Couples – John Updike

[This is a journal in 5 sections, matching the divisions in the novel. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I reached the end.]

21 March 2015
Part 1 – Welcome to Tarbox
I’m glad I didn’t give up on reading this. A few chapters in, I wasn’t sure I was going to carry on. Why should I care about these mostly limited, self-centred people living their comfortable American lives in the months before Kennedy’s assassination? Hadn’t Richard Yates already torn open the neuroses and hypocrisies of the Postwar generation in Revolutionary Road, published seven years earlier in 1961? Isn’t Updike’s book only about middle-class people jumping into bed with one another’s wives and husbands? Martin Amis is gleefully quoted in 24-point bold on the back cover telling us that it’s ‘A cat’s cradle of vigorous adultery’. (Sigh.)

But, in maybe 9-point text on the front, is another view: ‘Rich, intoxicating, incantatory’ (The Times). Before I reached the end of Part 1, the first of five novella-length sections, I was beginning to understand what the Times reviewer meant. I don’t think we need to pay too much attention to the views of Martin Amis, no doubt in a younger incarnation than his current, more considered self. The vigorous adultery is certainly there although, in 100 pages, there’s only been a single lingering description of one encounter. But there are also musings on death, the biological imperatives of becoming a new parent, whether we and our children can thrive in ways that go beyond material concerns. Updike’s main protagonist so far has been Piet Hanema, second- or third-generation Dutch and still a regular at the Calvinist church where he can contemplate some of these deep matters. But Updike has chosen – I get the impression that he’s chosen every last detail of his authorial persona – to be an old-fashioned omniscient narrator. He can be inside the head of any one of these ten or twelve people for as long as he likes. He usually stays with them for whole chapters so the change in perspective never becomes uncomfortable. You could base a style manual on this book – and I haven’t even mentioned the loving descriptions of landscape and the arrival of spring.

Welcome to Tarbox, as you’d expect, is about introductions. It’s Piet and his wife of (I think) nine years that we meet first. One of them mentions the new couple, the ones who have bought the house they had looked at themselves. The wife, Angela, loved the wonderful sweep of the view over the sea and shore but Piet, a Midwesterner, prefers to be well inland. They have a square, well-constructed place that perfectly matches Piet as Updike presents him. The locations and construction details of these people’s houses are as much a part of them as another focus of Updike’s unblinking scrutiny, their personal physical attributes. Early in Chapter 1 I felt highly suspicious of the confident, appraising male gaze being turned on Piet and Angela. Particularly Angela, ‘going heavy in her haunches and waist yet with a girl’s fine hard ankles….’ I’m not sure that this gaze is entirely Updike’s own pre-feminist mid-20th Century view. It’s Angela as seen by Piet as much as by Updike, just as when, in the gruesome dinner party we are shown a chapter or so later, the prominently displayed breasts of one of the women are presented as they are seen by Foxy, the newly-arrived wife. The constant insistence on the relative merits of women’s physiques feels dated, but it isn’t just male locker-room talk. Or not quite.

Piet is the one whose adultery we witness. Since September he’s been going to the place of another man’s wife – does it matter who? – for morning sex. He seems to have no complaints about the sex he has with his wife except that it doesn’t happen often enough – it’s been a week, as he thinks ruefully when it doesn’t happen after the dinner party they’ve just attended at the start of the novel – and, despite his constant self-questioning about most things, he seems not to have too many qualms about adultery. Like all the men, he’s an ex-soldier, spends his days making a comfortable living, and… what? Isn’t really satisfied with most aspects of his life. No surprise there. If I remember rightly he’s screwing – one of the narrator’s words – the wife of Thorne the dentist. We’ve seen this man’s particular social routine in operation at the dinner party: he’s in-your-face rude, and flirts in a highly suggestive way with all the women. He’s the one who plays ‘kneesie’ with Foxy, as she tells her husband later. He doesn’t feel at all threatened by it. She’s a few weeks pregnant and has given up sex anyway for a while. But, this being the 1960s, she hasn’t given up the booze. She drinks too much at the party, tells the hostess in private about her pregnancy, and isn’t surprised to realise that it’s common knowledge – her word – almost immediately. It doesn’t matter anyway, both she and her husband decide.

