any work. Surprisingly, it is such social judgment on the author’s part that gives his characters humanity, no matter how mean and senseless their ambience may be; the sour air that hangs around his couples comes from Updike’s lack of committedness to any social point of view.
John Updike seems worrisomely aware that something is missing and to that we owe a couple of techniques, intermittently indulged, for imbuing the novel with Higher Significance. (Let’s forget the epigraph from Paul Tillich and Updike’s watered Protestantism scarcely in evidence here) He gives some characters names that are descriptive of the roles they play. Nowadays that passes for myth making, but when Dickens called his happiness-making characters Cheeryble, it was good for a laugh and no more. Now and again there are some vaguely symbolic descriptions, such as the weather vane on the church steeple, and happenings, such as the church fire at the end.
Also, since his publishers allow him to decide about his book jacket and flap copy, Updike makes one last attempt to give the book coherence. “The circle of acquaintances is felt as a magic circle, with ritual games, religious substitutions, a priest (Freddy Thorne) and a scapegoat (Piet Hanema).” The art on the cover is William Blake’s “Adam and Eve Sleeping.” The only significance in this is that a jacket wraps a book, it can’t hold it together.
All these truisms aren’t worth pointing out to readers were the writer someone less accomplished than Updike. Writers of his talent and achievements do not need lectures, but perhaps a reminder is in order: pay no attention to unappreciative critics and stick to your interests. There is room in literature for all kinds.