Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Much of the critical commentary on The Coup has focused on how different it is from Updike’s other fiction. Updike has written extensively about the morality of suburban America and the various crises of middle age. Too readily categorized by some as the quintessential WASP novelist, he is not content to revisit the same milieu over and over. His desire for diversity can be seen in the Gothic convolutions of The Witches of Eastwick (1984) and especially in the two books that feature the globehopping Jewish writer Henry Bech: Bech: A Book (1970) and Bech Is Back (1982); Africa briefly appears in the latter.

The Coup is in keeping with the Anglo-American tradition of African novels by outsiders. Updike follows—and may be influenced by—Joseph Conrad, Evelyn Waugh, Joyce Cary, Graham Greene, Saul Bellow, Paul Theroux, and others; T. Coraghessan Boyle and William Boyd have continued the tradition since The Coup. Africa is the perfect place, as Conrad and Greene in particular have shown, for exploring the complexities and ambiguities of life, subjects Updike examines in less exotic settings elsewhere in his fiction.

Also notable is the novel’s black humor, as when Ezana offers a lengthy analysis of Richard M. Nixon’s Watergate woes: “What more poetic and profoundly satisfying psychotherapy . . . than the evisceration of a President, out of whom tumble in majestic abundance tapes, forgeries, falsified income taxes, and mealy-mouthed lies? This is theatre in the best African tradition, wherein the actor is actually slain!” In the novel’s most striking episode, Russians steal Edumu’s head after Ellelloû severs it, install elaborate electronic equipment in it, and have it appear to talk to tourists, denouncing Ellelloû’s regime before reminding the audience, “For your further entertainment a slide show depicting the Kush national heritage will be shown on the wall behind me.”

The Soviet in charge of this exhibition is named Sirin, a pseudonym that Vladimir Nabokov once used. The Nabokov allusion is Updike’s acknowledgment of his debt to that master of the self-conscious, ornate style, whose fiction also explores the ambiguities, both dark and comic, lurking behind our many masks. Like the best of Nabokov’s fiction, The Coup manages to be experimental, ironic, and lyric all at the same time.