Maybe I’m like Sherman Adams and Fats Domino and other, you know semi-remote figures who have acquired a certain historical interest
John Updike (1968)
From John Updike a new novel: it arrives moist and carmine from the co-ed kisses of the New York Review of Books. Set in the fictional sub-Saharan nation of Kush, it concerns the deposing of the Islamic Socialist President Felix Ellelou, who narrates his fall in the first and third persons. Travelling in Africa as a Fulbright Lecturer in 1973, Updike clearly coveted some of the qualities he noted in the African novels he reviewed for the New Yorker between 1971 and 1973 – classical tragic form, openness to the possibilities of the marvellous, and the inclusion of characters whose lives are ‘a synopsis of human history’. However, if one skims off a Quranic layer most apparent in the Ustinovian exchanges of the first scene (‘that Kismet crap’, Felix’s American wife calls it), the master tonality of The Coup is derived not from Jilali, Achebe or Awoonor, but from the candied Utopian language of a mind so pure that no general idea can violate it. The influence of Nabokov can be recognized throughout American fiction of the last two decades, notably in Barth, Hawkes, Gass and even Robbins, but The Coup is the first time to my knowledge that this dominance has been thematized.
A sceptical judgement would be that having done a Bellow (Bech), a Mailer-Sammler (Rabbit Redux), a late Vidal (Buchanan Dying), and an Updike (Marry Me), the greatest novelist to come out of Pennsylvania believed he should go after number one. But in fact the position of Nabokov in this novel is subtle and equivocal. ‘Novels ought to have secrets’, Updike said once, by which he meant, contextually, something as dull as star signs: whereas now, ‘the air of Kush is transparent; there are no secrets, only reticences’. Thus Russian control of Kush is represented by a missile base run by Colonel Sirin (Nabokov’s interwar pseudonym) knowing that the rockets may be ‘dummies, sacks of local sand’; and, while Ellelou is out performing the traditional chores of the postwar American male lead (i.e. quim and quest), the Minister of the Interior, Michaelis Ezara, is infiltrating America consumer goods into his country. Felix’s gradual realization of this process is the occasion for a number of sharp effects:
Ellelou sat down and sipped his chocolate which had grown cool: but no mere tepidity had subverted its taste: there was something added and subtracted, something malty, ersatz, adulterate, mild, mellow, vitaminized. Ambushed by recognition, Ellelou blurted out to Ezara the one word ‘Ovaltine’!
Further into the novel the Islamic-African-Russian stylistic coalition is disclosed as an impossible enterprise, expelled and dispersed into America, as are Felix’s similar plans for Kush. Updike seems to me to have seized upon not only an inversion, in writing an African novel, of Nabokov’s reinvention of the American novel, but also the relation between that reinvention and expatriation – the discovery, in James and Fitzgerald, that through the use of inventory and precise rendition of the surfaces of the alien, those ‘inessential houses’ of sensuous materiality and social infrastructure may be peeled away like decals from a windscreen. Compare the disconcerting data of Updike’s opening and his scintillating evocations of the dungs and musks of Kush, which in one movement proffer and retract their object (the ‘Disneyesque eyelashes’ of the camels come to mind). Pynchon woz ‘ere, of course, and I feel duty bound to remark that what I find most admirable in The Coup – the attempt to synthesize an unstable, polyglot, post-colonial discourse in which a new American style may be baptized – was also the aim of the Fausto Maijstral section of V, the chapter referred to by C. Ricks as ‘pretentious maundering’. It is pleasant to observe Updike adopting this mode of transport rather than the Jumbo Jets of John Barth, whom I take to be spoofed in the passage where Ellelou visits, in the most barren zone of Kush, the talking head of executed King Ezara.