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.