‘Couples’ by John Updike (1968)

Couples is John Updike’s portrait of sexual passion and realignment amongst a group of young suburban married couples in the fictional town of Tarbox, Massachusetts (a town which takes on an archetypal quality in subsequent works).  Updike’s preoccupations in Couples, and later novels, are with the erotic, with the pain and striving implicit in human relationships and the with sacred (at times explicitly religious) in daily life.

His treatment of these subjects earned him the title of ‘America’s foremost chronicler of the adulterous’, but Updike is also famous for his accompanying, highly charged and ornate prose, the density of which can take some unpicking.  This mastery of language and his descriptive talents are what have also bought comparisons to Nabokov and Proust.  Throughout Couples, it seems to matter little what the object of the description actually is – it could be static and tangible, like a house cat, or less tangible, like a sensation or an unnamable feeling.  Whatever it is being described, Updike manages to get exactly to the core of it, and all around it, bringing back for the reader a description completely unexpected, yet absolutely perfect.  Updike described this aesthetic in his early memoir, The Dogwood Tree (1962):

Blankness is not emptiness; we may skate upon an intense radiance we do not see because we see nothing else. And in fact there is a colour, a quiet but tireless goodness that things at rest, like a brick wall or a small stone, seem to affirm.

In Couples he exemplifies this style, here using Piet to describe Foxy’s slovenly nature and in doing so, telling the reader almost everything they could hope to know about Foxy and her intrinsic self:

‘Oh, I don’t know about that,’ Angela said, preoccupied with, what her shifting in the chair purposed, pouring herself some brandy.  It was five-star Cognac but the only glass was a Flintstone jelly tumbler.  Foxy’s housekeeping had these lapses and loopholes.  Admitted to her house late in the afternoon, Piet would see, through the blonde rainbow of her embrace, breakfast dishes on the coffee table unwashed, and a book she had marked her place in with a dry bit of bacon.  She claimed, when he pointed it out, that she had done it to amuse him; but he had also observed that her underwear was not always clean.

Another aspect to Updike’s style in this novel is his interesting use of narrative.  Voice and time veer, often and unexpectedly, through character and season, so as to create in the reader a sense of floundering that is perfectly matched to the characters’ inner lives.  Updike also manipulates the reader’s feelings towards these characters, forcing the reader to further thrash about.  At the beginning of the novel one feels rather fixed on one’s opinions about each character (Piet elicits sympathy for his stifling life choices and restlessness; Angela is met with scorn for her seeming small-mindedness and aloof nature; Foxy feels warm and most authentic), yet by the end of the novel the reader comes to feel almost the opposite for these characters (and the many others) having travelled there though every other emotion in-between.  At the novel’s climax, the reader is offered a kind of emotional closure through Piet, who has managed to settle his own emotional turmoil and come out the other side of the drama of his marriage and its infidelities.  However, even this, as Updike described in Paris Review, is not a resolution:

There’s also a way, though, I should say in which, with the destruction of the church, with the removal of Piet’s guilt, he becomes insignificant. He becomes merely a name in the last paragraph: he becomes a satisfied person and in a sense dies. In other words, a person who has what he wants, a satisfied person, a content person, ceases to be a person. Unfallen Adam is an ape. Yes, I guess I do feel that. I feel that to be a person is to be in a situation of tension, is to be in a dialectical situation. A truly adjusted person is not a person at all—just an animal with clothes on or a statistic. So that it’s a happy ending, with this ‘but’ at the end.

Couples is inscribed in the sexual revolution of the sixties and the novel is written through with the sense of shifting moral codes and tumultuous politics of the era.  It is a novel written in and about a time of great transition, at once exciting and vertiginious.  Through Couples, the reader witnesses the Cuban Missile Crisis, the loss of the USS Thresher and JFK’s assassination (the aftermath of which the characters experience together at a cocktail party).  The sixties, historically and socially, were the most iconoclastic of all the decades of the twentieth century and Updike’s concern is not just with the shifting times, but with the shift of social mores and the erosion of religious certainty, not dissimilar to nineteenth century fin de siecle anxiety, and further back to the comparable social upheaval of the Renaissance.  In summing up Couples, Updike described this new lack of rules, together with his overarching concern around the pain and self-destruction seemingly inherent in human relationships:

The book is, of course, not about sex as such: It’s about sex as the emergent religion, as the only thing left.


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