Hers is the other point of view we most often get, and I’m wondering whether Updike might be planning to throw her and Piet together. He, Piet, has noticed her driving away (fast, as it happens) from a different Protestant church. And he’s followed up her tentative enquiry about fixing up their new place, formerly a holiday home and needing a lot of work. He’s not enthusiastic – or maybe he’s pretending not to be, because his more business-oriented partner in the building trade wants to focus on profitable new developments. Thorne has already told Foxy that he is expensive and slow – but, as his wife has told Piet, that’s just the sort of thing he’d say about anyone.

You can see what it’s like. Comfortable small-town living has led to social networks based on little more than proximity. People get by however they can. Another of the men has a verbal tic of always adding a French phrase at the end of anything he says in conversation. Another is nicknamed little-Smith for reasons nobody seems to remember. And some Sunday afternoons, most of the men we’ve met get together for a desultory game of basketball. (Piet, annoyed by Thorne’s awkwardness, trips him and is mortified to realise he has dislocated a finger. I can’t remember whether he feels remorseful about injuring the man whose wife he’s screwing.)

Is Updike presenting this place as a microcosm of small-town America at a time when two wars are fresh in the collective memory and, as Thorne alleges, Kennedy is sleepwalking into another in Vietnam? At the time of publication (1968) this is recent history, and ripe for dissection. Which is what Updike does. He even has Ken Whitman, Foxy’s husband, working as a biologist with a lab-ful of mice pinned out for examination. Now I think of it, Updike has let us inside this man’s head as well, and he’s already dissatisfied with himself and his career by the time he’s reached his early 30s. I had already been wondering whether this novel might be Updike’s answer to George Eliot’s Middlemarch – all the doubts, all the small-town judgemental gossip – and now, with Ken, we might have our Lydgate. He wasn’t manoeuvred into marriage, but he feels just as lost to the meaningful science he always thought he would pursue.

Welcome to Tarbox.

25 March
Part 2 – Applesmiths and Other Games
I’m impressed. Updike suavely takes us back years, to a time when the now long-established couples were new arrivals. We are introduced properly to people only glimpsed so far, and start to think we might understand some of the dynamics of this little community as new couples arrive and old ones, like the original Smiths, become no more than a memory and a mimeographed Christmas letter. Some couples are still on the periphery: Piet’s partner Gallagher and his wife who later learns to play the lute; the brilliant Ong, whose pronunciation of consonants renders his conversation unintelligible, and his half-Japanese wife; Ben Saltz, the terrifyingly hirsute but gentle Jew and his wife whose attributes – they all have attributes – I can’t quite remember….

There are others, but the two couples Updike begins to turn his attention to are the ones who give Part 2 its title. By the time he’s reached 1962 Updike has gone into uncharacteristic detail about the prosperous backgrounds of the Applebys and little-Smiths. There are the banking and stock market careers of the two men, the horsey background they were mostly brought up in but on which they have now resolutely turned their backs, the comfortable, liberal attitudes that lets wealthy people almost pretend they are just like everybody else. Someone mentions a relative who was once something like a bishop in East Egg, as fictional a town as Tarbox – but these aren’t the Tom Buchanans in The Great Gatsby. Nobody behaves like that now, and they are just ordinary. Nearly.

Updike’s account of the way that these four people’s genuine friendship leads to something else is wonderful. They have more in common with one another than with the other couples, are more educated and cultured than most, so after-dinner talk is of classical music and literature. Harold little-Smith is the one whose verbal tic is to round off his statements with a translation of the last phrase into French, while Frank Appleby, equally annoyingly, quotes Shakespeare whenever he can. (Frank, as a last-ditch protest against the tide of mediocrity, doesn’t read any other author now.) Updike, in the 60-page chapter that makes up most of Part 2, tells us all we need to know about the growth and decay of the Applesmith phenomenon. At each stage he tends first to tell us what happens, or what is about to happen, then back-tracks to show us the process in all its anthropological detail. The houses, the clothes, the flirtatious looks (or whatever) lead to the first affair: Marcia little-Smith and Frank.

