John Updike

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Updike, John 1932–

Updike is an American novelist, short story writer, poet, critic, essayist, and author of children's books. An acute observer of the human condition, Updike produces prose that is spare and rich in allegory. His characters, treated with sympathy and simplicity, are often depicted in hopeless marital and social situations. The way in which they grapple with love and, especially, lust represents Updike's central purpose: to explicate man's metaphysical strivings through an investigation of the strengths and limitations of his physical being. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Victor Strandberg

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Back in the second decade of this century, Herman Hesse remarked that "Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap."… In the figure of John Updike, Hesse's crisis of culture attains what we might call a culminating expression. Unwilling to exorcise the dilemma by making a game of it, in the mode of black humor widely prevalent among his contemporaries, Updike has confronted the problem of belief as directly as did Tolstoy and Tennyson a century earlier, but with the added authority of a mind keenly aware of twentieth-century science and theology…. Moving out from an intensely imagined vision of death as its starting point, this search for a belief that might provide a stay against death comprises the "figure in the carpet" that Henry James spoke of, the master theme that, threading from book to book, gives design to Updike's work as a whole and marks him as one of the leading religious writers of his age.

"Our fundamental anxiety is that we do not exist—or will cease to exist." That statement from Updike's essay on Denis de Rougemont's writings (Assorted Prose …) compresses within its narrow pith the most recurrent nightmare in Updike's work…. The dread of Death stalks softly through all of Updike's books…. (pp. 157-58)

[For example,] Couples (1968) notably places its erotic episodes against a background saturated with news of expiring flesh: the slow death of Pope John, the mysterious sinking of the submarine Thresher, the death of the Kennedy infant, the Diem assassinations, the murder of the President himself, the killing of Lee Oswald (which the Hanemas watch on television), two planes crashing in Turkey, a great Alaskan earthquake. The fictional world of Couples can hardly compete with such real life extinctions, but it does offer the slow dying of John Ong by cancer in counterpoint with the insomniac dread visited upon Piet Hanema ever since his parents died in a crash….

Beyond this prospect of personal extinction lies that ultimate formulation of doom from the science of Physics, the theory of Entropy, which foresees the whole universe eventually burning out into a final icy darkness. This idea horrifies a good many Updike people, a typical instance being the tortured insomniac at the end of Pigeon Feathers who wakes his wife at last to share his terror: "I told her of the centuries coming when our names would be forgotten, of the millennia when our nation would be a myth and our continent an ocean, of the aeons when our earth would be vanished and the stars themselves diffused into a uniform and irreversible tepidity."… Worst of all is the eternally "forgotten" state in the above passage, a final and total extinction of the self that has haunted George Caldwell in The Centaur ever since he witnessed his father's death, though Caldwell accepts both death and entropy cheerfully enough otherwise. (p. 159)

Updike might as well have been speaking of himself when he described Conrad Aiken's stories as...

(This entire section contains 2438 words.)

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projecting a world whose "horror is not Hitlerian but Einsteinian," concerned not with crime and war but with the "interstellar gulfs" and "central nihil" of "the cosmic vacuity."… All of Updike's major work to date may be seen as some kind of response to this trauma; his people variously resist death through Christian faith (John Hook inThe Poorhouse Fair), through the way of Eros (the Rabbit books, Couples), through Agape (George Caldwell), through art (Bech, Peter Caldwell), and through the metaphysical intuition that Updike himself calls "duality" (A Month of Sundays and elsewhere)…. The Centaur, which gathers them all in its purview, remains Updike's most satisfactory treatment of his grand obsession.

To deal with the threat of non-existence, Updike has resorted largely to the oldest modes of immortality known to man—God and sex, more or less in that order, but sometimes meshed in a dubious combination. To judge from the bulk of Updike's writing, we might well surmise that Freddy Thorne, the high priest of Couples, speaks for his author when he says, "In the western world, there are only two comical things; the Christian church and naked women…. Everything else tells us we're dead." (pp. 159-60)

Back in his earliest novel, The Poorhouse Fair, where a head-on debate between a Christian and an atheist comprises the intellectual center of the work, it is ominously the atheist whose argument carries the weightiest evidence…. Perhaps Updike's most harrowing—and most brilliantly written—plunge into the abyss of religious skepticism occurs in "Lifeguard," whose divinity-student narrator skewers the whole line-up of Christian theologies like so much shish-ke-bob. (pp. 160-61)

When God goes, half-gods arrive; and in our post-Freudian age, what other god can stand before Eros, "the Genesis of All Things," as the Centaur teaches …, and the one surviving deity who delivers a kind of immortality people may yet live by. Perhaps it is natural that when faith fails, God and sex become blurred…. Some such subliminal transference seems to have worked itself out in Updike's fiction of the 1960's, whose tones have become steadily less Christian and more pagan, though without a clear victory on either side.

