For a literary culture that fears it is on the brink of total annihilation, we are awfully cavalier about the Great Male Novelists of the last century. It has become popular to denounce those authors, and more particularly to deride the sex scenes in their novels. Even the young male writers who, in the scope of their ambition, would appear to be the heirs apparent have repudiated the aggressive virility of their predecessors.
After reading a sex scene in Philip Roth’s latest novel, “The Humbling,” someone I know threw the book into the trash on a subway platform. It was not exactly feminist rage that motivated her. We have internalized the feminist critique pioneered by Kate Millett in “Sexual Politics” so completely that, as one of my students put it, “we can do the math ourselves.” Instead my acquaintance threw the book away on the grounds that the scene was disgusting, dated, redundant. But why, I kept wondering, did she have to throw it out? Did it perhaps retain a little of the provocative fire its author might have hoped for? Dovetailing with this private and admittedly limited anecdote, there is a punitive, vituperative quality in the published reviews that is always revealing of something larger in the culture, something beyond one aging writer’s failure to produce fine enough sentences. All of which is to say: How is it possible that Philip Roth’s sex scenes are still enraging us?
In the early novels of Roth and his cohort there was in their dirty passages a sense of novelty, of news, of breaking out. Throughout the ’60s, with books like “An American Dream,” “Herzog,” “Rabbit, Run,” “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “Couples,” there was a feeling that their authors were reporting from a new frontier of sexual behavior: adultery, anal sex, oral sex, threesomes — all of it had the thrill of the new, or at least of the newly discussed. When “Couples,” John Updike’s tour de force of extramarital wanderlust set in a small New England town called Tarbox, came out in 1968, a Time magazine cover article declared that “the sexual scenes, and the language that accompanies them, are remarkably explicit, even for this new age of total freedom of expression.”
These novelists were writing about the bedrooms of middle-class life with the thrill of the censors at their backs, with the 1960 obscenity trial over “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” fresh in their minds. They would bring their talent, their analytic insights, their keen writerly observation, to the most intimate, most unspeakable moments, and the exhilaration, the mischief, the crackling energy was in the prose. These young writers — Mailer, Roth, Updike — were taking up the X‑rated subject matter of John O’Hara and Henry Miller, but with a dash of modern journalism splashed in.
In Philip Roth’s phenomenally successful 1969 novel “Portnoy’s Complaint,” the Jewish hero sleeps his way into mainstream America through the narrow loins of a series of crazy harridans and accommodating lovelies. But are the sex scenes meant to be taken seriously? In “The Counterlife,” Roth’s alter ego, the writer Nathan Zuckerman, calls himself a “sexual satirist,” and in that book and others Roth’s sex scenes do manage to be both comic and dirty at the same time: “The sight of the Zipper King’s daughter sitting on the edge of the bathtub with her legs flung apart, wantonly surrendering all 5 feet 9 inches of herself to a vegetable, was as mysterious and compelling a vision as any Zuckerman had ever seen.”
Roth’s explicit passages walk a fine, difficult line between darkness, humor and lust, and somehow the male hero emerges from all the comic clauses breathless, glorified. There is in these scenes rage, revenge and some garden-variety sexism, but they are — in their force, in their gale winds, in their intelligence — charismatic, a celebration of the virility of their bookish, yet oddly irresistible, protagonists. As the best scenes spool forward, they are maddening, beautiful, eloquent and repugnant all at once. One does not have to like Roth, or Zuckerman, or Portnoy, to admire the intensely narrated spectacle of their sexual adventures. Part of the suspense of a Roth passage, the tautness, the brilliance, the bravado in the sentences themselves, the high-wire performance of his prose, is how infuriating and ugly and vain he can be without losing his readers (and then every now and then he actually goes ahead and loses them).
