Thursday, November 08, 2012

[Books] Book Look: The Coup, by John Updike

Book Look: The Coup by John Updike: John Updike was probably the last great novelist there will ever be, by which I mean the last novelist with any mainstream cultural power. He came up mid-20th century along with all the other glory boys at William Shawn's New Yorker and outlasted most of them. He both preceded and outlasted the last literary movement, the fast burning Beats. Who is there to replace him? Haruki Murakami is deeply, but not broadly, popular. Tom Wolfe is bombastic and audacious, but not much of a stylist and will always be thought of as a journalist first. Jonathan Frazen? He's a magazine cover boy and certainly on every hipster's kindle, but he seems more a creature of zeitgeist than organic influence. The point is not whether they or any other novelists are good enough. The fact is nobody reads mainstream fiction; it is culturally insignificant like all forms of art except film and television -- so it's really silly to even consider a novelists cultural influence. Updike was the final link to the heroic age of the American novel.

Updike's big splash was the classic Rabbit, Run back in 1960 (already well into the waning of the novel). He gained a reputation as commentator on the state of America -- especially the suburban middle class. The reality is that Updike was not so limited in scope and always had a broader view, as evidenced by The Coup.

At first look, The Coup couldn't be further from Updike's wheelhouse. It is the story of a monstrous dictator of an hellhole of an African country. This dictator, one Hiram Felix Ellellou, known in college as "Happy", has deposed the king of the nation in the name of Marx and Mohammed, although his power seems to stem mostly from the awe of the peasantry in his big black Mercedes and his willingness to have his henchmen kill or imprison the anyone who is inconvenient to him. In short, he is one of the stripe of dictators who regularly appear in destitute third-world hell holes.

It's entirely possible that Ellellou believes the tropes of his Muslim/Marxist mashup philosophy, but if so, only briefly and superficially. He occasionally makes noises about leading his people to spiritual well-being and economic independence. But even he has to face the fact that his people can't see past their noses to anything larger and that without the aid of the outside world they would be living in caves. He cannot stop his constituents from trading in slaves, nor prevent them from partnering with the hated U.S. for oil riches -- at least not without slaughtering them.

This foreign setting stems from Updike's travels in Africa as a visiting scholar. But he's still Updike, so the best portions of the book happen back in the U.S. or in the descriptions Ellelou's marital interactions.

through flashbacks we see that Ellellou was an abandoned child in French colonial territory. He grew up to participate in some of the mid-century conflicts of the French Indochina (on the French side) then somehow found himself as a college student at a small liberal arts school in Wisconsin. Here he experiences, if not outright racism, than racialization of society. A white woman gets involved with him, mostly out of a desire to be rebellious than anything else. He falls in with a bunch of Nation of Islam types. The entire litany of racial hypocrisy is on display for him. He ends up with a low-level anti-white sentiment, but again, one senses it is not out of passionate belief, but out of utility, even acknowledging that a belief system is only as good as it's consequences. Entitled hypocrisy or the middle class -- despite the exotic setting we are now on Updike's home turf.

But mostly, Ellellou is overwhelmed and confused by America. There is too much too take in, too many products, too many complications, too many ideas, too much stimulation. He yearns for clarity and simplicity and in doing so comes to see his empty, destitute homeland as a paradise and America as a destroyer.

Back in his homeland, he deposes and eventually beheads the king (a former mentor), pulls some stunts that make him look magical to his backwards constituents, and intimidates or kills anyone else who gets in his way, yet he still can't see the way to glory. His has a interior minister, who is clearly smarter and more practical than he, just primed to pull a coup of his own. More prominently, he has to deal with his allotment of four wives. Here again, Updike steps back into a realm he knows well -- marital dynamics. In the face of his theoretically absolute political and social power, his wives retain personal power. He still longs for their approval and spousal respect. In varying ways he gets this, despite the fact that a couple of them have borne numerous children in the face of his impotence. The push and pull of husband and wives is not all that different from that in the New England suburbs of Updike's usual setting.

In the end, everyone, including the country, gets a change of position or scenery, but it's unlikely anyone was shaken from their belief in themselves or altered their values. Ellellou find a brief moment of happiness as the thing he hates: a prole, employed thanks to American industry. But even in the face of this, it is not clear he gets what he has become.

Long time readers of my reviews know that I value conciseness very highly. I am, generally, of the opinion that in fiction, any words that serve no purpose should not be written. If a sentence does not move the plot forward, add needed characterization, or make the reader laugh, it should be removed. Updike, in contrast, has no compunction against hanging out for a paragraph describing the the tactile sensations of a patch of sand. In fact, this was probably the major criticism of Updike over the years, that he was more shallow than his thesaurus led us to believe.

I disagree heartily with that. He is not shallow. And in the hands of most writers, a prediction for detailed scene setting would be death to a manuscript. But there is another, less understood reason to keep words in a story: beauty. A sentence that is completely useless otherwise can be permitted provided it is of exceptional beauty, in which case it is its own justification. Updike is such a consummate craftsman with such a strong poetic sense, that his flights of wordiness are still worthwhile. Usually. Even Updike could have stood to hack 20% out of The Coup.

Should you read The Coup. Yes. It's a safe bet you be impressed. If I have left the impression that this is a political book, let me correct that: it is not. Politics, in a completely cliched way, plays a role, but this is a book about acute observations of deluded individuals (of the sort we all are, really). So please do let fear of partisan offense stop you. (Although I would note that Updike was an Obama supporter and he suggested Obama would benefit from reading The Coup. Use that info bite however you will.) Nor is it particularly dire, despite the subject matter -- some have even read it as primarily a comedy. Beyond as a satire, it's tough to pigeonhole, but The Coup is certainly one of the best books I've read in a long, long time.