Updike's psychology of sex, as he himself has attested, owes a great deal to two books by Denis de Rougement, Love in the Western World and Love Declared. (p. 161)

Updike renders [the] connection between Eros, narcissism, and death metaphorically in his Erotic Epigram III …, which reads:

Hoping to fashion a mirror, the lover doth polish the face of his beloved until he produces a skull.

So Eros becomes another mask for death, after all, rather than death's adversary; and the servant of Eros becomes "Mr. Death," as Ruth calls Rabbit—that proud lover—at the end. Presumably, the very reason Rabbit insisted on having sex with Ruth without contraceptives was to loosen his seed against death, affirming his being in reproduction…. Yet the final effect of Rabbit's erotic adventures is to inflict death by water upon his new-born daughter, death by fire upon his girl friend (in Rabbit Redux), death by abortion upon his unborn descendant, and spiritual death upon both his wife and his concubine: "I'm dead to you, and this baby of yours is dead too. Now; get out." (p. 162)

Couples is Updike's ultimate statement on the theme of Eros. Guided by Paul Tillich's headnote from The Future of Religions that our present world, like that of the Roman Empire, presents "a mood favorable for the resurgence of religion," we find in Couples just what that religion is likely to be: a worship of Eros complete with its high priest and prophet (Freddy Thorne), its sacrificial victims (Angela and Ken), and its lay communicants (the couples)—all under the purview of the town church with its "pricking steeple and flashing cock."…

In this book, Death is once again linked with Eros, in Foxy's abortion, for example…. More significant is the loss of personality, a kind of psychic death, that Eros exacts as its payment. Contrary to Freddy Thorne's sudden "vision" that "We're all put here to humanize each other,"… Eros obviously dehumanizes his worshippers in this novel, not only—again—in victimizing the … "distressed and neglected children," but with respect to the lovers themselves: "Frank and Harold had become paralyzed by the habit of lust; she and Marcia, between blowups, were as guarded and considerate with one another as two defaced patients in an accident ward."… Those critics and readers who complained of the lack of character development in Couples—the characters are mostly indistinguishable—have missed the point that it was meant that way. (p. 163)

Eros is in reality a living god of this world to whom all flesh must render service. And in that service may actually reside some measure of joy and hope and meaning, for here we encounter a strange paradox: the Christian hedonism of John Updike. He that lusteth after a woman in his heart hath defiled her already, according to Jesus Christ, but Updike's religious people seem marvelously at ease in their compliance with the laws of Eros…. Christ and Eros are not adversaries, he maintains, but collaborators, the asceticism of the Bible notwithstanding: "To desire a woman is to save her … Every seduction is a conversion." (p. 164)

The lifeguard's changing investment of belief, shifting from God to sex—that is, from a supernatural to a naturalistic mainstay against death—portends, I believe, a significant movement in Updike's larger career…. Certainly, his Midpoint, a collection of poems published in 1969 and narrated by Updike himself, would appear to verify a shift, though not a full break, away from Christianity towards hedonism in Updike's view of life. (pp. 164-65)

The "intelligent hedonism" of Midpoint and the "happy ending" of Couples … would appear to reflect an increasing commitment to the pleasure principle in Updike's thinking, as supernaturalism wanes and naturalism waxes. But Updike is nothing if he is not double-minded. Rabbit Redux (1971) gives us a revulsion against naturalism as powerful as T. S. Eliot's, where Eros is again the mad, cruel god, where all sexuality is joyless exploitation, and where drugs and the moon-landing (of 1969) prove empty substitutes for spiritual meaning. (pp. 165-66)

There is no subject, then, upon which Updike is so ambiguous in his judgments as the subject of Eros, doubtless because sex is so ambiguous a feature of actual life, almost evenly balanced between its pleasures and pains, its warmth and its cruelty, its powers to create and destroy. Looking at The Centaur, we find both attitudes locked in a typically dialectical configuration. (p. 166)

So the turn from Christ to Eros ends in paradox. On the one hand, in a time of failing belief Eros is at least one god that all men can believe in, one to whom bodies may be offered a living sacrifice and who may confer in return a provisional shelter against death and entropy and the protein acids ticking. On the other hand, the capture of civilization's inner citadel from its few rear-guard Christian defenders yields little joy to the army of neopagan victors, for the disappearance of Christianity in books like Couples and Rabbit Redux only displays the "central nihil" of the "cosmic vacuity" all the more intolerably. To find Updike's true refuge from death and its terrors we shall have to look to neither classical Eros nor orthodox Christian metaphysics but to a highly personal theology that sees Agape love and Erotic love as pointing toward "Duality," like two sides of a triangle or a Gothic arch whose base is Earth and whose tip pierces heaven. (p. 167)

The goodness Updike speaks of is what theologians call agape, that love which St. Paul placed at the top of his famous triad in I Corinthians 13; and though we see very little faith and not much hope in The Centaur, we do see an abundance of love in George Caldwell, love which in the Pauline phrases "suffreth long, and is kind … seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil." Moving through a world that otherwise seems a throwback to the pagan hedonism of pre-Christian antiquity, Caldwell anachronistically dispenses agape-love in all directions.

