John Updike is one of those Great American Novelists who have always left me cold. I was turned off by his modern classic ‘Rabbit Run’ and was delighted when, after reading it, I learned that Updike is now considered a misogynist dinosaur (meaning I didn’t have to feel guilty about not ‘getting’ his work).
Then, I learned about the 1968 book club hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. A Google search of novels published in the year threw up ‘Couples’ as the second book (the first is Solzhenitsyn’s ‘In the First Circle,’ a book I love, but have already read). In the spirit of giving it a fair try and of taking advantage of my local library, I though it was time to get past my prejudices and see if, bigotry aside, I might find something to enjoy in Updike’s presentation of the sexual revolution.
‘Couples’ is set within a small Massachusetts town where a clique of middle class inhabitants amuse themselves by giving parties, gossiping and sleeping around. They are presented as smug, amoral and selfish, with those outside the golden circle (such as their own children) treated as distractions, inconveniences and occasionally excuses for their own behaviour. This hardly seemed like the book to change my mind about Updike, and yet somehow the fluidity of the prose and unpretentiousness of the first pages drew me in.
The book begins just after a party in March 1962. We first meet the Hanemas getting ready for bed, accusing each other of having affairs with their friends and gossiping dismissively about a new couple who have recently moved to the area. The reader feels quite a lot like one of these arrivals, faced with so many new names its hard to keep track, especially as lies and extra-marital affairs pile up.
Updike uses the couples to section off and then explore a specific time and set within American society:
They belonged to that segment of their generation of the upper middle class which mildly rebelled against the confinement and discipline whereby wealth maintained its manners during the upheavals of depression and world war. Raised secure amid these national trials and introduced as adults into an indulgent economy, into a business atmosphere strangely blended of youthful imagery and underlying depersonalisation, of successful small-scale gambles carried out against a background of rampant diversification and the ultimate influence of a government whose taxes and commissions and appetite for armaments set limits everywhere, introduced into a nation whose leadership allowed a toothless moralism to dissemble a certain practiced cunning, into a culture where adolescent passions and homosexual philosophies were not quite yet triumphant, a climate still furtively hedonistic, of a country too overtly threatened from without to be ruthlessly self-abusive, a climate of time between between, of standoff and day-by-day, wherein all generalizations, even negative ones, seemed unintelligent – this this new world the Applebys and little-Smiths brought a modest determination to be free, to be flexible and decent. … Duty and work yielded as ideals to truth and fun. Virtue was no longer sought in temple or market place but in the home – one’s own home, and then the homes of one’s friends.
I hope you’ll excuse the length of the above quotation, my only real excuse is Updike’s punctuation. As shown above, the novel is a tour de force when it comes to ambitious and self-conscious writing style and themes. I could just as easily have quoted some of the Ulysses-like inner monologues of the neurotic and promiscuous male protagonist, but I also wanted to give an impression of the scope of the novel. The bed-swapping takes place as the Vietnam war rages, through the Profumo affair and the Kennedy assassination and amid discussions of integration, illegal abortions and the pill. Even the structure of the novel is ambitious and effective, with each long chapter ending with a situation that is somehow more sordid than the last.
There is nothing to enjoy about Updike’s characters, but much to relish in his stylish take on 1960 America. In fact, ‘Couples’ has nearly tempted me to try the Rabbit novels again – this time remembering their context and trying to see them as historical documents rather than reflecting an admirable view of American society and masculinity. Or maybe I’ll just wait to see if any of them fit into Kaggsy’s and Simon’s next book club …