At the close of John Updike’s novel Couples (Knopf, $6.95) the old Congregational Church of Tarbox, Massachusetts, a South Shore town near Boston, burns down. All of the church is destroyed except the weathercock on the cupola. Since we know the author of Rabbit, Run and The Centaur to be much given to symbolical writing and because the sexual exertions of the characters in this latest work, though seldom interrupted, are on occasion suspended at least long enough for them to announce their religious emotions or lack of them, we must give this climax of Mr. Updike’s book its full symbolical weight. God is dead in Tarbox; the focus of communal hope is sexuality. It is to the rooster that the aspiration of which God was once the object will continue to be directed.
We must understand that this is not the good Laurentian news it may appear to be to the children of Tarbox, who have a school holiday to watch the salvaging of the cock. In their innocence of what the future holds for them, or perhaps in their eagerness to get in on the sexual act from which their parents are so busy hustling them away, the young can celebrate the priapic rite; but we who have made the acquaintance of their mothers and fathers know the dull hell over which the rooster presides. Although it is a morally ambiguous book Mr. Updike has written, its first moral premise is clear enough: sex, if not sinful in itself, is the readiest attribute or recourse of life bereft of spiritual guidance and purpose. The sexuality through which corrupted or diminished spirit announces itself diminishes and corrupts the spirit yet further. In a (very) generous reading, Mr. Updike’s new novel is thus possibly to be understood as latter-day Aldous Huxley.
Mr. Updike’s book might also be read as. in effect if not in intention, a response to the plea of Norman O. Brown, in Life Against Death, that we return to the joyous sexual Eden of our lost infancy; this would of course make it, as well, a response to and rejection of a major tendency in modern culture: its refusal of the Western civilized heritage. In Life Against Death, we recall, Mr. Brown equates civilization with the genital sexuality which, in the Freudian view, constitutes mature sexuality. For our (failed, as he sees it) genital civilization he would substitute the polymorphous-perverse freedom of the pregenital child. There is no great range of perversity in the sexual practices of Mr. Updike’s characters— but then, how great is the range of perversity in the human imagination? — but what there is could hardly be more polymorphous, pregenital, infantile. The world that Mr. Updike reports upon ends with neither a bang nor a whimper, but to the sound of grown men and women suckling. What Mr. Updike might therefore be interpreted as saying—and it would be a sufficiently important thing to say, so that one would wish the book were worthy of it — is that the choice with which we are presented is not quite so simple as Mr. Brown would have it: it is not a choice between genitality and pregenitality, maturity or infancy. Mr. Updike’s characters move easily between these extremes, their pregenital pleasures as hollow and dreary as the genital pleasures they replace.
The great failure of Mr. Updike’s book is that whatever “significance” he may have meant to give it, it has none except such as the reader may himself supply. The fall from grace of His characters, though exhaustively represented, is never shown to be caused by anything. And the connection to be made between our private and our public fates is similarly unexplained. Although Mr. Updike sets his story against a background of public events in the early sixties — Kennedy’s Administration and death; the beginnings of the Vietnam War — these historical circumstances have only a decorative function. We recognize them as the fashionable trappings of all contemporary fiction that pretends to big meanings.
With nice economy the book is called Couples. It would have been more precise to have called it Coupling, for although everyone in the novel is married, it is difficult to keep it in mind who, at any moment in the story, is a couple with whom. Piet, the chief detonator of the sexual passions of Tarbox, and, in a misleading way, the protagonist of the novel — at least it is in his poor consciousness that much of the author’s own consciousness is made to reside — is married to Angela, but goes to bed with, if memory serves me right, Georgene, Foxy, Carol, and Bea; Marcia is married to Harold, but goes to bed with Frank and Janet; Carol is married to Eddie, but goes to bed not only with Piet but also with Roger and Bea, or is it Ben and Irene; Bea is married to Roger, but goes to bed with Piet and also with . . . No, I admit defeat: there are twenty characters in Couples whose sexual divagations we are asked to follow; the possible permutations, homosexual and heterosexual, tax my mathematics. Suffice it to say that compared with what goes on in Tarbox, Mass., the daisy chains in the novels of Iris Murdoch are little English nosegays.
How these people find the time for their compulsive bed-hoppings is a minor entertainment of Mr. Updike’s novel. One gathers that copulation, or the strategies and manipulations or substitutes thereof, are all that time intends, demands, or contains for the residents of Tarbox; also, by implication, for the rest of America, or a representative part of it. There is a touch — but the merest touch: it reaches us more as impulse than as achievement — of John O’Hara in Couples: Mr. Updike has a certain interest in the structure of American society. The segment of America he puts under inspection includes, naturally, a pair of Jews; in the contemporary spirit, also a pair of Asians. And in ancestry the people Mr. Updike writes about are schematically representative of our national variousness. They are not middle-class but upper-middle-class Americans. What separates the two, according to Mr. Updike — and one is not disposed to argue with him — is education. A major concern of both the men and the women in Couples is whether or not they graduated from college. It is in dealing with the social trauma consequent upon the lack of a “degree” that Mr. Updike makes the kind of mistake O’Hara would never make — we learn, for instance, that Piet, who left college on the death of his parents, had to be taught to use a fork by his college-graduate wife. Class superiority is nevertheless Piet’s by association with his better-certified friends, from whom he apparently picked up his knowledge of French, Shakespeare, and modern art, not to mention a wit which in its literacy, speed, and barb is on the way to being a match for that of A1 bee’s history professor in Virginia Woolf. Here Mr. Updike is of course an accurate social observer: along with the pill, humor is the article most conspicuously consumed in our expanding economy
None of the upper-middle-class men of Tarbox are leisured or, with one exception, rich. They have professions or occupations by which they earn their livings: Piet is a local builder, Eddie a pilot; Harold and Frank are brokers in Boston, Freddy is a local dentist, Ben and Ong and Ken are research scientists. The shoptalk of these toilers in the American vineyards carries about as much conviction as the shoptalk of artists or composers in movies, which is to say that the more substantive it tries to be, the more it demonstrates how little our literary people actually know or care about the world’s work. No matter. In the several years covered by the story, only two of the men lose their jobs, and these not, as we would expect, for gross neglect of duty while in pursuit of more urgent goals. As to the good wives of Tarbox, boastfully servantless, they have a genius for domestic efficiency any female reader might envy, for these are women who, so infrequently upright, can yet manage — we must suppose — to clean, market, cook, wash, tend their children, and even assist in nursery school. One would have thought that just the making of their constantly tumbled beds and the laundering of such bundles of soiled sheets would scarcely leave them time to zip the baby into a snowsuit.