Here perhaps a few words from Updike's religious mentor, Karl Barth, will focus Caldwell's role more clearly: "In agape-love a man gives himself to the other with no expectation of a return, in a pure venture, even at the risk of ingratitude." (p. 168)

Love—as agape—is a mighty ethical force, but matters of even greater moment hang by this tale. Ultimately, love implies that the physical universe has a spiritual counterpart, that metaphysical dimension of reality whose existence has been so much in question, and whose power is the only final recourse against death and entropy. Updike's word that encompasses this metaphysical dimension is "duality."… (p. 169)

By setting off The Centaur against Updike's erotic novels—Couples, A Month of Sundays, and Marry Me—we may observe how the author designates Agape and Eros as the two alternative pathways that connect the dualistic realms of reality. The way of Agape is surer but much more difficult, of course—straight is the path and few there be who find it. None do find it after Caldwell, who was not the last Christian for Updike (for his lovers are all Christians too), but who was the last Christian capable of a life of agape love. The noble centaur's exit thus leaves Eros as the major vehicle of dual consciousness in our ongoing twilight era.

Here Denis de Rougemont's thought makes its greatest impact on Updike's writing, for de Rougemont's connection between Eros and Duality makes possible a molecular fusion between Updike's sexual and religious psychology. Beyond the pleasure principle, that is to say, the Unattainable Lady of Updike/de Rougemont, provides a stay against death by opening to her lover a secret corridor for periodic visitations into the next world….

Just such a system of thought pervades Updike's latest novel, Marry Me (1976). (p. 170)

At the end of [this] book, Updike affirms de Rougemont's system one last time by bringing into his text that classic movie archetype of the unattainable lady, Marlene Dietrich, whose most famous film, The Blue Angel, bears a title that happens to suit Updike's purpose to perfection.

In the end, then, the idea that poor Sally is asked to serve, at the risk of being called a whore, is that of Jerry's immortality…. (p. 171)

In Couples, Updike sometimes verges upon making a stilted morality play with de Rougemont's system, with Piet's name meaning "Hanema/Anima/Life" … and with Piet's wife Angela taking the role of the Angel not possessable in this world. (p. 172)

The ambiguity of Updike's erotic love, a life force harboring brutality, selfishness and a "mask of Death" quality, renders agape-love that much more efficacious by comparison. (p. 173)

Critics like Leslie Fiedler and Norman Podhoretz have sometimes disparaged Updike's work, calling it poor, mindless, and irrelevant, but those of us who find The Centaur a brilliant, moving book will agree that in his portrayal of George Caldwell, Peter/Updike has netted a splendid catch indeed, worthy of its epic analogies. In this apostle of agape-love, Updike has presented what still remains his surest answer to the problems of nihilism and the changing of the gods. As a side effect, he has also insured that his own name, while civilization lasts, is not likely to be forgotten. (p. 175)

Victor Strandberg, "John Updike and the Changing of the Gods," in MOSAIC: A Journal for the Study of Literature and Ideas (copyright © 1978 by the University of Manitoba Press; acknowledgement of previous publication is herewith made), Vol. XII, No. 1 (Fall, 1978), pp. 157-75.

Daphne Merkin

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[While] Updike is gifted at everything he puts his hand to, he is not equally gifted. Thus, although he is a first-rate miniaturist (his short stories are usually flawless, and his criticism can be truly remarkable …), he has failed to attain major status as a novelist. Perhaps his is a case of talent spread too thin to sustain the rigors of full-length fiction. Or perhaps something less tangible and more complicated is involved—a subtle clash between artistic ability and artistic inclination, between what John Updike is best equipped to write about and what he wants to write about. More specifically, he seeks to abandon his natural subjects—disgruntled marriages (Couples, Marry Me) and crumbling Wasp traditions (A Month of Sundays)—for darker, archetypal matters—alien accounts of wandering Jews (Bech: A Book) and militant blacks (Rabbit Redux). And these books of larger vision, despite not always being persuasive, are in fact the author's most interesting works. (p. 21)

The Coup is a very witty book about the merchandising of ideology. It is inventive in a Nabokovian way: nothing is too big—or small—to be poked fun at. The American scenes … have about them the pungency that last wafted through Lolita. It is almost as though Updike had to figuratively leave home—by impersonating the foreigner—in order to see most clearly into the frailties of home…. Flecked with sobriety and whimsy, The Coup counters a concern for temps perdu with a muscular sense of presentness. More important, here John Updike comes closer than he has ever come before to matching the intention to the act. (p. 22)

Daphne Merkin, "Updike in Africa," in The New Leader (© 1978 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), December 4, 1978, pp. 21-2.