Do the details matter? It’s all utterly plausible, given the lives and particular vanities of these people. It starts off with both Frank and Marcia’s surprise that their friendship seems to be leading to a different kind of attraction. They decide not to pursue it, and then, after some weeks… well, you know how these things go. Later, subtle changes in Frank’s behaviour make it clear to Janet Appleby that he must be having an affair with Marcia. She confronts him. He denies it – this, like all the other significant conversations, presented in forensic detail – and she doesn’t believe him. She instigates an affair with Harold. It begins with them meeting for lunch every week, but he is only fully convinced when she produces that most Victorian of props, the badly hidden letter. You can guess what happens, or doesn’t quite happen, in the laundry room soon after….

I haven’t checked, but my impression is that Updike spends far more pages on how the affairs begin than on the months that follow. It moves through different stages. Mutual deception, so that at first Marcia and Frank don’t know about Janet and Harold. Realisation. A misguided evening at the ski lodge when each husband goes to the other woman’s bed – which leads to the collapse of the whole arrangement. But then it starts up again, several times, as Updike is able to inform us in a sentence or two. We’ve seen how it happens, and can imagine how it happens again.

We’re not the only ones who can imagine. This being a small town, the other couples notice. This is when they become known by their collective nickname, probably coined by Freddy Thorne. Like George Eliot in Middlemarch, Updike has the neighbours pronouncing judgment – but unlike her, he doesn’t join in. It’s part of the style manual he’s creating a century after her that he never attempts the unembarrassed confidence of Eliot’s authorial voice. We can feel an authorial presence, obviously, but it’s well hidden. So he doesn’t make any overt judgments when other people in Tarbox think about affairs. We already know about Piet’s with Georgene Thorne, and all it warrants is a cursory mention now. There’s a fairly long section, when the Applesmiths are already becoming tired of one another, when Freddy Thorne attempts to start something with Marcia, but she is never convinced that it’s any more than the outrageous overstepping of lines that we’ve often seen by now. His pseudo-courtship is conducted through letters, now I think of it. Quaint.

Meanwhile, alongside all this, something else is going on. Status anxiety is alive and kicking in this little world. It isn’t to do with wealth – or, at least, it’s part of the couples’ polite game to pretend that it isn’t. Jokes might be made about how much money somebody is earning (probably Frank or Harold), but it would be just too vulgar to make a big thing of it. It’s to do with that great favourite of Victorian novels, class. Janet Appleby’s father made his money in trade – every pharmacy in the country carries the proprietary medication he invented – and, even worse, she didn’t have the same university education as the others. As the four-cornered affair carries on, she becomes more and more uneasy that she is being used by all the other, more sophisticated participants. She is fleshy and big-breasted – not at all like Marcia – and she decides that it isn’t her brain they want her for. She begins to feel she’s little more than their toy.

She isn’t the only one who, over the many months of the affair, feels uneasy about her place in it. But, alongside Updike’s other carefully-placed signs of the Zeitgeist – anxieties over the Cold War, Vietnam, the media fixation on Jackie Kennedy – personal insecurities abound. It’s one of the things that these sophisticates throw into the mix when discussing one another, and other people who impinge on their lives. Maybe it accounts for Freddy’s ham-fisted flirtations – Updike has now brought us up to and beyond the dinner-party at which Freddy kept pushing his thigh against Foxy’s at the dinner-table – and…

…it leads to the set-piece moment that ends Part 2. There’s an after-dinner game being played in which each of them in turn is secretly assigned a celebrity identity to guess by way of a kind of oblique questioning. No doubt Updike’s original readers would recognise a fad from five or six years previously, as they would recognise so much else. It’s the turn of Foxy, now several months pregnant – summer is portentously turning into the autumn of 1963 – and she hates the idea. Updike spends pages on her embarrassed lack of confidence, at her regret at not going home with her husband half an hour or so previously. She never does guess, and when her secret identity is revealed as Christine Keeler – Updike has already reminded us of the Profumo scandal, among a lot of other things filling the news at the time – she is mortified. Part 2 ends with Updike’s unblinking account:

‘Without willing it, without wanting it, not knowing at what instant she passed, averting her head, into tears, Foxy began in confusion to cry; and it was clear to all of them except Angela and Ben, that as they suspected she was seeing Piet.’

Games? These people love their games.

