- The Coup:John Updike's Modernist Masterpiece
John updike, critic, poet, and one of America's most prolific and important writers of fiction, has been justly celebrated for his evocations of middle-class American life. Novels such as Couples and Marry Me recreate a rootless, moneyed suburban milieu, and his two books that follow the life and loves of Henry Bech carry the reader into the world of the urban Jewish intelligentsia. Updike is perhaps most famous, however, for his three "Rabbit" novels—Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, and Rabbit Is Rich, which follow the career of Harry Angstrom at ten-year intervals from the frightened and alienated young husband of the Fifties to the portly and prosperous latter-day Babbitt of the Seventies.
Updike's many critics have generally either lauded his elegant prose and his sensitive evocations of ordinary life or disparaged his "limited" vision and what they see as his failure to move beyond an outmoded realistic tradition in the novels following The Centaur, an early portrait of Updike's father set within an elaborate mythological framework. Whereas postmodernist writers such as John Hawkes, John Barth, and Thomas Pynchon attempt to evoke the chaos and anxiety of post-World War Two America through a fiction that is not only nonrealistic but antirealistic, Updike has remained for the most part fairly strictly within the confines of realism, increasingly incorporating topical events and [End Page 249] historical personages into the framework of his novels.
Whether admirers or critics, however, Updike's commentators have curiously largely ignored his most imaginative and least realistic novel, The Coup. Published in 1978, The Coup is the reputed memoir of Hakim Felix Ellelloû, the now-deposed president of Kush, a sub-Saharan country suffering from a long-term drought. The memoir, written sometimes in the first person and sometimes in the third, recounts Ellelloû's final year as president, with numerous digressions upon his years as expatriate student in America at McCarthy College in Franchise, Wisconsin, during the 1950s. A surrealist mixture of the real and the imagined, the logical and the absurd, The Coup is Updike's imaginative recreation of an Africa of the mind as well as a commentary on American technological rationalism and materialistic values—a theme that informs many Updike novels.
Although The Coup was greeted with both praise and surprise by book reviewers, serious critics and even Updike scholars1 have failed to explore the artistry of this novel, which effectively refutes charges that Updike lacks imagination, breadth of vision, or the ability to move outside the bounds of strict realism. In The Coup Updike appropriates the historical moment—the middle of an actual five-year drought in the African Sahel—and superimposes on this largely realistic background comic variations on the myth of the hero and his traditional quest to free the waters. The message of this African novel is, of course, directed at America, as Updike details the death of the old gods of myth and religion and the birth of the new gods of technology and consumerism. This is much the same message as embodied in his subsequent novel, Rabbit Is Rich, but in The Coup it is voiced by an African observer, Ellelloû, the most unreliable of unreliable narrators.
Updike is in many respects eminently qualified to set a novel in Africa. He had visited Africa as a Fulbright lecturer during the time the book is set (1973-74), and during the past two decades he has reviewed with sympathy and wit books written about Africa.2The Coup, therefore, represents more than just a fictional recreation of an Eliotic wasteland; in its ethnic and religious makeup, its topographical outlines, its climatic conditions, and its political background, the land of Kush corresponds to a remarkable degree to the actual country of Niger, a country described by Thurston Clarke as a "perpetual disaster area." The country has "both more land and more poor land than any other country in the Sahel. Four-fifths of it is desert; of the remaining fifth, [End Page 250] only seventy-seven thousand acres are irrigated and invulnerable to yearly fluctuations in rainfall" (170). Niger is about 489,000...