Robert Towers

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"The Coup" is a comedy of racial and cultural incongruities; but whereas Waugh and Theroux use a white protagonist … to clear a path for us into the Dark Continent, Updike has the fictional audacity to project a black among blacks, a militant and culturally, though not sexually, puritanical Marxist-Muslim, the redoubtable Col. Hakim Félix Ellelloû, as the commanding figure and voice of his novel. (p. 1)

[Ellelloû] is an extraordinary tour-de-force of a character, an ideologue who reminds me of one of Nabokov's mad narrators, a Humbert Humbert or a Charles Kinbote; like them he is obsessed, self-destructive, nimble and often endearing…. The African wives, too, are distinctively fleshed-out and memorable, as are the old King and Ellelloû's elegant and treacherous associate, Michaelis Ezana. Oddly, the American characters are the least successful; in their case, Updike has contented himself with satirically outlined pinups.

Updike loves to show off his special areas of knowledge, whether Protestant theology or, in this case, the geography, geology and history of sub-Saharan Africa…. Whatever the effort involved, Updike's imagination has thoroughly assimilated his erudition, enabling him to render, with sublime authority, the look and and feel of this gritty, sunstruck region.

His stylistic virtuosity is more problematic…. Never was a writer so resolutely, so irrepressibly, metaphorical as he…. (pp. 1, 55)

Many of Updike's images are arresting, a delight to contemplate both for their ingenuity and accuracy; but too often he is tempted into glibness or excess, to a kind of overwriting that leaves the reader surfeited and slightly ill ("Directly overhead, an advance scout of the starry armies trembled like a pearl suspended in a gigantic goblet of heavenly nectar"). Updike's verbal exuberance is indeed "supermimetic." No one, I hope, will complain that Ellelloû's language cannot possibly be grounded in the background, education or psychology attributed to that character.

But the narcissistic, self-intoxicating element in Updike's style can also serve as a cover for certain defects of structure or narrative in his novel. Many aspects of Ellelloû's career remain improbable or unexplained in ways for which "creative license" is not an adequate excuse…. The premises of the novel are just realistic enough to make [certain] questions nag. Self-indulgence also accounts for the tedium that occurs in those passages where the characters make speeches at each other—brilliant speeches, to be sure, but speeches where the Updikean music leads away from the matter at hand.

Still, what a rich, surprising and often funny novel "The Coup" is. I had never thought of Updike as a particularly witty writer before, but "The Coup" displays an epigrammatic talent that again reminds me of Nabokov….

This comedy of absurd cultural juxtaposition (which, like Waugh's, can sometimes bare a wonderfully menacing set of teeth) is sustained beautifully through much of Updike's fine novel. (p. 55)

Robert Towers, "Updike in Africa," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 10, 1978, pp. 1, 55.

John Thompson

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Updike was in Africa in 1973, one of the years of the great drought that reduced the always barren country around the Sahara to an absolute waste land. Out of what he saw, out of many books, and out of his own head he has made the nation of Kush [as the setting for his book, The Coup]. It is an audacious creation and there must have been some magic in it too because the entire nation is there in all its splendor, farce, and misery.

With much nerve and surely with some luck, Updike invented his Africa not the way other white novelists have done. He did not dispatch a Henderson or Lord Greystoke, some Francis Macomber or one of Paul Theroux's emissaries, or even a Basil Seal or a Marlowe to suffer his shock in the heart of darkness. Updike's book is written by the dictator himself, Colonel Hakim Félix Ellelloû. The Colonel is short, prim, and black. He is appealing and wicked, and to me at least he is like Africans I have known except that Updike knows him better than ever I knew an African and I knew them for years. The Colonel is frightening and I think he must have frightened Updike too, in a way that has done wonders for his writing.

In some twenty books of fiction, poetry, and criticism, Updike has tried to bring legend to his own America. He tried to give significance to the dumpy amours of housewives and dentists by lavishing on them many more metaphors than they knew what to do with….

And the language was not just embroidery on nothing. Updike is a master of the techniques of modern fiction. His novels are solid with plot, character, and thought, as well as with melodious diction. He knows intimately the way the American middle class walks and talks, and knows every room in their "homes" and how they earn and spend money. He knows all too well how they fornicate. Why then should I say that I felt always something of the precocious in these substantial and skillful novels? It was as if some very clever boy with a great gift for language …, some clever boy was spying on the grownups with clairvoyant eyes for every gesture, every follicle and sebaceous cyst, but no real idea of why they are carrying on so disgustingly, or that to them it may not be ugly and evil to make love with another imperfect creature. That is why although it was right for Faulkner to use his Shakespearean powers on the ignoramuses of Mississippi, for Nabokov to give his murderer a fancy prose style—for that matter all right for Joyce—it has never seemed to me Updike quite got away with it. However it is not wrong to invoke these great names in the presence of John Updike's name.

