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.