Monday, August 24, 2009

John Updike - Couples

After reading some of my work, a teacher recommended I read John Updike's inventive writing on sex. And after hearing an author highly recommend Updike's novel Couples on NPR, I went on over to Amazon and got it.

Couples is about a group of... you guessed it... couples... living in the fictional, well-to-do Massachusetts town of Tarbox in the 1960s.

The couples party together. Vacation together. Play tennis, basketball, and football together. Their kids play together, too.

They also have illicit affairs with each other. And sometimes, they openly swap partners.

Let me cut to the chase. Couples may've seemed shiny and new with this glimpse into adulterous lifestyles way back in 1968, when it was originally published. At least that's what the back cover claimed, saying Updike "drew back the curtain forever on sex in suburbia" with this "assailed" work, paraphrasing the author as saying adultery gives life meaning in an otherwise meaningless world.


It took me more than a month to get through Couples. It was just boring as hell.

Updike's style was part of the problem. Flowery to a fault. Verbose. Heavy on narrative. Light on dialogue.

Perhaps my reading 1967's Portnoy's Complaint before Couples really hurt my reception of Updike. Where Roth is direct and blunt in his description of sexuality, Updike plods slowly, tenderly. Where Roth depicts sex in a hilarious, self-deprecating, often profane fashion, Updike writes serious, literary prose. Where Roth pokes fun at the human condition, Updike reports it as actual factual.

On the positive side, Updike constantly tried to create new metaphors for sex in Couples. And he was witty in some of his creations. For that he should be commended.

But after a few sex scenes, it all gets old. There's just nothing risque about adultery. It's a fact of life.

And long, tedious, trudging studies of it are boring and unnecessary. Which may be what Updike was going for, but it didn't make Couples any more pleasant to read.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Portnoy's Complaint - Philip Roth

Awhile ago, I was listening to NPR, and a writer mentioned a few books on human sexuality... namely John Updike's Couples and Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. Being a fan of Roth, and never having read anything by Updike, I bit, and picked up both from Amazon.

As I was familiar with Roth and a fan of his work, I jumped into his book first.

And Roth did not disappoint. From the get go, his Alex Portnoy recounts his various sexual, spiritual and familial dilemmas in vivid, explicit detail. An early section that had Portnoy describing his obsessive masturbatory practices had me literally spitting up my beer. Another, where Portnoy explains the illiteracy of his underwear model goy girlfriend, had me laughing like a monkey, shaking my head, near tears.

But all isn't fun and games for Portnoy. Though much of the book is funny, and Portnoy's complaint seems wildly, at times exhaustingly hyperbolic, there's something bigger going on here. According to some critics, Roth's Portnoy, along with Bellow's Herzog, are the two most quintessential Jewish characters in American literature.

And on that point, I must agree. Roth spends much of his time dwelling on what it is to be Jewish in America: a stranger in a strange land. Portnoy is a man sometimes outwardly hostile to his faith and upbringing; yet, at the same time, he admires the old Jewish men, wants to marry a woman like his mother, and speaks so much Yiddish that Portnoy's Complaint could qualify as a bilingual book.

But perhaps the most important part of the book comes at the end, where Portnoy runs to Israel and... well, I'm not going to give that away. You'll have to read it for yourself.

Roth just has a mastery of words that you cannot ignore. Yet he doesn't overwhelm the reader with the ten dollar words. Rather, he keeps things simple and direct. And Portnoy's Complaint is written in a conversational tone (literally Portnoy talking to his therapist). So, it's quite easy to read.

Portnoy's Complaint, for all it's simplicity, often borders on annoyance, because Portnoy just won't shut the hell up. He keeps going on and on about masturbation this and threesome with an Italian whore that. Sure, it's hilarious. And absolutely worth reading. But if you've got a weak constitution for whining, you might want to take Portnoy in short doses.

Me? I ran through it in a couple days. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Welcome to the Book Critic, a blog created to provide readership with an unpaid, and therefore relatively unbiased source of book reviews.

More very soon.