In 1960, the 28-year-old Updike solidified his emerging reputation as the author of eerily beautiful stories with his novel “Rabbit, Run,” about a lanky ex-basketball player turned kitchen utensil salesman, Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, who runs off from his family, has sex with a plump and promiscuous mistress and comes home to a wife who has drunkenly drowned their newborn baby. A few years later, Norman Mailer told Updike he should get back in the whorehouse and stop worrying about his prose style. But that was Updike’s unnerving gift: to be frank and aestheticizing all at once, to do poetry and whorehouse. In “Couples,” a graphic description of oral sex includes “the floral surfaces of her mouth.” In “Rabbit, Run,” we read of “lovely wobbly bubbles, heavy: perfume between. Taste, salt and sour, swirls back with his own saliva.” The hallmark of Updike’s sex scenes is the mingling of his usual brutal realism with a stepped-up rapture, a harsh scrutiny combined with prettiness. Everything is rose, milky, lilac, and then suddenly it is not.
For Rabbit, as with many Updike characters, sex offers an escape, an alternate life — a reprieve, even, in its finest moments, from mortality. In the Time cover article, Updike describes adultery as an “imaginative quest.” In “Marry Me,” among other books, he expands on the theme that leaving one marriage for another doesn’t resolve our deeper malaise, but he is interested in the motion, in the fantasy, in the impulse toward renewal: it is Rabbit running that he loves. As one of the characters in “Couples” puts it, adultery “is a way of giving yourself adventures. Of getting out in the world and seeking knowledge.”
Saul Bellow shared Updike’s interest in sexual adventuring, in a great, splashy, colorful comic-book war between men and women. Moses Herzog, he writes, “will never understand what women want. What do they want? They eat green salad and drink human blood.” Bellow’s novels are populated with dark, voluptuous, generous, maybe foreign Renatas and Ramonas, who are mistresses; and then there are the wives, shrewish, smart, treacherous, angular. While his sex scenes are generally more gentlemanly than those of Roth et al., he manages to get across something of his tussle with these big, fleshy, larger-than-life ladies: “Ramona had not learned those erotic monkey-shines in a manual, but in adventure, in confusion, and at times probably with a sinking heart, in brutal and often alien embraces.”
In his disordered, sprawling novels, Mailer takes a hopped-up, quasi-religious view of sex, with flights of D. H. Lawrence-inspired mysticism and a special interest in sodomy. In “An American Dream,” he describes a woman’s genitals: “It was no graveyard now, no warehouse, no, more like a chapel now, a modest decent place, but its walls were snug, its odor was green, there was a sweetness in the chapel.”
Mailer’s most controversial obsession is the violence in sex, the urge toward domination in its extreme. A sampling: “I wounded her, I knew it, she thrashed beneath me like a trapped little animal, making not a sound.” “He must subdue her, absorb her, rip her apart and consume her.” It is part of Mailer’s existentialism, his singular, loopy philosophy, that violence is good, natural and healthy, and it is this in his sex scenes that provokes. As in many of Mailer’s ventures, like his famous campaign for mayor of New York, it’s not entirely clear how much he means it and how much is for fun, for the virile show.
It would be too simple to call the explicit interludes of this new literature pornographic, as pornography has one purpose: to arouse. These passages are after several things at once — sadness, titillation, beauty, fear, comedy, disappointment, aspiration. The writers were interested in showing not just the triumphs of sexual conquest, but also its loneliness, its failures of connection. In his unruly defense of sexually explicit male literature in “The Prisoner of Sex,” Mailer wrote: “He has spent his literary life exploring the watershed of sex from that uncharted side which goes by the name of lust and it is an epic work for any man. . . . Lust exhibits all the attributes of junk. It dominates the mind and other habits, it appropriates loyalties, generalizes character, leaches character out, rides on the fuel of almost any emotional gas — whether hatred, affection, curiosity, even the pressures of boredom — yet it is never definable because it can alter to love or be as suddenly sealed from love.”
In the intervening decades, the feminists objected; the public consumed; the novelists themselves were much decorated. And then somewhat to their surprise, the old guard got old. In books like Roth’s “Exit Ghost” and Updike’s “Toward the End of Time,” they began to take up the subject of impotence in various forms. Was it possible that the young literary gods had fallen? Roth wrote in “Zuckerman Unbound”: “Life has its own flippant ideas about how to handle serious fellows like Zuckerman. All you have to do is wait and it teaches you all there is to know about the art of mockery.”