In "Colonel Ellelloû"—"Félix"—"Hakim"—"Bini"—"Happy"—Updike has found his perfect spokesman. Overeducated in the French classics, overexperienced at Dien Bien Phu; overexposed to the dialects of the heartland of America at McCarthy College, Franchise, Wisconsin; oversold by Elijah Muhammad in the deviltries of whites and the glories of Islam: Félix is perfectly prepared to overwrite, and proud of it….

The story jumps back and forth from farce to violence and from Kush to Franchise, Wisconsin. It is being told in his memoirs by the retired Colonel, where every detail of the story as plot appears most naturally and yet they are introduced, these details, even such little things as names, with the flair of a grand thriller. We learn early on that Félix has four wives; we are received by them, one by one, in the manner that only the best storytellers use in their invitations to meet people. Each is a brilliant surprise.

So, not at all to reproduce the manner of the telling, which is swift but intricate and never in serial chronology, sometimes in the first person and sometimes in Félix's view of himself in the third person—simply to give an idea of what it is about, it is about the ruler of a Waste Land. (p. 3)

Félix can speak out, as Updike never quite could, with frankness what it is he hates and what he loves. Félix is very hard indeed on American blacks, American breakfast food, and on "Klipspringer," the all-knowing American global fixer. Félix is brilliantly hard on the Russians and on the slaveholding sheikdoms of Araby.

There is not a sentence in this book I will not gladly read again for instruction and delight. (pp. 3-4)

John Thompson, "Updike le Noir," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1978 Nyrev, Inc.), December 21, 1978, pp. 3-4.

Alastair Reid

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Kush, an imagined sub-Saharan country in Africa, a poor peanut-producing territory once ruled by the French under the name of Noire, is the improbable setting for John Updike's uncharacteristic new novel, "The Coup" …, and he has taken immense pains to make the territory tangible in some dazzling passages of physical description and recreation. "The Coup" is really more fable than novel. At first reading, it seems to be a number of books in one, and veers abruptly from the lyrical to the intensely declarative to the hilarious, from character to caricature; but it has a high moral point of view, and some exotic set pieces, which contrive to move it toward the fabulous. Updike has become the most Nabokovian of writers—who else takes the trouble to make such beautifully modulated sentences, or gives prose in general the carefully observed attention more commonly given to poetry? "The Coup" purports to be the memoirs of Colonel Hakim Félix Ellelloû,… an account of the events leading to his fall, and sometimes a passionate, rueful tract on the post-revolutionary world…. (p. 65)

Updike most brilliantly contrives in language this struggle going on in Ellelloû, so that the reader is constantly aware of it. In his rather pompous piety, Ellelloû cites verses from the Koran, graceful and measured in their phrasing and wisdom. When a flat American cadence intrudes into the text, as it does increasingly, the effect is like a blow. It is, plainly, the language of the infidel. When Ellelloû goes to call on his second wife, Candace, whom he brought back to Kush from Franchise, and she greets him with the phrase "Holy Christ, look who it isn't," we wince. It is in language that Updike most clearly dramatizes his worlds in collision—the wild, untouchable natural world of Kush and the banal know-how of its ultimate colonizers—and it is in language, his true province, that the book is made to happen. It would do no service to "The Coup" to enumerate Updike's rich cast of minor characters, or the dramatic events he sets up to revel in, for the book ought to stay as an astonishment to his readers. Memorably, Kush lives. Call "The Coup" a caper, an indulgence, a tract, a chronicle, a fable—and it is all these things at different times—the fact is that Updike's sentences can be read with the pleasure that poetry can, and the fingers are more than enough to count the novelists of whom such a thing can be said. (pp. 66, 69)

Alastair Reid, "Updike Country," in The New Yorker (© 1978 by the New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), December 25, 1978, pp. 65-9.

Joyce Carol Oates

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What [Updike] has to say [in The Coup] is mordant, outrageous, and bitterly self-mocking, a lengthy monologue that really is a coup of sorts, constituting Updike's most experimental novel to date. Kush is Ellelloû's fiction just as The Coup is Updike's fastidiously circumscribed fiction, a country set in an "Africa" of words. And what a virtuoso display Updike gives us! Not even [Nabokov's] Pale Fire, another inspired work by another displaced "ruler," is more darkly comic, more abrasively surreal, than Updike's Ellelloû's testimony….

