From shocking to tame in a generation: Roth and Updike

Claudia Roth Pierpont’s “The Book of Laughter: Philip Roth and his friends” is unfortunately hidden behind a paywall, but one section stood out to me: she writes that Philip Roth and John Updike met around 1959, when both were getting their first publishing successes, and, “A decade later, they profitably scandalized the country with ‘Couples’ (1968) and ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ (1969).” Times change: I saw them not as scandalous but as slightly tedious in their obsession with the transgressions of their era. Is the three-way in Portnoy really so shocking?

I thought not. In the context of the novel I understand the Monkey’s fuss, which is primarily a play for power over Portnoy, and one that she sort of wins because he lets her, or doesn’t know any better (the Monkey: “What do I care what happens to her? . . . She’s the whore! And all you really wanted to do was to fuck her! You couldn’t even wait until I was out of the john to do it!”, and then the Monkey threatens to leave. I heard lots of conversations like this in college, when melodrama ran high). Portnoy does have the sense to start disentangling himself: “Then in Athens she threatens to jump from the balcony unless I marry her. So I leave.”

In Portnoy, however, the voice persists even though what seems to have been a shocking scandal has gone away. In Couples I found it merely hard to care about who sleeps with who and why. There were numerous beautiful sentences put to little good use. Updike makes me want to write better sentences but also to construct more interesting plots. I lack his and his characters’s religious sense, which often makes me feel like he’s writing about a foreign culture. Battles over religious feelings are like battles over Communism: important in their day but long-since decided.

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