And so we come back to the copy of “The Humbling” in the garbage can on the subway platform. The problem with the sex scenes in Philip Roth’s late work is not that they are pornographic, but that they fail as pornography. One feels that the author’s heart is not in it, that he is just going through the motions; one feels the impatient old master mapping out scenes (dildo, threesome), not writing them. The threesome in “The Humbling” has none of the quirkiness, the energy, the specificity of the threesomes in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” either the one where “the Monkey” eats a banana and gets her name, or the one where they pick up an Italian prostitute who later brings her son, all dressed up in his Sunday best, to see them. In the stripped-down later novels (“Everyman,” “Exit Ghost,” “Indignation”), Roth seems to have dispensed with the detail and idiosyncratic richness of his earlier work. As he writes about old men failing at sex, and raging about failing at sex, we see the old writer failing at writing about sex, which is, of course, a spectacle much more heartbreaking.
At this point, one might be thinking: enter the young men, stage right. But our new batch of young or youngish male novelists are not dreaming up Portnoys or Rabbits. The current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex. Prototypical is a scene in Dave Eggers’s road trip novel, “You Shall Know Our Velocity,” where the hero leaves a disco with a woman and she undresses and climbs on top of him, and they just lie there: “Her weight was the ideal weight and I was warm and wanted her to be warm”; or the relationship in Benjamin Kunkel’s “Indecision”: “We were sleeping together brother-sister style and mostly refraining from outright sex.”
Characters in the fiction of the heirs apparent are often repelled or uncomfortable when faced with a sexual situation. In “Infinite Jest,” David Foster Wallace writes: “He had never once had actual intercourse on marijuana. Frankly, the idea repelled him. Two dry mouths bumping at each other, trying to kiss, his self-conscious thoughts twisting around on themselves like a snake on a stick while he bucked and snorted dryly above her.” With another love interest, “his shame at what she might on the other hand perceive as his slimy phallocentric conduct toward her made it easier for him to avoid her, as well.” Gone the familiar swagger, the straightforward artistic reveling in the sexual act itself. In Kunkel’s version: “Maybe I was going to get lucky, something which, I reminded myself, following her up the stairs to our room and giving her ass a good review, wasn’t always a piece of unmixed luck, and shouldn’t automatically be hoped for any more than feared.”
Rather than an interest in conquest or consummation, there is an obsessive fascination with trepidation, and with a convoluted, postfeminist second-guessing. Compare Kunkel’s tentative and guilt-ridden masturbation scene in “Indecision” with Roth’s famous onanistic exuberance with apple cores, liver and candy wrappers in “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Kunkel: “Feeling extremely uncouth, I put my penis away. I might have thrown it away if I could.” Roth also writes about guilt, of course, but a guilt overridden and swept away, joyously subsumed in the sheer energy of taboo smashing: “How insane whipping out my joint like that! Imagine what would have been had I been caught red-handed! Imagine if I had gone ahead.” In other words, one rarely gets the sense in Roth that he would throw away his penis if he could.
The literary possibilities of their own ambivalence are what beguile this new generation, rather than anything that takes place in the bedroom. In Michael Chabon’s “Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” a woman in a green leather miniskirt and no underwear reads aloud from “The Story of O,” and the protagonist says primly, “I refuse to flog you.” Then take the following descriptions from Jonathan Franzen’s novel “The Corrections”: “As a seducer, he was hampered by ambivalence.” “He had, of course, been a lousy, anxious lover.” “He could hardly believe she hadn’t minded his attacks on her, all his pushing and pawing and poking. That she didn’t feel like a piece of meat that he’d been using.” (And of course there are writers like Jonathan Safran Foer who avoid the corruptions of adult sexuality by choosing children and virgins as their protagonists.)
The same crusading feminist critics who objected to Mailer, Bellow, Roth and Updike might be tempted to take this new sensitivity or softness or indifference to sexual adventuring as a sign of progress (Mailer called these critics “the ladies with their fierce ideas.”) But the sexism in the work of the heirs apparent is simply wilier and shrewder and harder to smoke out. What comes to mind is Franzen’s description of one of his female characters in “The Corrections”: “Denise at 32 was still beautiful.” To the esteemed ladies of the movement I would suggest this is not how our great male novelists would write in the feminist utopia.