Where Márquez's Faulknerian The Autumn of the Patriarch presented a bizarre dictator seen from without, filtered through the voices of a number of close observers, Updike's Nabokovian The Coup gives us the dictator in his own voice, as he sardonically and brokenly recounts the comic-opera events that led to his spiritual assassination. Nabokov's presence is felt throughout, but lightly and ingeniously, for Updike, unlike the self-indulgent Nabokov of Ada, that most relentlessly private of novels, has linked personal and authorial obsessions so gracefully with the outer chaos of Kush and the drama of the "super-paranoids" America and Russia that Ellelloû's story works quite satisfactorily as a story, without self-referential props. Updike's homage to Nabokov is clear enough, and rather touching: it is Ellelloû's "opposite number," the Soviet Colonel Sirin, who saves his life at a characteristically absurd moment—and Sirin, as we know, was Nabokov's early pseudonym. (p. 32)

Difficult as Kush's mountainous terrain is to navigate, by camel or Mercedes … the prose Updike has fashioned for him is even more difficult, and resembles nothing so much as an arabesque superimposed upon another arabesque. Motifs, phrases, "imagery," coarsely comic details from the "external world," Ellelloû's various and conflicting pasts, are rigorously interwoven into complex designs. The outer world, filling up slowly with American and Soviet junk, is a nightmare of vulgarity, and depressingly simpleminded; the inner world, the world of Ellelloû's ceaseless brooding, is correspondingly rich, elusive, teasing, ingenious. Updike has been accused in earlier, far more straightforward narratives like Couples and The Centaur (the novel that The Coup most resembles in its audacity and inspiration, if not in its tenderness) of writing self-indulgent, tortuous prose. That Updike has a painter's eye for detail, that he glories in what Joyce would call the suchness of a thing, and sees no reason, since it exists, not to describe it in detail, seems to me quite evident; but surely this is one of his strengths, one of the great virtues of his writing. By assigning the prose voice of The Coup to the defeated dictator Updike allows himself more freedom (or license) than he might ordinarily allow himself, and Ellelloû, plunging onward in his memoirs, as in his murky grotesque situationcomedy adventures, does the difficult work of characterizing himself. He remarks at one point that he knows his sentences are "maddeningly distended by seemingly imperative refinements and elaborations"; at another point—as he is about to execute the old king with a giant scimitar taken from its case in the People's Museum of Imperialist Atrocities—he thinks, "My mind in its exalted, distended condition had time to entertain many irrelevant images." Updike echoes or parodies earlier Updike, the earlier Updike (in the story "Wife-Wooing") paying homage to James Joyce of The Sirens: "Wide wadis remember ancient water, weird mesas have been shipped into shape by wicked, unwitnessed winds." (p. 33)

Beneath, behind, informing every scene of this inspired novel, which a superficial reading might judge as almost too inspired (a tour de force against readers' expectations, like Updike's very first novel The Poorhouse Fair, which was anything but a "young man's novel"), is a passionate and despairing cynicism which I take to be, for all its wit, Updike's considered view of where we are and where we are going. No moral uplift here; no gestures, like Bellow's, toward the essential "health" of the commonplace. (p. 34)

Judging from the stories in "another mode" in Museums and Women, and the highly self-conscious voice of A Month of Sundays, it might have seemed that Updike's genius was for fiction and not metafiction. (For why parody art if you can create it, why devise clever paste pearls if you own genuine pearls?) But The Coup, which makes only the most perfunctory gestures toward old-fashioned realism, let alone naturalism, is an immensely inspired and energetic work, striking, on page after page, the comic brilliancy that leaps from Joyce's Ulysses, in such chapters as The Cyclops, for instance, in which ferocious exaggeration becomes an art that is self-consuming; in its possibly more immediate relationship to Nabokov and Márquez, the novel sets down the improbable beside the probable, creating a "fictional" nation that is altogether convincing, and yet populating it with fools and knaves and tough-talking nagging wives who have the depth, if not the distinctiveness, of playing cards. The Coup's coup is style. If entropy is capitalism's goal, just as it is "socialism's" goal, if life in our time has become so sterile …, there is all the more need for style, for art, for the unique, quirky, troubling visions that our finest artists force upon us.

Updike has grown amazingly cynical with the passage of time: how odd that the author of Pigeon Feathers should be evolving, before our eyes, into the Mark Twain of The Mysterious Stranger, or the Swift of Gulliver's final voyage, or the Samuel Beckett who says laconically that failure, not success, interests him! One would have not guessed the direction his novels might take, considering even the bitterly ironic ending of Rabbit, Run …, and the understated, unheroic conclusion of Couples, in which the hero and heroine, about whose emotions we know so very much, in such exhaustive detail, become, merely, in the end, just "another couple" in suburban America. Admirers of Updike's sardonic Bech stories, however, have sensed quite clearly the drift of Updike's mind, which finds its sharpest, least muffled, and least sentimental expression through the persona of Henry Bech, Updike's daimonic opposite (bachelor, Jew, perpetually blocked novelist who, at the conclusion of a recent story, finds that he cannot even sign his own name); Bech's view of the universe and of man's striving within it is as droll as Céline's, and he would, adroitly, with an allegorical instinct as habitual as Updike's, sketch in quick analogues between the drying-up of creative powers and the drying-up of fertile lands.

