With the possible exception of his friend Norman Mailer, no living American writer has been more closely watched than John Updike. After eleven novels and thirty books, however, our most prolific and various man of letters remains curiously out of focus and resistant to consensus. According to Joseph Epstein among others, Updike lacks anything much to say and is thus habitually thrown back on “overwriting and sex, and overwriting about sex”; he “simply cannot pass up any opportunity to tap dance in prose” (Epstein, pp. 56, 55). That is the Updike for whom, according to Gilbert Sorrentino, reality appears “a poor drab thing that awaits his gilding” (Macnaughten, p. 78). But on the other side we find a formidable array of critics, most of them English professors, who consider Updike a powerful social chronicler, a master of physical texture and psychological nuance, a profound moralist, a symbolist, a Christian philosopher, in short a living classic whose accession to the Nobel podium is already overdue. Who is kidding whom?
Updike’s residence in limbo is the more surprising because we have a vast body of information and analysis to go on. Despite his vaunted reclusiveness, Updike has republished three books’ worth (over 1700 pages) of essays, reviews, and interviews that exhaustively document his opinions, beliefs, tastes, antecedents, and artistic phases. Seizing on that treasure horde and rejoicing in the availability of a contemporary American author who combines linguistic dexterity with moral seriousness, the critics have thus far produced no fewer than seventeen volumes of exegesis and praise, expounding their hero’s theological affinities and scouring his fictional corpus for myths, parallels, symbols, rituals, pastoral conventions, social reflections, and uplifting homilies. For several recent years we even had a John Updike Newsletter devoted to preserving every scrap of memorabilia relating to that larger-than-life figure whom the editor suggestively dubbed “the Man.”
With so much data at hand, why the blurred image? In part the problem can be traced to mixed signals from Updike. In his autobiographical reflections he sometimes depicts himself as a modernist wordsmith, a down-home avatar of Proust and Joyce who lives for the aesthetic frisson. Elsewhere, though, he plays the religious philosopher, aligning himself with such theological heavyweights as Berdyaev, Kierkegaard, and Karl Barth. In still other passages he turns debonair and implies, in light verse as well as prose, that we should count him among the long-vanished Algonquin wits. But keep reading and sooner or later you will find him insisting that he is merely another “dumb American” harboring the usual lowbrow prejudices. It is largely by chance, if you believe this last Updike, that he works for The New Yorker instead of selling Toyotas in the sticks.
None of this multiplicity would matter if the fiction itself weren’t ambiguous in key respects. Take, for example, the novel that has provoked the most polarized responses, Couples (1968). It has been plausibly represented both as suburban pornography—a sesquipedalian Peyton Place—and as a grave modern parable of …