The younger writers are so self-conscious, so steeped in a certain kind of liberal education, that their characters can’t condone even their own sexual impulses; they are, in short, too cool for sex. Even the mildest display of male aggression is a sign of being overly hopeful, overly earnest or politically untoward. For a character to feel himself, even fleetingly, a conquering hero is somehow passé. More precisely, for a character to attach too much importance to sex, or aspiration to it, to believe that it might be a force that could change things, and possibly for the better, would be hopelessly retrograde. Passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite, are somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life. These are writers in love with irony, with the literary possibility of self-consciousness so extreme it almost precludes the minimal abandon necessary for the sexual act itself, and in direct rebellion against the Roth, Updike and Bellow their college girlfriends denounced. (Recounting one such denunciation, David Foster Wallace says a friend called Updike “just a penis with a thesaurus”).
This generation of writers is suspicious of what Michael Chabon, in “Wonder Boys,” calls “the artificial hopefulness of sex.” They are good guys, sensitive guys, and if their writing is denuded of a certain carnality, if it lacks a sense of possibility, of expansiveness, of the bewildering, transporting effects of physical love, it is because of a certain cultural shutting down, a deep, almost puritanical disapproval of their literary forebears and the shenanigans they lived through.
In a vitriolic attack on Updike’s “Toward the End of Time,” David Foster Wallace said of the novel’s narrator, Ben Turnbull, that “he persists in the bizarre adolescent idea that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants is a cure for ontological despair,” and that Updike himself “makes it plain that he views the narrator’s impotence as catastrophic, as the ultimate symbol of death itself, and he clearly wants us to mourn it as much as Turnbull does. I’m not especially offended by this attitude; I mostly just don’t get it.”
In this same essay, Wallace goes on to attack Updike and, in passing, Roth and Mailer for being narcissists. But does this mean that the new generation of novelists is not narcissistic? I would suspect, narcissism being about as common among male novelists as brown eyes in the general public, that it does not. It means that we are simply witnessing the flowering of a new narcissism: boys too busy gazing at themselves in the mirror to think much about girls, boys lost in the beautiful vanity of “I was warm and wanted her to be warm,” or the noble purity of being just a tiny bit repelled by the crude advances of the desiring world.
After the sweep of the last half-century, our bookshelves look different than they did to the young Kate Millett, drinking her nightly martini in her downtown apartment, shoring up her courage to take great writers to task in “Sexual Politics” for the ways in which their sex scenes demeaned, insulted or oppressed women. These days the revolutionary attitude may be to stop dwelling on the drearier aspects of our more explicit literature. In contrast to their cautious, entangled, ambivalent, endlessly ironic heirs, there is something almost romantic in the old guard’s view of sex: it has a mystery and a power, at least. It makes things happen.
Kate Millett might prefer that Norman Mailer have a different taste in sexual position, or that Bellow’s fragrant ladies bear slightly less resemblance to one another, or that Rabbit not sleep with his daughter-in-law the day he comes home from heart surgery, but there is in these old paperbacks an abiding interest in the sexual connection.
Compared with the new purity, the self-conscious paralysis, the self-regarding ambivalence, Updike’s notion of sex as an “imaginative quest” has a certain vanished grandeur. The fluidity of Updike’s Tarbox, with its boozy volleyball games and adulterous couples copulating alfresco, has disappeared into the Starbucks lattes and minivans of our current suburbs, and our towns and cities are more solid, our marriages safer; we have landed upon a more conservative time. Why, then, should we be bothered by our literary lions’ continuing obsession with sex? Why should it threaten our insistent modern cynicism, our stern belief that sex is no cure for what David Foster Wallace called “ontological despair”? Why don’t we look at these older writers, who want to defeat death with sex, with the same fondness as we do the inventors of the first, failed airplanes, who stood on the tarmac with their unwieldy, impossible machines, and looked up at the sky?
More Articles in Books »A version of this article appeared in print on January 3, 2010, on page BR1 of the New York edition.