29 March
Part 3 – Thin Ice
An author like John Updike is going to make sure that the middle section of a five-part novel is going to resonate with the reader in some way. We’re back with Piet, wondering about the things you would expect from an Everyman in a novel that foregrounds existential questions of life and death as readily as the demands of work and the practical details of sex. The ‘thin ice’ of this section’s title is what Piet and Foxy are treading upon as their affair grows into something far more serious than whatever Piet had going with Georgene Thorne. By comparison, Part 2 almost seems like a satire of the sort of novel I feared at the beginning. Piet, who almost disappeared in that section, takes life much more seriously and for Foxy, too, this is never just a game.

But the Applesmith affair has led to casualties, and their stories runs alongside the Piet and Foxy’s. Janet, always the most insecure of the four, has decided to see an analyst. It allows her husband Frank, among others, to say clever things about psychoanalysis, including the kind of easy generalisations that always come up when people talk about Freud. And Updike slyly brings him into Piet’s story. Worrying about the effect of his new affair on his wife Angela, Piet tries to initiate sex with her, and she isn’t entirely against the idea. But she asks him if he can wait until she’s just finished the chapter she’s reading. Angela, who doesn’t have dreams she can remember, is reading Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. She has been talking to Janet, and wonders whether she needs therapy of some kind as well. She is very aware of how she pushes Piet away, and is able (somewhat implausibly, it strikes me) to discuss this with him. Shouldn’t she seek help to sort herself out? Is Angela a casualty of what have become Piet’s serial affairs – not that she knows about them, as we learn in that closing sentence of Part 2 – or does she bear some of the responsibility for his behaviour?

These questions are somehow too crude. But whilst Updike presents something much more subtle in this strand of the plot – and I’ll come back to it – there are more sub-plots in Part 3. Georgene hasn’t got over the affair with Piet and, three times I think, he lets her persuade him to see her again. In the wider community there’s another of those set-piece get-togethers, to stand alongside that evening at the ski lodge. This time it’s following a day at the beach, with Freddy grotesquely slouching in his wetsuit in (I think) the Constantines’ expensive but inconvenient old place. After some joking over the suggestive names Freddy has come up with for a pornographic play he’s been pretending to write, Ben Saltz is, or is pretending to be, sick from eating lobster. (I didn’t realise until I’d written that sentence how much pretending goes on in this little world.) Eddie Constantine and his wife take Ben home – and don’t come back. I really ought to check the details. Is it really the Constantines who have a joint affair with the Saltzes following this? Does it matter? Whatever, it leads to more casualties, notably Irene Saltz, left feeling wounded by what she sees as unfounded gossip about her complaints of anti-Semitism by most of the couples, and Ben himself, sacked from his job for persistent lateness and absenteeism. There’s a moment some time after when he is described as being ‘destroyed’ – that’s how defining jobs are for men in this world – but when Piet drives by the Saltz place near the end of Part 3 Ben seems happy doing chores outside. Go figure.

Why am I telling you this? I suppose because it forms the uncomfortable backdrop, alongside the disquieting events in the news – the bombing of the Black church in Birmingham, Jackie Kennedy’s miscarriage – to what is going on in Piet’s life. Nancy, his younger daughter, is obsessed by death – Part 1 contained her grief-stricken reaction to the death of their hamster – and Piet finds himself unable to console her with talk of heaven when Angela doesn’t believe a word of it. Near the end of Part 3, Piet dates the beginning of his ‘love’ for Foxy to the moment when he saw her racing away from her church that Sunday, months before. Is he just trying to persuade himself there’s a spiritual dimension to his regard for her, despite the numerous descriptions we’ve had of her physical blonde presence? (And yes, she’s blonde down there as well. As we get to know, repeatedly.)

What can I say about Piet that I haven’t said already? It’s his point of view that Updike gives us, not Foxy’s – so, for instance, he has to have Foxy actually telling Piet that she wanted the affair long before it happened, and later on he has Piet re-reading long pages of letters from her. Updike has to get her point of view in there somewhere as she becomes, if you want to believe it, part of Piet’s search for some kind of meaning in his life. Updike He has given Piet, more than any other character, a rich interior life in which all his doubts and anxieties are laid before us. He doesn’t ever force us to decide whether Piet is fooling himself, pretending it’s more than lust that drives him. But it’s hard to see him as a bad man, not only when Foxy keeps telling him he’s good, but when we are there as he spends a sleepless night looking into the abyss of death, when he wishes to do the right thing for both his daughters, when he hates the way Gallagher insists on the flashy new development rather than good, traditional building? Even the top-to-bottom refurbishment of Foxy’s house is a loss-maker, done for the love of traditional craftsmanship. (I call it Foxy’s house because she is making all the decisions about what it will be like, and Ken Whitman is a shadowy, almost entirely absent figure in this section.) Ok, so the job leads inevitably to the affair – Piet can tell himself what he likes, but we know he expected it to happen – but at least he’s not making any money on it. In other words, Piet is confused, dissatisfied, full of guilt, and searching for love. Everyman.

