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Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Text and Criticism

John Updike's The Coup

by Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published in the The New Republic, Jan. 6, 1979

At a table in an open-air café in Nice there sits a small, prim, unprepossessing black man, the former president of the impoverished mythical state of Kush (formerly the mythical Noire), ex-Colonel Hakim "Happy" Felix Ellelloû. Having narrowly escaped death at the hands of Kush's new, pragmatic young president, Ellelloû (whose name means "freedom" in Berber) has been pensioned off; along with one of his four wives and a motley gang of children, so long as he remains "anonymous" and "silent." But Ellelloû sits at the cafe scribbling his memoirs, an account of his experience as dictator of Kush. What he has to say is mordant, outrageous, and bitterly self-mocking, a lengthy monologue that really is a coup of sorts, constituting Updike's most experimental novel to date. Kush is Ellelloû's fiction just as The Coup is Updike's fastidiously circumscribed fiction, a country set in an "Africa" of words. And what a virtuoso display Updike gives us! Not even Pale Fire, another inspired work by another displaced "ruler," is more darkly comic, more abrasively surreal, than Updike's Ellelloû's testimony.

Africa's most majestic feature, Ellelloû tells us, is the relative absence of Man. But where Man exists there is either pitiless suffering (northern Kush has suffered a five-year drought), or buffoonery (literally everyone Ellelloû encounters, from his four incompatible wives to his comic Russian "advisors" and the slangy, hearty, PR-minded Americans who call their exploitation of oil-rich Kush "philanthropy," are buffoons, locked into the most stereotyped of languages). Where Marquez's Faulknerian The Autumn of the Patriarch presented a bizarre dictator seen from without, filtered through the voices of a number of close observers, Updike's Nabokovian The Coup gives us the dictator in his own voice, as he sardonically and brokenly recounts the comic-opera events that led to his spiritual assassination. Nabokov's presence is felt throughout, but lightly and ingeniously, for Updike, unlike the self-indulgent Nabokov of Ada, that most relentlessly private of novels, has linked personal and authorial obsessions so gracefully with the outer chaos of Kush and the drama of the "superparanoids" America and Russia that Ellelloû's story works quite satisfactorily as a story, without self-referential props. Updike's homage to Nabokov is clear enough, and rather touching: it is Ellelloû's "opposite number," the Soviet Colonel Sirin, who saves his life at a characteristically absurd moment—and Sirin, as we know, was Nabokov's early pseudonym.

Ellelloû is, or was, a devout Muslim, and a jargon-ridden Marxist whose hatred for all things American—"America, that fountainhead of obscenity and glut"—is explained partly by the fact that he attended a small college in Franchise, Wisconsin where he received an unfair grade of B- in African history, from a trendy professor who was jealous of his relationship with a white girl named Candy, and partly by the fact that he married this girl and brought her back to his kingdom, where their marriage quickly deteriorated. (Candy, called "Pinktoes" by the blacks she compulsively pursues, is coarse-mouthed, nagging, stereotyped as any cartoon suburban wife; even her most ostensibly idealistic actions—like marrying a ragamuffin Negro who seemed so lonely at college—are motivated by cliched notions of "liberalism." And of course she marries Ellelloû to enrage her bigoted father.)

Updike acknowledges numerous sources for his African information—books by contemporary historians and scholars, National Geographic, Beau Geste, children's books, The Koran—but his Africa, like his Kush, is a surrealist creation; and so, in part, is his increasingly debased and contemptible America. Ellelloû, composing his hallucinatory memoirs, pursues himself quixotically through a bewildering variety of masks. He views himself as a child, as a college boy in an alien country, as an ambitious though idealistic young soldier, as "dictator" of an ungovernable, indeed incomprehensible country, and finally as the hapless husband of four wives, chronically impotent, the passive butt of cruel jokes. Ellelloû experiences himself in stylish Cartesian terms, as two separate selves: "the one who acts, and the 'I' who experiences. This latter is passive even in a whirlwind of the former's making, passive and guiltless and astonished." He has sent many people to their deaths, and in person decapitates the former king, an elderly, blind, decadent fellow who was "like a father to him," but the reader hasn't the sense, any more than Ellelloû does, that he is a murderer: his elaborate syntax convinces us otherwise.