APRIL 21, 2016
LIKE SO MANY WOMEN who came of age after the turn of the millennium, I was warned about John Updike almost as soon as I became aware of him. There was David Foster Wallace, who, in a 1997 review, popularized the epithet (attributed to a female friend), “Just a penis with a thesaurus.” Then there was the writer Emily Gould, who placed him among the “midcentury misogynists” — a pantheon that also included Roth, Mailer, and Bellow. Perhaps most memorably, there was novelist and essayist Anna Shapiro, who claimed that Updike’s novels left the female reader “hoping that the men in your own life weren’t, secretly, seeing you that way — as a collection of compelling sexual organs the possession of which doomed you to ridicule-worthy tastes and concerns.”
Such complaints were pervasive enough by the time I began reading that it was easy for me to dismiss his oeuvre entirely. I would love to concoct some sororal ceremony in which I lay my right hand on Sexual Politics and solemnly swear him off, but, in truth, the decision was more incremental, and my reasons more trivial. The criticism I’d read made his writing sound dull. There were too many good books in the world to waste time on prose that was vitiated by ego and roundly despised by writers I admired, and so each time I had the opportunity to read a new author, I chose something else.
In an earlier era, I suppose I would have been made to feel guilty for failing to read an author who is widely considered one of the greatest prose writers of all time. But ignoring him was surprisingly easy. In college, his name had been expurgated from syllabi, replaced with Paula Fox, Joan Didion, and James Baldwin. His true fans, whatever pockets still existed, seemed closeted, hesitant to offer recommendations. Once, in graduate school, I’d griped to a male professor that there were too few novels in the world with believable dialogue. He recommended a few authors, and I dutifully wrote down their names. Then he paused, as though deliberating, and added with a wince, “Also, I hate to say it, but — Updike.” It wasn’t until later that day, browsing the public library for a copy of Rabbit, Run (it was checked out), that I realized it was the same sheepish look assumed by boys at my high school when conceding that Hooters did, actually, have excellent wings.
Earlier this year, I was on vacation in Florida, staying in a low midcentury complex four blocks from the beach. The apartment had terrazzo floors, jalousie windows, and a kitchen outfitted in those matching turquoise appliances manufactured by GE in the 1950s. It was like living in an episode of Mad Men. In the backyard, near the pool, stood a laundry hutch filled with used books left by past visitors. It was there, among a shelf crowded with the embossed titles of Dan Brown and John Grisham, that I discovered a first edition of Couples. The dustcover bore a sketch of William Blake’s “Adam and Eve Sleeping” washed in turquoise — the same chlorinated blue as the pool and the retro appliances. Maybe it was the tropical air that loosened my defenses and called to mind the promise of that gorgeous prose I’d heard so much about. I decided it was time to give the old letch a shot.
Couples was published in the late ’60s, but its story begins in the early years of that decade. Piet, the protagonist, is a 35-year-old building contractor who lives with his family in a fictional Massachusetts town called Tarbox, an old fishing village that has been recently colonized by young waspy couples who find its decay charming. The narrative point of view often veers away from Piet and travels promiscuously amongst this circle of couples who spend their plentiful leisure hours playing tennis, hosting dinner parties, and renovating their old saltbox houses. Of this milieu, Updike writes: “They belonged to that segment of their generation of the upper middle class which mildly rebelled against the confinement and discipline whereby wealth maintained its manners during the upheavals of depression and world war.” These mild rebellions are not political, but aesthetic.
Fenced off from their own parents by nursemaids and tutors and “help,” they would personally rear large intimate families; they changed diapers with their own hands, did their own housework and home repairs, gardened and shoveled snow with a sense of strengthened health. Chauffeured, as children, in black Packards and Chryslers, they drove second-hand cars in an assortment of candy colors. Exiled early to boarding schools, they resolved to use and improve the local public schools. Having suffered under their parents’ rigid marriages and formalized evasions, they sought to substitute an essential fidelity set in a matrix of easy and open companionship among couples. For the forms of the country club they substituted informal membership in a circle of friends and participation in a cycle of parties and games. […] Duty and work yielded as ideals to truth and fun. Virtue was no longer sought in temple or market place but in the home — one’s own home, and then the homes of one’s friends.
