Wednesday, July 22, 2009

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


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.

15 comments:

Ahistoricality said...

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.

I know you're trying to be funny, but it's still lousy science and bad history.

Tenured Radical said...

I thought you were going to say it was bad taste......

Historiann said...

I object to Ahistoricality's objection to TR's funny comment. Furthermore, it's not at all in bad taste. Can we grow a sense of humor? Middle-class women are talked into thinking everything is in their control now, which also means that everything is their fault, and that little Carter's prematurity or ADD or drug problem probably has something to do with that Ding-Dong they ate one day when they were 11.5 weeks pregnant, and foolishly washed down with a half-caf latte. Ridiculous. "Bad science" is suggesting to women that a whiff of cigarette smoke or a 3.2 beer with a baby on board is responsible for everything wrong with the child up until at least age 50.

I don't remember the 60s, but I was one of those fetuses in that decade lightly marinated in alcohol and tobacco, as was Dr. Mister Historiann. (And, my mother was probably one of those kids in the 50s who followed the DDT truck around the neighborhood playing in the fog.) I think our mothers had much more enjoyable pregnancies than most of the people I know who have been pregnant in the 90s and 2000s.

Oh, but I know: it's not funny to suggest that pregnancy or motherhood should be fun for women. It's *all about the children* now!

Ahistoricality said...

Taste is subjective: I'm talking about epidemiology, medicine and the history of disability.

I think the draconian approach to pregnancy is almost certainly wrong -- the human body is a shockingly resilient system (I say shockingly because we humans can't actually create anything with a thousandth of the complexity without it being terribly failure-prone) -- but the science showing that healthier lifestyles during pregnancy produce healthier children on average, in aggregate is quite sound. That most people don't understand statistics, have zero tolerance for 'risk,' and behave like jerks towards women is beside the point. And the "learning disabilities that we now recognize" still existed in the past but used to be classified differently, and treated very differently, as well.

Historiann said...

Ahistoricality--fair enough. Thanks for elaborating further.

I agree that learning disabilities were labeled and treated differently in the 1960s and 1970s.

annieem said...

TR: Thank you for the nicely contextualized review. I've always avoided reading this novel (the Rabbit books bored me), but now I'm intrigued (and in the historical zone, so to speak, as I'm deeply engaged in early '60s "Mad Men" season 2).

Bess said...

interesting-- I have been semi-reading Updike's "Memories of the Ford Administration" which is a recommended read (if overly long) for American historians. There is also a lot of adultery and a lot of rules and generally the men end up as miserable as the women-- but MAN the descriptions of women (both in the 70s and in the flashback parts, which take place in the 1850s) are gruesome. Visceral, embodied hatred often focused quite literally on vaginas. It's sort of funny and sort of terrible to read.

squadratomagico said...

I just want to say I love the post name: Adultery Carnival. It's just so festive!

Anonymous said...

Isn't it that smoking tried to make the babies little and undiagnosed gestational diabetes tried to make them small so we wound up in the middle?

Anonymous said...

opps I meant undiagnosed gestational diabetes tried to make them big

anthony grafton said...

Thanks for a great piece of writing on a not great, but rich and interesting (and in part infuriating) novel, which I read long ago and have never been able to forget. I love the way you combine sharp and merited criticism with lucid appreciation of what's distinctive and retains some power in U.

LadyProf said...

Ahistoricality's "I know you're trying to be funny" startled me, because I read TR totally literally (as is my wont). Although some people think the ideal quantity of "caffeine, nicotine and booze" for a pregnant woman to consume is zero, I am not among them. Dan Savage wrote in his book "The Kid" that whatever quantity of substances his kid's mother consumed while she was pregnant was obviously exactly right. He may have been trying to be funny, but he was making a serious point at the same time. Pregnant women are more than containers, people.

LadyProf said...

Oh, and I endorse every word of anthony grafton's.

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading The Lost Daughter by Daralyse Lyons which has a very different slant on the subject of adultery. It manages to present the issue without shame or moral relativism. This is a text wherein the psychological impact of roles is called into question at every turn. I’m just beginning Updike’s work so can’t yet compare, but I highly suggest Lyons’ rich and multi-layered text

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