Difficult as Kush's mountainous terrain is to navigate, by camel or Mercedes (an air-conditioned Mercedes follows the dictator as he travels disguised through his troubled country), the prose Updike has fashioned for him is even more difficult, and resembles nothing so much as an arabesque superimposed upon another arabesque. Motifs, phrases, "imagery," coarsely comic details from the "external world," Ellelloû's various and conflicting pasts, are rigorously interwoven into complex designs. The outer world, filling up slowly with American and Soviet junk, is a nightmare of vulgarity, and depressingly simple-minded; the inner world, the world of Ellelloû's ceaseless brooding, is correspondingly rich, elusive, teasing, ingenious. Updike has been accused in earlier, far more straightforward narratives like Couples and The Centaur (the novel that The Coup most resembles in its audacity and inspiration, if not in its tenderness) of writing self-indulgent, tortuous prose. That Updike has a painter's eye for detail, that he glories in what Joyce would call the suchness of a thing, and sees no reason, since it exists, not to describe it in detail, seems to me quite evident; but surely this is one of his strengths, one of the great virtues of his writing. By assigning the prose voice of The Coup to the defeated dictator Updike allows himself more freedom (or license) than he might ordinarily allow himself, and Ellelloû, plunging onward in his memoirs, as in his murky grotesque situation-comedy adventures, does the difficult work of characterizing himself. He remarks at one point that he knows his sentences are "maddeningly distended by seemingly imperative refinements and elaborations"; at another point—as he is about to execute the old king with a giant scimitar taken from its case in the People's Museum of Imperialist Atrocities—he thinks, "My mind in its exalted, distended condition had time to entertain many irrelevant images." Updike echoes or parodies earlier Updike, the earlier Updike (in the story "Wife-Wooing") paying homage to James Joyce of The Sirens: "Wide wadis remember ancient water, weird mesas have been shipped into shape by wicked, unwitnessed winds." When Ellelloû burns alive, on a pyramid of American gifts to the drought-stricken Kushians of the north, one Donald Gibbs, who assures him that his people really want this "manna" (Kix Trix Chex Pops, cream of celery soup, sorghum meant for cattle, and shipped in transparent sacks along with wood chips and dead mice) he thinks with characteristic scrupulousness:

I could smell on the victim, under the sweat of his long stale wait and the bland, oysterish odor of his earnestness, the house of his childhood, the musty halls, the cozy bathroom soaps, the glue of his adolescent hobbies, the aura of his alcoholic and sexually innocent parents, the ashtray scent of dissatisfaction. What dim wish to do right, hatched by the wavery blue light of the television set with its curious international shadows, had led him to the fatal edge of a safety that he had thought had no limits?

This is Ellelloû's voice; and in sharp contrast to his indefatigable syntactical acrobatics the other voices of the novel are either flat and silly or a parody of US advertising rhythm and jargon. The wife who joins him in exile, the openly promiscuous Sittina, complains of lack of money "since you blew the dictatorship"; Candy greets his infrequent visits with "Holy Christ, look who it isn't," refuses to listen to his formal Islamic pronouncements which are, to her, "Kismet crap," and says of his strategic execution of the old king: "Well, chief, how's top-level tricks? Chopping old Edumu's noggin off didn't seem to raise the humidity any." Updike does this all very skillfully, and one guesses that The Coup was immensely enjoyable to write, once the ankle-thongs of African "history" were disposed of. For instance, Ellelloû discovers that office supplies stolen from the capital city of Kush are being smuggled by camel caravan to Iran, and this embarrassment is explained cheerfully by the caravan's leader:

"The Shahansha has much wish to modernize. In his hurry he buys typewriters from West Germany and paper from Sweden and then discover only one type spool fit typewriter, only one type eraser not smudge paper. American know-how meanwhile achieve obsolescence such that only filling spool stockpiled in Accra as aid-in-goods when cocoa market collapse. Formula of typewriter eraser held secret and cunning capitalists double, redouble price when Shah push up oil price to finance purchase of jet fighters, computer software, and moon rocks. French however operating through puppet corporations in Dahomey have secured formula as part of multi-billion-franc deferred-interest, somatic-collateral package and erect eraser factory near gum arabic plantations. Much borax also in deal, smuggled by way of Quagadougou. Now Sadat has agreed to let goods across Nile if Shahanshah agrees to make anti-Israeli statement and buy ten thousand tickets to sonet-lumiére show at Sphinx."

Everything, every human act or gesture or vision, is explained away glibly in language taken from popular magazines or television shows: American women are "unbridled Amazons who drive our men outward from the home to perform those feats of engineering and merchandising that dumfound the world"; Ellelloû's mistress, formerly a native wench whose grandmother was a leopard, soon acquires Western clothes, shoes, wristwatches, even contact lenses (which make her brown eyes blue), and assures Ellelloû that her response to his love-making is genuine: "Only my President can lead me so utterly to forget myself, I am led to the brink of another world, and grow terrified lest I fall in and be annihilated. It's neat."