The passage immediately called to mind the opening pages of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, in which a contingent of white suburban exiles colonizes a not-yet-gentrified city neighborhood in order “to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn.” Perhaps all bourgeois generations see themselves in similarly pragmatic terms. Beneath the antiquated details of Updike’s description, there are surely echoes of my own generation, whose mild rebellions have involved learning to make Greek yogurt from scratch and building tiny houses out of reclaimed wood.
But the residents of Tarbox are also steadfast products of their time, an era wedged awkwardly between the explosion of psychoanalysis and the sexual revolution. Whatever subversive pleasure they initially took in shoveling their own driveways and rambling about the garden soon gives way to more carnal pursuits. Secretive affairs evolve into more transparent experimentations with spouse-swapping, and soon, the matrix of open marriages becomes so cross-pollinated it’s difficult to keep track of who’s swiving whom. The women have begun going to analysis, the men are hopped up on Freud’s 1920 essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle — and all of the attendant sexual experimentation has been made possible by the invention of oral contraceptives. The first time Piet cheats on his wife, with her friend Georgene, the mistress replies to his anxious query about birth control with a serene laugh. “Welcome,” she says, “to the post-pill paradise.”
While the women in the novel are not without sexual agency, there’s an obvious power imbalance in all of this experimentation. Even when they initiate affairs, the women are never in control of them; it is the men who dictate the terms and invariably decide when and how they will end. More often than not, women are forced to use sex as a kind of currency — for revenge, for equality — and when they need furtive abortions, they are compelled to trade prurient acts for medical assistance. While the book is not exactly sympathetic to them, the reality of these conditions is rendered with a sharp eye, through characters who are emotionally convincing. For what it’s worth, the book does not pretend that swinging — still referred to in those days as “wife-swapping” — benefited all parties in equal measure.
Still, there was plenty in the book that lived up to Updike’s contemporary reputation: women who think things no woman would think (“She had wanted to bear Ken a child, to brew his excellence in her warmth.”); conversations between women that manage to pass the Bechdel test — in brief: having two women speak to each other about a topic other than a man — only by way of topics related to home renovation; and a panoply of unsettling metaphors (“He fought against her as a raped woman might struggle, to intensify the deed”). There are many passages in which Updike’s prodigious gifts as a prose artist are given over to the effects of gravity on women’s bodies. Nobody can write the female body in decay quite like Updike. So clinical and unrelenting is his gaze, he manages to call attention to signs of aging that even I — someone in possession of a female body — had never considered. “Age had touched only the softened line of her jaw and her hands,” he writes of Piet’s wife Angela, “their stringy backs and reddened fingertips.”
The book, when it was published in 1968, landed Updike on the cover of Time and sparked a fury of handwringing about the country’s loosened sexual mores. It appears to have captured that glinting moment in time before swinging became a lifestyle choice and seemed, instead, like a revelation — like something everyone should be doing all the time and from which no ill consequences could be conceived. The novel has often been twinned with Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, but its closest analogue is probably the film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, released the year after Couples was published, about a pair of LA couples who decide to experiment with open marriages. Like the thirtysomethings of that film, the residents of Tarbox are too old by the time the country splits apart to join the psychedelic bandwagon, too settled to develop anything like a political imagination. Instead, they use sex as a kind of spiritual salve, a way of keeping their fear of death at bay. “The book is, of course, not about sex as such,” Updike said in one interview. “It’s about sex as the emergent religion, as the only thing left.”
What intrigued me most about Couples, though, was the sense of doom that undercuts the orgy. Throughout the book, Piet suffers from nightmares. In one, he dreams he’s on a plane that is crashing. He feels the cabin jolt and grips his seat as “the curtains hiding the first-class section billowed.” In another, he envisions himself asleep on a frozen pond in the first stages of thaw: “Heavy as lead he lay on the thinnest of ice.” Given Updike’s abiding thematic preoccupations, it’s no great mystery what darkness these dreams portend. “Death stretched endless under him,” Piet realizes upon wakening. But the novel is too steeped in the theories of Freud to take the symbolism of such visions literally. Thanatos, after all, is a god with many faces. There is another kind of death, the kind that is synonymous with castration. (“The plane had plunged,” he marvels recalling his dream, “and he had been without resources, unchurched, unmanned.”) And there is the kind of death that is social, a disruption of the crusty white patriarchal hierarchies that have given rise to this idyll.
