Adultery Carnival: John Updike’s Couples and the Sexual Revolution

July 22, 2009, 5:35 pm

John Updike, Couples (New York: Fawcett Books, 1996). Originally published 1968. 458 pp. $14.95

I don’t know whether I meant to bring two books about adultery on vacation but I did, and the contrast between Jed Mercurio’s American Adulterer and John Updike’s Couples provoked many thoughts about the shift in our sexual culture as seen through this knotty, diverse practice. One important similarity in the two books is what has not changed: adultery generates its own complex rules so that adulterers can evade and break other rules. In other words, the adulterer, although perhaps motivated by a desire to be free, is never truly free.

But the differences are also interesting, particularly since both novels describe the same historical moment, the early 1960s. While Updike’s adulterers operate as a community and literally as couples who protect each other, Mercurio’s adulterer in chief, JFK, operates absolutely privately, his privacy protected (however imperfectly) by his command of the nation’s political machinery. Both books highlight corruption, but differently. In American Adulterer, the body of the president literally rots under the weight of his corruption, even as Kennedy tries to alleviate it by public acts (desegregation, nuclear treaties) and a snowballing sex life that he believes will alleviate these same infirmities. In Couples, however, it is ultimately the community that rots under the weight of accumulated fornication: wives go to therapy to understand their unhappiness (aka, “frigidity”) and one ultimately work up the courage to leave her husband. A farewell fuck turns into disaster and two marriages explode, something all the couples have believed impossible because it is against their complex, unspoken code of rules. And in a final act of fate, the Congregational Church in the town’s center is struck by lightning and burns to the ground as the whole town watches.

The hand of God, in an act of judgement that expresses her disgust with the lot of them? I think so.

Couples is delightfully dated and a little corny now, as that last example suggests. Like American Adulterer, it evokes the New Frontier of the early 1960s, when anything seemed possible but wasn’t, because it was tied to such complex, political deal-making and old ideas that refused to give way. The sexual culture it depicts is a kind of middle-class “loosening” that predated a more popular realization that something dramatic was shifting in a Cold War suburban social structure that had theoretically contained American sexuality forever.

Ha. For those of us who grew up then, Couples offers rich, believable descriptions of the informal backyard parties that came together on long summer days in suburban cul-de-sacs, cook outs where the children stayed up just late enough for the ice cream truck and were put to bed Popsicle-stained while the drunken adults were just catching their second wind. One of the characters, Foxy, drinks and smokes her way through a pregnancy, making me wonder again why everyone is so freaked out about what gestating mothers put in their bodies. (I would like to point out, for example, that the catalogue of learning disabilities that we now recognize only appeared in the generation of children born after caffeine, nicotine and booze were stricken from the expectant mother’s diet. Is a little pickling good for a fetus?)

Some of Couples‘ dated quality is not so delightful. The reader sometimes stumbles across a casual, non-ironic liberal racism that both takes her breath away and, I would have to say, is historically pretty accurate, even though I suspect they wouldn’t let people write such things today. There is also a nasty, misogynistic quality to the book that is sometimes self-conscious and sometimes not. For example, two of the women who go into therapy — one who is pressured into a “swinging” relationship by her husband and the other couple, and the other of whom doesn’t cheat at all on her philandering husband — punish their spouses, but passive-aggressively and appropriately within the system of gender-power. The first wife has an affair she doesn’t really want to have and then, after capitulating to the swinging, forces all three of the others into talking about her all the time. The latter wife mostly refuses to have intercourse with her husband (hence, allowing him to excuse himself for sleeping with other women) and also refuses him daily forms of affection and intimacy.

And yet, Updike — for all he was, I think, not interested in feminism — plants the seeds of the women’s movement to come in the novel. At least one wife has learned, when she boots her husband out, that his philandering has been a form of bullying. She learns that by accepting his professions of love and believing his lies, she has been a safety net for him, preventing any other woman from making a new claim that would end his sexual freedom. A six year-old daughter is unnaturallly obsessed with death: by the end of the book, you realize that it is the death of her parents’ marriage she has been witnessing and that she is the only one in the family with the courage to break the rules and speak about it. And a third woman, admitting to her mother that she probably had an affair to break up her own marriage, tells her mother that it wasn’t that she didn’t love her husband — but that she married the man her parents chose for her, not the one she would have chosen.

To me, this makes Couples not just an interesting account of the sexual revolution, but a comment on Updike as a writer in a generation of writers — Norman Mailer, Philip Roth — who wrote obsessively about women but didn’t like women very much. Updike is, like Roth and Mailer, far more interested in men than women: the sexual liberation of men is described through abundant, interior narratives; and for women, not so much. We don’t know what women really feel; only what they tell men, and what men intuit. Furthermore, the two women who do leave their husbands are able to do so because they have family money, something Updike never acknowledges, fathers who are willing to step in and play the role of husbands for however long is necessary until they marry again. This failure to acknowledge the vulnerability of women to a sexual culture run by men’s rules and men’s financial power, is like a sore tooth throughout the book. I kept reading happily, but it irked me all the same, and I couldn’t stop poking at it. That said, unlike Mailer and Roth, Updike was a fanatically keen observer of women: his female characters make sense, they are different in their femaleness, and their differences are expressed often through sexual and self-knowledge far more complex than his male characters have access to.

One final note: for a book published in 1968, it’s extraordinarily explicit. Not only was Updike predicting a sea change in middle class sexuality, he was on the cutting edge of a cultural revolution in which explicit sexual expression would become a core feature of novels, movies and the theater.

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