"Review: The Coup, by John Updike (Knopf, 1978)." The Dooryard Post 1:3 (Summer 1979), 25-6.
In a literary world like that of the mid-twentieth century , John Updike is an anomaly. He is a craftsman. Partly through years of training in precision and delicacy writing on the New Yorker, and partly by the sheer plod of more than twenty books, his prose has become a precision-engineered scalpel. Paragraphs and scenes from Updike are treasured in the memories of thousands of writers and editors as models of brilliant, concise evocation of a world we all live in but seldom see -- at least not with anything like the luminously miniaturized, wrong-end-of-the-telescope clarity that we find in Updike's fiction He is in an odd position, though: however marvelous the texture of his work, he's neither trendy enough nor revolutionary enough to occupy a position of real eminence. When the undergraduate course in trends in twentieth century literature gets round to the sixties and seventies, Updike probably won't even get a mention (though he'll certainly get a paragraph in the textbook).
In spite of that, there are lots of readers who get from Updike the same bracing whiff of irony, like the sparkling air when it's twenty below the morning after a blizzard, that they get from Jane Austen or George Meredith. It's for such readers that I report that The Coup is not what they had in mind, at all. There's irony, but it's no longer the irony of the poet laureate of Westchester: mostly it's a direct political irony of a kind quite unlike the scalpel we're used to in Updike's hands. Here it's a double-bladed axe. One side sinks crunchingly into the pretensions of a North American society that knows what's best for all the peoples of the world: WonderBras and Spam and Big Macs and Buicks. The other blade, with less crunch but possibly even more finality, disembowels the fallacies of political fanaticism (in this case, it's a Marxist / Moslem variety, but the specific subspecies is not, one suspects, a crucial issue for Updike.)
In the middle foreground, sometimes wielding the axe and sometimes receiving its attentions himself, stands Updike's curiously double narrator / protagonist, Ellelloû, the dictator of the mythical African republic of Kush. Having studied at a branch of the University of Wisconsin in the equally mythical town of Franchise, Ellelloû has a particularly divided vision of the world and of himself.
On the one hand, he is a fanatical, puritanical dictator reminiscent of Ben Bella of Algeria (a cross, let us say, between Fidel Castro and Idi Amin), who does not hesitate to incinerate a misguided, smug American state department operative who only wants to deliver a load of Korn Kurls and Total to the drought-starved populace of Kush.
On the other hand, he is an introspective, self-alienated memoir writer constantly questioning his own motives and exploring his own attitudes toward his wives (among them a blonde Wisconsin co-ed named Candy), toward himself, and toward Kush. This split is dramatized by the book's unnerving habit of switching back and forth, sometimes in mid-sentence, between first- and third-person narrative, as though Ellelloû the memoir writer were having an out-of-body experience, looking down on some stranger who motives were a matter for conjecture.
Kush itself, and the corner of northeast Africa that it occupies, are an achievement of the imagination comparable to Middle Earth or Oceania -- or, perhaps more closely, to the Costaguana of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo. Its richness of detail makes it believably real, whether or not you believe it has anything much to do with the reality of the Sahel and the post-colonial politics of that part of the third world.
But of course it doesn't have to. It -- and Ellelloû himself -- are merely a mechanism through which Updike wants to write (from the utter outside, for once) about the myths which support -- and plague -- our society. Even the crazy Russians whose dummy missile base is sunk into the dry ground of a back corner of Kush are not so much a target in themselves as a weapon aimed at a phalanx of grinning, openhanded and self-confident American democracy salesmen. And the salesmen -- in Kush as in the real world -- win. The coup of the title is the unseating of Ellelloû as dictator, and his replacement by a colonel more inclined than he to accept the tidal wave of Americanization -- Braille libraries and oil wells, sunglasses and slacks, three-bedroom bungalows and Twinkies and tourists.
Unlike many ex-dictators, Ellelloû survives -- living with one of his wives in the south of France, on a pension from the now-rich government of Kush, contemplating his career in a kind of echoing, crystalline déjà vu, forever frozen in a lucite cube of prose. "Colonel Ellelloû," the book ends, "is rumoured to be working on his memoirs."