Part 3 – and I said it was going to have a particular significance – seems to describe the growth and decay of the affair between Piet and Foxy. As in Part 2, Updike rewinds the clock so that he can describe it from the beginning, back-tracking where necessary to fill in extra details. Running parallel between the late spring and early autumn are the progress both of Foxy’s pregnancy and of Piet’s work on the house – both of which, of course, are coming to a definite end. Practical considerations will make it almost impossible for the affair to carry on, and Piet lets himself believe that this is only as it should be. There’s a moment when, as he justifies dropping Georgene, he decides she broke the rules by becoming dependent. As if there are any rules – and as if the onset of autumn really does mean that his affair with Foxy has never been anything to do with the sort of love he feels for Angela. He’s always thinking about this, and Foxy’s love-filled letters don’t help. We know from the start that it can’t be the same as those earlier affairs because Updike changes the typography: everything Piet and Foxy say to one another in Part 3 is in italics.

So, plenty to look forward to, as the (mostly) light-hearted swinging of Part 2 has mutated into something far more significant for the participants. Updike, perhaps thinking of Gatsby again, has the eye of the weathercock on the church – the one he described in some detail in the first few pages of the book – looking down on the activities of these little people just like the eyes of Dr Eckleburg. At the very end of Part 3, when Piet wakes up too early and goes to look at the night sky, ‘the stars had wheeled out of all recognition.’ And there’s Orion, ‘the giant of winter’ – Angela, taught by an uncle, had taught him the names of stars and constellations – and he tells himself that ‘a crisis in his love for Foxy had passed, that henceforth he would love her less.’ Yeh, sure. I’ve just noticed that the Thin Ice of Part 3 is to be followed by the Breakthrough of Part 4. What kind of breakthrough?

1 April
Part 4 – Breakthrough
We’re in 1963, and near the end of Part 3 it’s already been mentioned that we’re approaching November. Uh-oh. Through his more sophisticated characters, Updike has made it perfectly clear that Kennedy’s presidency was never Camelot. His womanising is a given, the drift towards confrontation in South-east Asia looks inept, and there’s been a set-piece flashback in Part 3 to a moment when Piet confidently expects that the game of golf he started as Soviet ships sailed inexorably towards the Cuban blockade will be ended by the opening salvoes of World War III. We’ve known all along that the assassination is coming, and we know it will signal the end of something. But, for all the worldly-wise barbs of Freddy Thorne concerning Kennedy’s politics, Updike’s couples don’t have the benefit of hindsight and they don’t know how disagreeable their fall is going to be.

Am I over-dramatising? If I am, it’s because that’s what Updike does with his doom-laden portents and the arrival, right on cue, of another climactic set piece on the evening of the assassination. After some polite misgivings are voiced, the party at the Thornes goes ahead anyway, and… and what? I found it revolting. Updike has reached a point at which I can no longer be sure of the line between him and his Everyman. The behaviour of the men – to say nothing of the women flaunting the décolletage that is the season’s fashion – is universally repellent, and Piet is one of the worst. Foxy is there, as he’d hoped – there’s been an uneasy distance between them for weeks – and he’s glad to see her. The whole chapter reads like something Updike might have written for Playboy. The Kennedy assassination leading to a sudden attack of mass disinhibition is a short story in itself, and I found myself becoming rather bored with the whole Tarbox project. Piet can’t keep his cock in his pants, and I’m supposed to feel sympathy? It feels like the macho climate of Postwar American writing has got to Updike: I just found an essay online suggesting that Norman Mailer had recently advised him to ‘keep one foot in the whorehouse’ in his fiction. I can believe it.