But it is wrong to regard Couples as a novel of social realism, to give one’s attention to its sociology, to pause over the disposition of the time or the energies unspent in sex of Mr. Updike’s characters. The evidence is sufficiently firm that Mr. Updike intended this as a novel not of manners but of morals, and a moralistic novel of morals at that. He means to show us the dark void we build for ourselves, or already inhabit, when lust is the builder. The novel of morals being a serious branch of fiction, the question is whether Mr. Updike has succeeded in giving us a serious book or whether, in final substance, the product of his moral effort is distinguishable from fanciedup pornography.
There has been much, even academic, writing about pornography in recent years. If we examine the criteria determined upon in these studies, we see that Couples meets many of the specifications for pornography: it has the obsessiveness, the repetitiveness, the overtness, the infantilism, the tediousness that differentiate pornographic writing from other fictional work which may deal extensively, or even primarily, with sex.
Two elements are present, however, in Mr. Updike’s novel that are said to be missing, typically, from the pornographic novel. Emotions other than those of merely physical gratification are experienced by Mr. Updike’s characters. They make, or would wish to make, love in their acts of lovemaking. The mating is of persons, however deficient or uninteresting, rather than of bodies. And there is also some degree of resolution in their lives as an outcome of their sexual enterprises, which is not the case in pornography. Eventually the wheel on which these people are turning slows down. A change of pace, if not the abandonment of the sexual preoccupation, is accomplished. It is these elements in Mr. Updike’s book, much more than its larding of social or even political detail, that put it in a category of fiction where it must be judged, not for its powers of titillation or excitation—these are, I am afraid, small — but for its powers of insight, thought, feeling, persuasion. And judged so, Couples is about as sodden a performance, both as a work of the imagination and as prose, as could come from an ambitious writer already established in the ranks of our talented younger novelists.
I can think of no other novel, even in these years of our sexual freedom, as sexually explicit in its language as Mr. Updike’s, as direct in its sexual reporting, as abundant in its sexual activities, and as fondly devoted to recounting them. But to what purpose? I have proposed Mr. Updike’s possible place in the Huxleyan line of moralists, but surely the point about Aldous Huxley was that he regarded our sexual behavior as only one, if perhaps the most obvious, unhappy condition of a civilization to which he opposed himself. A single cogent scene in Eyeless in Gaza, say, made all the statement that book required of the death-in-Iife we can contrive for ourselves by our sexual conduct —it is the scene in which a dog falls from an airplane and splashes on a roof where a couple are making love. Such economy was made possible, even necessary, by Huxley’s gifted awareness of the complexities in which our sexual attitudes are engendered. More than his puritanical aversion from the body, deep as that was, commanded his intelligence.
The sexual redundancies of Mr. Updike’s book get us no farther than, indeed nowhere as far as, Huxley’s scene on the roof. They leave us no room for an imagination of the world from which sex is assumed to offer escape. Whatever his references to current politics, the range of Mr. Updike’s vision of society is no wider, actually, than the beds he explores. His own eye and mind, like ours following his lead, stay pinned on the troubling organs from whose tyranny Mr. Updike presumably would rescue us. Even the fact that his matings are undertaken not simply in lust, but in desperate search for human connection is of no account: the human needs which produce the incessant itch from which Mr. Updike’s characters suffer are, so to speak, lost in the scratching. One does not have to suppose that Mr. Updike intended a pornographic work, one does not have to measure the full betrayal of such purpose as Couples may have had in its inception, to conclude that his novel as a book of life (to borrow a term of D. H. Lawrence’s) does not rise much above pornography.
Nor is it lifted by its prose. Mr. Updike is always overelaborate with words. But at least in Rabbit, Run his worst verbal extravagances could not blind us to his extraordinary capacities as a literary workman: his ability to construct on paper. In Couples, where style is in the service of communicating sensations of body and mind—body-and-mind, I mean which have been either avoided by earlier writers for reasons of taste (or censorship) or else enough investigated by writers intent on extending the frontiers of sexual permissiveness in literature, Mr. Updike is tempted to a new verbal excess, often to the point of nonsense. This much sexual literalness together with this much verbal debauchery makes a wearying combination, as wearying as the combination of sexual debauchery and verbal literalness in conventional pornography.