Beneath, behind, informing every scene of this inspired novel, which a superficial reading might judge as almost too inspired (a tour de force against readers' expectations, like Updike's very first novel The Poorhouse Fair, which was anything but a "young man's novel"), is a passionate and despairing cynicism which I take to be, for all its wit, Updike's considered view of where we are and where we are going. No moral uplift here; no gestures, like Bellow's, toward the essential "health" of the commonplace. If American know-how is only another word for exploitation, if American statesmen (like the unctuous Klipspringer) and advisers are asinine jargon-filled fools, the Soviets are, if possible, even more ridiculous. "Islamic socialism" is "pure" of corrupting capitalistic investments, but it has the disadvantage of not working—so long as Ellelloû's anti-American policy holds, his people are doomed to die of thirst and starvation. Ellelloû is devoutly religious, and everyone who surrounds him is atheistic and materialistic, but what does faith in Allah matter when the sky is pitilessly blank, and all Ellelloû can think of in defense of his faith is the feeble observation, "The drought is a form of the Manifest Radiance, and our unhappiness within it is blasphemy. The book accuses: Your hearts are taken up with worldly gain from the cradle to the grave."

America, Updike hypothesizes, reached in the 1960s and early 1970s (and The Coup takes place during the Watergate hearings) "that dangerous condition when a religion, to contradict its own sensation that it is dying, lashes out against others. Thus the Victorians flung their Christianity against the heathen of the world after Voltaire and Darwin had made its tenets ridiculous; thus the impoverished sultan of Morocco in 1591 hurled troops across the Sahara .... a conquest that profited him nothing and destroyed the Songhai empire forever." And: "It may be ... that in the attenuation, dessication, and death of religions the world over, a new religion is being formed in the indistinct hearts of men, a religion without a God, without prohibitions and compensatory assurances, a religion whose antipodes are motion and stasis, whose one rite is the exercise of energy, and in which exhausted forms like the quest, the vow, the expiation, and the attainment through suffering of wisdom are, emptied of content, put in the service of a pervasive expenditure whose ultimate purpose is entropy .... Millions now enact the trials of this religion, without giving it a name, or attributing to themselves any virtue."

("The Fifties were when all the fun was:" Candy says bitterly, "though nobody knew it at the time.")

Judging from the stories in "another mode" in Museums and Women, and the highly self-conscious voice of A Month of Sundays, it might have seemed that Updike's genius was for fiction and not metafiction. (For why parody art if you can create it, why devise clever paste pearls if you own genuine pearls?) But The Coup, which makes only the most perfunctory gestures toward old-fashioned realism, let alone naturalism, is an immensely inspired and energetic work, striking, on page after page, the comic brilliancy that leaps from Joyce's Ulysses, in such chapters as The Cyclops, for instance, in which ferocious exaggeration becomes an art that is self-consuming; in its possibly more immediate relationship to Nabokov and Marquez, the novel sets down the improbable beside the probable, creating a "fictional" nation that is altogether convincing, and yet populating it with fools and knaves and tough-talking nagging wives who have the depth, if not the distinctiveness, of playing cards. The Coup's coup is style. If entropy is capitalism's goal, just as it is "socialism's" goal, if life in our time has become so sterile that even Ellelloû's traitorous minister Ezana can say, casually, "Life is like an overlong drama through which we sit being nagged by vague memories of having read the reviews," there is all the more need for style, for art, for the unique, quirky, troubling visions that our finest artists force upon us.

Updike has grown amazingly cynical with the passage of time: how odd that the author of Pigeon Feathers should be evolving, before our eyes, into the Mark Twain of The Mysterious Stranger, or the Swift of Gulliver's final voyage, or the Samuel Beckett who says laconically that failure, not success, interests him! One would have not guessed the direction his novels might take, considering even the bitterly ironic ending of Rabbit, Run (which, if set beside Rabbit Redux of a decade later, is nevertheless characterized by an odd "Fifties" optimism despite the current of its remorseless plot—the sense of a world of promise, a world awaiting exploration, even exploitation, to which the dissatisfied Candy alludes in her banal fashion, calling it "fun"), and the understated, unheroic conclusion of Couples, in which the hero and heroine, about whose emotions we know so very much, in such exhaustive detail, become, merely, in the end, just "another couple" in suburban America. Admirers of Updike's sardonic Bech stories, however, have sensed quite clearly the drift of Updike's mind, which finds its sharpest, least muffled, and least sentimental expression through the persona of Henry Bech, Updike's daimonic opposite (bachelor, Jew, perpetually blocked novelist who, at the conclusion of a recent story, finds that he cannot even sign his own name); Bech's view of the universe and of man's striving within it is as droll as Céline's, and he would, adroitly, with an allegorical instinct as habitual as Updike's, sketch in quick analogues between the drying-up of creative powers and the drying-up of fertile lands.

The world in which "Kush" is located is, after all, a "global village" in which individuals no longer exist, and tribes are relocated in a matter of days, to make way for multi-level parking garages, shopping malls, and McDonald's hamburger restaurants. Ellelloû's prophetic zeal is commendable, but who among his people cares?—if "You will be Xed out by Exxon, ungulfed by Gulf, crushed by the US, disenfranchised by France, not only you but your entire loving nation of succulent wives, loyal brothers, righteous fathers, and aged but still amusing mothers. All inked out, absolutely .... In the vocabulary of profit there is no word for 'pity.'"

Is such cynicism soluble in art? Indeed yes.