There’s some plot business – there’s an implausible amount of plot business in Part 4 – leading to Piet having to jump out of the bathroom window because Angela is about to discover him in there with Foxy. It’s innocent enough, but it isn’t really: they are now urgently trying to recalibrate their feelings for one another after all these weeks, now that she’s a mother. Outside, he sees Bea Guerin, who has seen Foxy at the bathroom window. Bea is clearly having an affair with… I don’t care. There’s been all sorts of talk about the different permutations that have been going on, including – gasp – a gay one between the two men in the Constantine/Guerin foursome. Thankfully, the evening comes to an end. But Part 4 still has a long way to go, beginning with a ‘disappointing’ visit Piet makes to Foxy’s house. Piet’s heating arrangements clearly aren’t up to scratch, so It’s cold. So they get under the bed covers. So they have to have sex. And you’ll never guess. No, I mean it. The Ivy League-educated Foxy has forgotten that she isn’t on the pill and that Ken is fastidiously using condoms. So, not many weeks later, she makes a worried call to Piet’s office to tell him she’s pregnant. You couldn’t make it up.

I’ve nearly had enough of this. Days pass, a second pregnancy test proves what she knows already, and she and Piet talk, endlessly, about what this means for them both. I was past caring long before the final, preposterous piece of plotting is slotted into place. Only Freddy Thorne, Foxy strongly suspects, knows about abortions. She asks him, on behalf of a university friend, and he says he will need to speak to both the mother and the father. Cue excruciating, sordid meeting at the dental surgery at which Freddy tells Piet that the price will be – guess. You won’t be able to, unless you remember what universe we’re in now. Freddy will get them to an abortionist in Boston if… he can have a night with Angela. But, because this is Updike, the conversation is as much about the fear of death as it is about the sordid details of how anyone might go about pimping his own wife. (Sigh.)

Piet asks Angela how she would feel about a night with Freddy, she’s ok with it and doesn’t ask what it’s all about – can you believe a single word of this? – and she sleeps with Freddy. Literally. He can’t actually perform on the night and, having feared that she might, she falls asleep next him. He does what we’ve seen Piet doing after an unsatisfactory bedroom session with Angela, but ‘taking care not to defile her.’ That’s all right then. Meanwhile, downstairs at the ski lodge – that’s where this is happening – Piet is drinking himself into self-pity. What’s a man to do? Being a man like Piet, he goes up to Georgene’s bed, gets in, and lets nature take its course. As he now usually does with Bea Guerin, but she’s not available on this particular night. With Bea, he sometimes hits her during sex because she’s clearly asking for it. He doesn’t try it with Georgene.

What on earth are we supposed to make of this? Piet, who had seemed rather an interesting character until well into Part 3, now strikes me as a self-indulgent, self-deluding fool. If John Updike were here to tell me that yes, that’s how we’re supposed to find Piet, I’d be extremely unimpressed. The cold eye that Updike is turning on American middle class society has become exclusively male, based on unquestioning 1960s assumptions about male entitlement that seem utterly alien in our own century. Piet has become a bore, his women have become ciphers, and I have no interest in what might happen to any of them in the remaining section. But no doubt I’ll read it anyway. I always do.

6 April
Part 5 – It’s Spring Again
And they all live happily ever after. No, I mean it. And Updike’s updating of Victorian narrative traditions is enthusiastic in other ways as well. It feels as though there’s as much plot in 80-odd pages as in the previous 370 or so. Adultery leads to unintended, life-changing outcomes, and there’s not only a deeply symbolic lightning strike but also, just to remind everyone of their own mortality, a death. It’s so neat I wondered whether it might be a super-clever Postmodernist joke. Maybe it is. If God can playfully burn down his own church, Updike the omnipotent can playfully do whatever he likes.

The focus is still on Piet and his troubles. In the best Victorian tradition, Updike sets a seismic crisis in motion through an accidental crossing of paths. The abortion has taken place – the focus, of course, is all on Piet as he waits anxiously outside the unofficial clinic in a parody of the anxious father-to-be – and some days later he’s visiting Foxy. The visit is innocent enough, if there’s ever such as thing as innocence in this world, but when Bea arrives she assumes they are playing their old game. She has been helping Foxy after the abortion and now feels not only like the wronged lover but the wronged friend. The first that Piet hears of the upshot of all this is when there’s a late-night telephone call from Ken. Piet and Angela need to come over, and when they do… he tells them that Foxy’s adultery with Piet – that she has now told him all about – means that the marriage is over. He’s moving out, and Piet, Angela and Foxy will need to sort out the consequences amongst themselves.

