In one of his collection of Picked-Up Pieces, John Updike suggests that the old novel depended on the old morality which praised God and forbade sexual intercourse outside marriage. Then, when the prohibition of “free-ranging sex” began to fail, the old intricate and heavy plots suffered a sympathetic impotence. His new novel, Marry Me, might appear to have been designed to take account of such developments: lightly plotted, a tale rather than a novel, it is acted out by a cast of middle-class loose-livers. The adulterers of Greenwood, Connecticut, include Jerry and Sally, who are also “exaggerators,” and their respective partners in marriage, Ruth and Richard, who are more level-headed and more truthful.
Marry Me does not declare that a new morality has come. Jerry declares: “Maybe our trouble is that we live in the twilight of the old morality, and there’s just enough to torment us, and not enough to hold us in.” Religion is widely thought, in Western societies, to have waned, and is thought by Mr. Updike to have been succeeded by sex, “as the emergent religion, as the only thing left.” But Updike’s Jerry excites himself with references to God’s grace, and regards Richard as one of the few professed atheists he has met during his “thirty years in materialist America.”
Marriage hasn’t waned either, so far as Greenwood is concerned. However much they may hop from perch to perch, the free-rangers are reluctant to fly the matrimonial coop: Jerry considers that “mistresses are for European novels,” and would agree with his author that “any romance that does not end in marriage fails.” By the same token, any novel that calls itself “a romance,” as this one does on the title page, should, perhaps, end in marriage. In fact, Marry Me leaves it uncertain whether Jerry and Sally get married—and does so in the manner of a particular kind of new novel, where uncertainties are courted and readers are asked to participate in the author’s decisions. Whether or not it should be called a new novel, as opposed to an old, I do not know. Perhaps it is a twilight work in which plot, like marriage, is still there—in an attenuated condition, and at times tormenting.
The novel is published at a time when exaggerators are saying that an Evangelical revival is taking place, and when the rise to prominence of Jimmy Carter has earned respect for the activities of the born-again Christian. The president elect may well believe in the existence of God’s elect, and he has confessed to looking on a number of women with lust. Seen from Europe, Carter is a little like an Updike character, and Updike a little like the prophet of a generation which ranges free and refers to grace. But the novel won’t be received by such people as scriptural, if only because Jerry, the church-going adulterer, will be read by many of them as a pious fraud—what, in …