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Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31, No. 25. October 8, 1968

Films — Night games in Tarbox


Night games in Tarbox

John Updike's new novel—now available through the usual oversight of the Tribunal—is his most ambitious work so far and, by and large, it is successful. Some have dismissed it as a highbrow's Peyton Place, but though the novel centres s on the town of Tarbox, a small community near Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the heart of Puritan New England, it is essentially a microscopic view of America's vaunted Protestant middle class. All the couples are well off live in pleasant and commodious surroundings with good, often professional jobs, and non-working wives. But underneath this veneer of high civilisation is a network of sexual liaisons that eventually leads to the disintegration of some of the half-a-dozen or so community of couples.

Some of the couples are already well integrated when the book opens. The Applebys and the Smiths are known as the Applesmiths. No one really minds as long as the couples themselves find it workable. Fashionable though adultery and sexual liberation may be, it is the excessiveness and failure of a more widespread adultery that brings the downfall. The pivotal character, Piet, a Dutch-born housebuilder, sleeps with four of the wives, causing a break-up in the marital arrangements of both his own wife and of Foxy Whitman whose jealous and pre-occupied husband forces Piet's ultimate realisation. The other couples flow back and forward, with various sexual permutations, none however, reaching breaking point.

In his earlier novels (notably Rabbit Run and Of The Farm) and short stories. Updike displayed a sharp control and lyricism in his writing. The first part of the book is an impressionistic orientation to the community, and then transforms rapidly into narrative. Compared with most of the fashionable "serious" writers today, he is remarkably old-fashioned. His prose is highly readable and transparent. There are no hidden meanings, complex structures or capsules of experience to make demanding reading. No doubt the reason for the high readership of Couples is a combination of the clear prose and detailed, uncompromising sexual description. It is fair to warm, however, that it isn't prurient nor is it pornography, and a long way from Herman Wouk.

The major weakness of Couples is its under-characterisation. Even after a 100 pages it is still difficult to sort out who's who, who's doing what with who and who wants to do what to who. Somebody suggested a chart (Time magazine I believe supplied a map) of characters similar to a suggestion I remember when studying Middlemarch in English II. Unnecessary, but the mass of detail and action needs a high concentration if one is to make sense of the narrative, if not the words themselves.

Unlike Updike's prose. Elkin's prose shows some familiarity with much modern fiction and is a reasonable example of the technical skill involved in imitation. I don't think Elkin had to write A Bad Man, for it is unconvincing and scarcely important. But it is enjoyable and does demonstrate a willingness to make demands of the reader, Leo Feldman, a Jew of course, middle-aged, ruthless businessman, self-centred and generally despical, is the Bad Man. He is sentenced to one year's jail for a crime of which he protests his innocence. In the basement of his department store he had been running an advice bureau, with the aid of personal columns in the papers. Most of his customers were girls wanting abortion, junkies wanting junk, political extremists wanting guns, and so on. It is never quite clear what specific wrap they got him on, but they are going to give him hell for his one year in jail.

The book's structure is one of those jumble kaliedo-scopes (more accurately jungle) of prison routine and Feldman's miserable experiences (he does of course make the canteen highly profitable—former inmates in charge had pinched things all the time), both in jail and his past life generally. Gradually from these snippets, both real and fanciful, we are brought closer to the "bad man". Many of these pieces are very funny, the satire original and penetrating, but they hardly make a novel.

Playing chess can be very frustrating when you aren't any good. Reading a novel about chess is worse. James Whitfield Ellison's novel—the third American novel reviewed—is long on chess and short on everything else. The Prim of the title is a chess master at eleven years, and he's as obnoxious and self-centred as most child geniuses seem to be. The narrator of the book is a hack writer for some classy magazine (terribly original) and was a former chess champ in his childhood (natch). Bit of sex at the end and long descriptions of some chess bouts between the writer and young Prim. Leave it unless you know some chess fiend and want to keep him quiet for an hour (he probably won't bother finishing it either).

John Updike: Couples. Deutsch. 458pp. $3.60. Stanley Elkin: A Bad Man. Blond. 336pp. $3.60. James Ellison: Master Prim. Macdonald. 208pp. $2.80. NZ distributors: Whitcombe and Tombs.