The world in which "Kush" is located is, after all, a "global village" in which individuals no longer exist, and tribes are relocated in a matter of days, to make way for multi-level parking garages, shopping malls, and McDonald's hamburger restaurants. Ellelloû's prophetic zeal is commendable, but who among his people cares?—if "You will be Xed out by Exxon, ungulfed by Gulf, crushed by the US, disenfranchised by France, not only you but your entire loving nation of succulent wives, loyal brothers, righteous fathers, and aged but still amusing mothers. All inked out, absolutely…. In the vocabulary of profit there is no word for 'pity.'"

Is such cynicism soluble in art? Indeed yes. (pp. 34-5)

Joyce Carol Oates, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 by The New Republic, Inc.), January 6, 1979.

Gene Lyons

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The Coup attracted my interest because of its subject matter. Writing about the Sahel, I thought, might help transform the muffled glories of Updike's ornate prose into something leaner, or lend a gravity to his religious impulses that neither Skeeter nor the author's suburban adulterers had ever done. At times in The Coup that almost seems what Updike himself has in mind….

Nobody would deny Updike's expository gifts, despite the occasional sentence that defies understanding. When it comes to such novelistic matters as plot, character and dialogue, however, his verbosity seems to overwhelm his judgment. Sentences and whole paragraphs detach themselves from the dramatic logic of the book until it can scarcely be said after a time to have one. Consider Kutunda, an illiterate, barefooted nomadic wench whom dictator Ellelloû discovers on a tour of the drought-stricken northern part of the country while disguised as a beggar…. As an Updike character, of course, she … talks like this: "I'm sorry if I seemed preoccupied this morning, you caught me at a bad time, but I didn't fake my climax, I swear it. It was a beautiful climax, really. Only my President can lead me so utterly to forget myself. I am led to the brink of another world, and grow terrified lest I fall in and be annihilated. It's neat." Now astonishing cultural transformations are wrought everywhere in this electronic age of ours without the intervening stages of literacy, but "It's neat"? (p. 118)

Given that Updike cannot forbear making all of his characters sound like adulterous literature professors, it should not come as a surprise that the story line is a bit murky as well. In form the book is a memoir narrated by Ellelloû from a Paris cafe table, where he has repaired in exile. Flashbacks to college days show the African student-in-exile in scenes more than a bit reminiscent of Portnoy's Complaint or Annie Hall….

Outcroppings of thought-provoking eloquence decorate the text throughout, but are no sooner contemplated than they are followed by manifest absurdities…. For a time, indeed, I thought Updike's narrator had gone quite mad in the manner of Ellison's Invisible Man, particularly in the latter sections, and I have reread them carefully for clues. After a near fatal pilgrimage by foot and camel, Ellelloû finds that the former King's head has been set up as a sort of tourist attraction with signs in several languages. Outside are concession stands "vending croissants and caviar, teriyaki and chili, kebab and hot dogs." Although the Russians are responsible, the King's head is pure Disneyland and speaks truth: "This man, while proclaiming hatred of the Americans, is in fact American at heart … and his political war, which causes him to burn gifts of food … is in truth a war within himself…." In fact Updike goes to considerable lengths in his familiar fake-symbolic way, to insinuate that the desert nihilism that terrifies and attracts his hero, "the solitude, the monotony, the huge idiocy of this barren earth," is in fact, like the whiteness of Melville's whale, an essentially American form of dread. In the Portnoy-Annie Hall scenes, which are some of the best in the book and which Updike juxtaposes to the desert sequences, Wisconsin is full of snow, the enchanting but frightening nakedness of white women, and his future wife's living room, "the melting-iceberg shapes of its furniture, its whiteness and coldness and magnificent sterility; the emptiness, in short, of its lavish fullness…." (p. 119)

That a symbolist reading of a long narrative can parse a Deep Hidden Meaning out of what is otherwise confused and even ridiculous is a symptom of a kind of cultural confusion about literary meaning that one can only point to in the space available. For all of his earnest erudition, Updike seems as incapable now of putting together a sustained and coherent novel without such foolishness as he was in Rabbit Redux. (p. 120)

Gene Lyons, "Cultural Deformations," in The Nation (copyright 1979 The Nation Associates), February 3, 1979, pp. 117-20.


