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.

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