Early in the novel, there is a strange moment between Piet and one of his construction operators, “a Negro,” whom he chats up one morning at a building site. Piet asks the man whether he’s encountered any Indian graves during excavation, and the man admits that he has dug up a few bones here and there. When Piet asks what he does when he encounters them, the operator replies, “Man, I keep movin’,” an admission that Piet finds hilarious: “Piet laughed, feeling released, forgiven, touched and hugged by something human arrived from a great distance, imagining behind the casually spoken words a philosophy, a night life.” He’s taken aback when he realizes the man is not laughing along with him. “The Negro’s lips went aloof, as if to say that laughter would no longer serve as a sop to his race.”
The moment haunts Piet. He mentions it later to his mistress, referring to it as a “snub,” though he “could not specifically locate the cause of his depression, his sense of unconnection.” He’s equally unhinged by Georgene’s insouciance about sex, and recalls her words about the “post-pill paradise” at several moments throughout the novel, like a bellwether of some uncertain future. Tarbox may be paradise, but there is a snake in the garden, and beyond its lush parameters, a storm is gathering.
Indeed, the women of Tarbox become more politically conscious as the story marches through the first half of the decade. Many wives join the Fair Housing Committee; others instigate drunken rows about school integration during the wee, dwindling hours of dinner parties. But Piet, like his male counterparts in town, finds such crusades tiresome. “Politics bored Piet,” the narrator notes. His wife drags him along to town meetings, where he passively listens to the townspeople discuss collective agendas, cringing as their eyes “lift in hope toward wholly imagined stars.” Piet himself can only feel that celestial ecstasy within the sanctuary of the bedroom. In addition to filling in the lacuna left by religion, sex is supposed to be a surrogate for civic engagement within the moral universe of the novel.
But Piet fails to see the way in which sex itself is becoming political. He has reason to be disturbed by his mistress’s welcome into that uncertain paradise. If advanced contraception makes married women more likely to sleep with you, it also means that your own wife (as Piet soon discovers) is more willing to sleep around. It likewise means that women might decide not to marry or have children at all, upending the whole bourgeois religion. The privileged utopia of Tarbox, after all, depends not only on a steady influx of sex, but also on wives who are willing to change diapers with their own hands and cook roast lamb with mint jelly for parties of 14.
The year following the debut of Couples, Kate Millett published Sexual Politics, which called attention to how sexual relations in the novels of D.H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer, and Henry Miller were informed by patriarchic ideals. The ’70s would usher in a new wave of feminist critics — in Mailer’s words “the ladies with their fierce ideas” — who forever problematized the dominance of that coterie once regarded as the Great Male Novelists. Updike’s later books would more consciously wrestle with the specter of his feminist critics, particularly in the satirical parable The Witches of Eastwick (a 1984 novel he confessed was written in a spirit of chauvinism) and its more troublesome sequel.
It’s hard to imagine that Updike understood, while writing Couples, the full bearing that the Civil Rights movement or the women’s movement would have on the culture, not to mention his own legacy. In the end, the novel is not primarily interested in these upheavals, and Updike gave no indication in interviews that the novel’s sense of foreboding was meant to symbolize anything other than death. But novels are never unadulterated acts of will — so goes the intentional fallacy. It’s arguable, in fact, that the possession of an outsized ego makes a writer even more oblivious to his own vulnerability, making the writing itself more porous to the kinds of anxieties that even Updike himself, with his capacious vocabulary, had difficulty giving a name. Couples, like all great novels, can and has been read in myriad ways, but among them it might be regarded as a document of one man’s fears about the limits of his own dominion — his dawning premonition that paradise is tenuous, and his to lose.
Meghan O’Gieblyn is a writer who lives in Michigan. She is the recipient of a 2016 Pushcart Prize and her essays and reviews have appeared most recently in The Guardian, Oxford American, The Point, Guernica, and Boston Review.