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The stories [in Too Far to Go] are consecutive,… and the same characters, Richard and Joan Maple, and the same themes—love, domesticity and infidelity, permanence and evanescence, blood and death—appear throughout. Together the stories form a single unit, rather like an Updike novel, rather like the Maples' marriage, a luxurious slow slide from grace, a 20-year trajectory from innocence to decadence.

The Maples begin, certainly, in innocence…. But they end, like the students in the butchers' school next to the church—two emblems that figure in the first story, "Snowing in Greenwich Village"—"all bloody and laughing." (p. E1)

Richard Maple is stubbornly determined to hold on to the aura of innocence while embracing the pleasures of decadence, rather like a spoiled child….

Updike's protagonists always get the housewife up the street. It turns out she is much like the wife at home: intelligent, pretty, vaguely dissatisfied, compliant, ultimately mysterious. "They like one another," he writes in his foreword to the Maples stories, "and are mysteries to one another." Love and habit draw them together; time and boredom drive them apart….

Updike writes in his foreword, "Though the Maples stories trace the decline and fall of a marriage, they also illumine a history in many ways happy, of growing children and a million mundane moments shared. That a marriage ends is less than ideal; but all things end under heaven, and if temporality is held to be invalidating, then nothing real succeeds."

These stories are real enough, as real as the toast crumbs on the breakfast table; the characters around it almost too familiar to inspire curiosity. The texture of the Maples' particular domestic life, the immediacy of their experience, is subtly, faithfully and rather wistfully rendered, perhaps because Updike's own experience seems to parallel that of Richard Maple….

Fiction is not autobiography, yet all fiction, I am convinced, is in some sense rooted in autobiography though the connection to actual events may be tenuous indeed, even nonexistent…. It is the heightening of experience that I miss in these stories, well-crafted and finely written as they are, and altogether unexceptionable. They have the sweetness of almonds with a bitter one in the sack, and in a bitter almond there is a trace of cyanide, here masked as a charming but false innocence. The charm is seductive and ingratiating—winning in a child—but the innocence is meretricious….

It seems to me [Updike] now faces a choice in his work: to recapitulate with another set of names the familiar story of peccadilloes in suburban paradises, of grace without pressure, or to go on to something else. He may already have done so…. [The Coup] seemed to point toward a tougher but wiser course. (p. E6)

William McPherson, in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), March 18, 1979.

Paul Theroux

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So many of John Updike's characters seem to inhabit the suburbs of Splitsville and to toy with infidelity as soon as the shower presents are unwrapped that one things of them as naturally polygamous…. [It seems odd] that the gracenote of Updike's fiction should be optimism—a radiant box of corn flakes in the kitchen mess, a cascade of Calgonite offering an epiphany in the dishwasher, and so forth—because his people are not so much learning marriage as pondering a way out of it….

Leaving aside the banality of this collection's title ["Too Far to Go"] (is it the "so long, so far" line of Donne's "The Extasie" hammered into Americanese?), there are several implausibilities in the stories. I am used to Updike's married men not having jobs, just as I am used to having him send his characters into the den to watch television so that he can make "Charlie's Angels" into a theology lesson, but Richard Maple looks so damnably unemployed that one begins to think this may be the cause of all the domestic uproar. "Domestic uproar" is a wild overstatement; indeed, that is my second suspicion of implausibility…. It strains one's credibility to read divorce stories in which none of the partners say "I could kill you!" or "You'll be sorry!"

But perhaps this is the very feature that distinguished them from the common run of howling, wound-licking, look-what-you-did-to-me fictions of recent years. They are the most civilized stories imaginable, and because of this the most tender. Updike, I thought when I read his novel "Marry Me," is the poet of the woe that is in marriage. It is rather to his credit that he conceives of marriage as something other than a Jabberwock; and because he avoids the pique and self-pity in that trap, his stories are celebrations rather than warnings. (p. 7)

If there is something seriously missing here, it is Joan's point of view. I think any married woman could quite justifiably accuse Updike of weighting his argument in favor of Richard; worse, he seems to want us to sympathize with and understand Richard, while at the same time pitying Joan. If the Maples were not being whirled apart—without a divorce they would hardly be worth writing about—this probably wouldn't matter; but it strikes me as special pleading to omit the other side of the story. We know too little about Joan and her analyst and her lovers and her panic.

"The moral of these stories is that all blessings are mixed," Updike writes in his foreword. "Also, that people are incorrigibly themselves." He might say as well that no one really belongs to anyone else and that marriage is an institution in which the exits are clearly marked. Updike is one of the few people around who has given subtle expression to what others have dismissed and cheapened by assuming it is a nightmare. The Maples are never closer than when they are performing their ceremony of divorce. (p. 34)

Paul Theroux, "A Marriage of Mixed Blessings," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 8, 1979, pp. 7, 34.


Updike, John (Vol. 1)


Updike, John (Vol. 139)