It’s plausible enough. Ken, since the brief contact we had with him in Part 1, has never been centre-stage, and it’s easy now to imagine him as Mr Rational, eager to get back to his studies. Which, we find out at the end, is exactly what he has done, putting his recent scientific disappointments behind him. Angela, never a highly sexualised being in Updike’s presentation of her, doesn’t react as Piet expects. Weeping quietly, she tells him she’d like him to leave. But I love you, he says, and perhaps he does. But that’s not what Updike is interested in, with various more interesting loose ends to tie up. Cue, for Piet, nights spent sleeping at the office. His old sexual contacts have dried up – not a phrase Updike uses – and the spring of this section’s title is unproductive. Even on the building sites he’s becoming surplus to requirements. Updike has been signalling for a long time that Gallagher is less and less interested in what Piet can offer, and before the end of the book he’s dissolved the partnership. Tarbox is no Eden, but Piet is definitely cast out of it. What future now for the man who has become the town scapegoat?

Foxy, of course. She comes to visit, ostensibly to divide the furnishings in the house, but really to offer him what turns out to be a lifeline. She also offers him a weekend of the most explicitly described sex in the novel, leaving Piet quite sore at the end of it. So to speak. She’s gone by Monday, but… some weeks later, Updike presents verbatim a long letter of hers – from the Virgin Islands. Fine. But that’s a long way away. Piet visits poor John Ong on his death-bed, and he can’t imagine anything beyond the end that is soon to come for his unintelligible former friend. His church is struck by lightning, so that’s another bridge burnt for him. He hasn’t been attending recently anyway, and the blaze is yet another confirmation that the certainties of the early 1960s are revealed as unsatisfactory. For a while, the ancient iron framework holding up the spire and all-seeing cock remains in place – Updike can’t resist the symbolic possibilities, it seems – but soon it is taken down and the local children wonder at the smallness of that copper eye.

The final paragraphs really do feel like a parody of those Victorian novels in which every single loose end is tied up. The couples who used to play Freddy’s ‘cruel games’ – Updike’s phrase, if I remember rightly – have now discovered bridge. Angela, one of several glimpsed in the distance and presented as a list of recognisable attributes, can be seen happily wandering alone or with an older man who turns out to be her father. The final paragraph, nearly two thirds of a page long, begins ominously: ‘Now, though it has not been many years, the town hardly remembers Piet….’ He, too, is described as a list of familiar attributes before Updike finds him a comfortable job as a buildings inspector and has him and Foxy settled down and married. ‘The Hanemas live in Lexington where, gradually, among people like themselves, they have been accepted, as another couple.’ And where, I suppose, they become Updike’s thumbnail sketch of what goes on, all the time, all over America.

So what do I think? Am I as impressed by the whole novel as I was with Part 1?

Not really. Updike is no George Eliot, and I’m trying to work out why that is. At first, he’s as unflinching as she is in his presentation of the follies of this little community. But Piet, the endlessly self-questioning Everyman of the first half of the novel, becomes less interesting as Updike focuses more and more on the male sexual experience. Different points of view, which had been presented so fluidly and dispassionately early on, are now almost exclusively replaced by the male gaze either of Updike’s all-knowing narrator or of the character whose life we follow throughout Part 5. Women are described in terms of mainly physical characteristics and, even when Updike gives them a voice or ascribes motives to them, they have no plausible interior life. Foxy’s long letter about life in the Virgin Islands consists mainly of her thoughts about Piet.

And, finally, Updike lets his serial adulterer off the hook. In the middle sections of the novel, adultery is shown to lead to misery, and there are casualties. By the end of the novel, these have all been glossed over, and nobody is talking about the abortion that has proved to be unnecessary. Updike appears to be asking some important questions at first, but by the end he, and all his main characters, seem to have forgotten about them. Piet and Foxy move on, literally, and get on with their lives. Fine. But, somehow, not quite enough.


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