John Updike's Last Word on Sex

Article excerpt

Byline: RACHEL CUSK

I'VE always been rather suspicious of John Updike. He seemed to me to have a big stylistic bank account and not much class. And men love him so, which I'm afraid makes me even more suspicious. The reason generally given for this is that he writes about sex, as if sex were a male sport, like football. I think it is because his fiction expresses male experience in a unique way. His prose seems to pour from some felicitous, inexhaustible spring, but his narrative is unprincipled, exhibiting a profound detachment from notions of progress and resolution. Updike's writing, like his characters, is fatally embroiled: in the world of women and its attendant snares of marriage, children, houses, community.

Updike writes about sex as an alcoholic would write about the bottle, as both fascination and flaw, as what mires him in and at the same time detaches him from reality. In the same way, he views this reality as the theatre of his own compulsions, as orchestration around the theme of himself. People don't just go off and do something else in Updike's novels; or if they do, it is for reasons he gives them.

So Updike writes not about sex but about egotism. His voice illuminates the fictional dark like a lantern: things fall into shadow the further away from him they are. At nearly 70, considerably more of the world is in shadow for Updike than once it was. His lunges into this darkness are urgent and occasionally farfetched. Many of these stories are reminiscences on his sexual and creative heyday: the world they recall will be familiar to devotees of Updike's fiction. It is a world of married couples in their thirties, living in genteel American towns, who have numerous children. In the evenings, the children tucked away, the couples get together, drink and sow seeds of adultery which flourish into a suburban tangle of partner-swapping, gossip, divorce and remarriage. Updike looks back on this spectacle with pride shot through with occasional flashes of doubt.

In How Was It, Really?, the narrator sneers at his own children's version of marriage and parenthood. "His children, as they homed in on 40, lived in city apartments or virtually gated New Jersey enclaves, with one or two children of their own whose nurture and protection required daily shifts of women of colour. …