Thursday, September 16, 2010


John Updike’s book ‘Couples’ is like a manual on how to commit adultery – written by a mischievous devil. The book depicts the amazing civility of couples who are indiscreet in a seemingly normal way. Other cultures in Latin America or in South East Asia, people would not be as civilized or well-mannered as the philandering couples in this New England town. Usually, indiscretion results in hysterical emotion, fights and violence that end in a homicide. In Middle East countries, adultery can result in death by stoning. There is usually a resulting emotional outbreak or violent reaction when the indiscretion is known. At least, that’s my impression coming from an Asian society which is not as ‘enlightened’ in terms of adultery as depicted in John Updike’s book.

The book was written in 1969 and portrays a liberal town where everyone seems to be sleeping with each other. I did not enjoy the book as closely as I would have but skimmed through the pages. There is just too much verbiage from his work that could have been reduced or more efficiently packaged. It’s as if Dylan Thomas or Walt Whitman would write a book full of words that appeal more to its sound than its meaning. There is not much sense in much of the work with regards to the impression, syntax and the way the book progressed. But it is not a bad book and one could grasp the tone even if one is part of that milieu – living in an isolated New England town with white Anglo Saxon protestant neighbors.

But the book does not seem silly but in fact logical in the way the characters think and act. It has a well-crafted plot with some interesting scenes and effective in giving the atmosphere of that particular age. What strikes me is the lack of emotionality except in the sexual act amongst the various characters. Everything from adultery, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, abortion, wife swapping is all discussed in a coherent, matter of fact tone as if it’s normal for well-educated adults. Is this the sign of true maturity and graciousness? Is this the peak of a modern liberal society where emotions are subsumed to a well mannered civility? One wonders if this is the way most people behave or just a minor though perverse subset of modern society.

Updike seems to be a purveyor of wickedness unless he is just writing of the way things really are. It seems that committing adultery is just the most normal thing to do around here unlike in other societies. Perhaps that’s the result of the hippie generation, with drugs, free-love and the sexual revolution. But is it an actual description of reality? I am sure these stories play-out in some sections of the populace, in small communities scattered over the country. My predilection for gossip and scandal led me to this book and I strangely felt suddenly free. I guess this is the objective of most folks; to live life and commit whatever indulgence one desires from other consenting adults. It’s like drug use, where repeated consumption corrupts one’s soul. 

Last night, I watched the Woody Allen film ‘Vicky Christina Barcelona.’ It has similar values as Updike’s couples and may be called modern decadence in Spain. I guess it is liberating to have this free spirit, unencumbered with morality or other hang-ups. It’s like the sixties continued on from John Updike’s ‘Couples’ to Woody Allen’s ‘Vicky Christina Barcelona’ with the latest Hollywood stars appearing in the decline. To the Islamic mullahs in the Middle East, it’s clear evidence that the West has declined with sin and overindulgence. But it’s not so as there are more decent folks around than those who are willing to satisfy there desires to wherever place it brings them. One could say that it’s all in the Declaration of Independence when Thomas Jefferson wrote about the right to one’s ‘pursuit of happiness’. Perhaps it’s the seed that started the decline taking note that Jefferson lived in debt, had slaves, a mistress and illegitimate children.

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