- Containing the Third World:John Updike's The Coup
Despite John Updike's Numerous Portrayals of middle-class American life and his extraordinary combination of popular and critical success, the reception of his works has been predictably apolitical. Perhaps because Updike has written extensively about the influence of the theologian Karl Barth on his thinking, critics have concentrated largely on Updike's preoccupation with faith in a secular world. With Couples, The Centaur and more so with his "Rabbit" tetralogy—Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, and Rabbit At Rest —Updike has been established as the humanist priest of contemporary America.1 It is little wonder, then, that even The Coup, Updike's most overtly political novel about revolution, independence, and dictatorship in Africa has been similarly depoliticized. But to read The [End Page 113] Coup as a "spiritual" text is to function in complicity with the dominant colonial/imperial discourse that seeks to present itself as ideologically innocent.2 Ethical categories are, as Fredric Jameson reminds us, ideological vehicles for the legitimation of structures of power and domination.3 Thus, in The Coup the representation of Kush (a mythical African country) is simultaneously an attempt to contain anticolonial and anti-imperialist resistance. I will briefly examine some of the issues in colonial discourse theory and then analyze The Coup as a text that simultaneously empowers the norms of middle-class America and works to contain the threat of revolution and Otherness that the Third World poses.
Edward Said suggests that at the heart of colonial discourse is the concept of culture as power possessed by the colonizer. This proprietary concept of culture "designates a boundary by which concepts of what is extrinsic or intrinsic to the culture come into forceful play." Culture thus becomes an instrument which has the power to "dominate, to legitimate, demote, interdict, and validate" (World 9). In Orientalism Said shows how the depictions of the Orient as eternal, uniform, and incapable of defining itself were bound in the colonial project of occupation and control.4 Despite the power of Said's words, however, reasonable doubts might be raised about the paradigm of colonial power and native passivity. Homi Bhabha has, in fact, questioned Said on precisely this point. He argues that the assumption that colonial power and discourse belong to the colonizer alone is simplistic.5 Bhabha emphasizes the productive ambivalence of colonial discourse, the existence in colonial discourse of native subversion and colonial anxiety (18, 24-25). Although Bhabha's questioning of the power of the colonizer is politically problematic, his notion of productive ambivalence is important. Native passivity might not be the only way to empower colonial discourse. Power, as Michel Foucault has brilliantly demonstrated, works not only in a primitive manner—overtly and by repression, but in ways we are unaware of. Foucault's upsetting of the vertical notion of power suggests that power [End Page 114] may work covertly and insidiously.6 Thus, images of the alterity of the native might function as means of empowering colonial discourse. The native, as Franz Fanon suggests, can be the "deforming element, disfiguring all that has to do with beauty or morality" and thus be treated as a threat to be subdued (41).
The relationship of texts to colonialist/imperialist ideology is not one of simple affiliation or disaffiliation. Literary texts may reproduce the workings of this ideology without using it as an overt polemic. This is, in fact, what happens in The Coup. The reliance on satire and seemingly universal myths functions to legitimate an imperialist discourse that denies the political existence of the Third World. The Coup does what Updike's hero of the Rabbit tetralogy desperately wishes for but is unable to achieve—an exorcism of the demons of racial and cultural difference that question the stability of his suburban existence.
The plot of The Coup is a narrative of the Third World well rehearsed in the Western imagination. Kush, a former colony of French West Africa, is given autonomy under King Edumu, a restored native constitutional monarch, "moderate" in his dealings with the West. The feckless, indigenous ruler is in turn deposed by a...