Monday, June 9, 2008

Roger's Version and Homosociality

A warning: This post, by its very nature and subject, is quite a bit more explicit than the ones I normally put up here. So if you're easily offended or disgusted by graphic descriptions of sex, I'd suggest you sit this one out.

You can tell I've been with my little gender theorist too long, since I'm starting to view everything through a Judith Butler-colored lens. Queer and gender theory is pretty pervasive in the Academy these days--though perhaps not to the extent it was a decade ago--but in my fairly extensive research in John Updike scholarship, I've not found a critic who applies the theories to his books. So this post is my poor attempt to do so; at some point, I'll maybe expand this into a full paper, but honestly, I don't know the theory well enough to apply it in any professional capacity.

Updike's books (at least the ones I've read) all contain pretty similar elements. They all deal with the intersection of faith, death, and sex, and they all depict that sex in graphic, almost disgusting ways. (When I introduced Updike to my Comp II class last semester, I told them that "Updike's sex scenes tend to be more gross than erotic...just like real sex" and enjoyed the horrified looks.) They all feature some form of adultery, and for the most part have one of two endings: (a) The adultery is discovered but never really dealt with, but it's not really a big deal (Rabbit Run and Roger's Version); or (b) Husbands end up with different wives (Couples and Marry Me). There are exceptions to this general rule of course--for example, In the Beauty of the Lillies is light on sex compared to Updike's other novels, and it's ending is violent rather than sexual--but this is the general trajectory of his work.

As such, his attitude toward adultery is really, really important in terms of understanding his work as a whole. Critics go a bunch of different directions with this--for example, Frederick Crewes infamously argues that Updike's entire post-1968 output is an attempt to justify his own adultery, whereas others argue that adultery is no big deal because he's a Lutheran, and Lutherans care less about individual actions than overall orientation. I'm not terribly interested (at least not in this post) in determining Updike's own sexual ethics; I'm more concerned with his characters' motivations for adultery.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote the defining work on male literary homosociality, 1985's Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. (Interestingly, Sedgwick's book came out the same year as Updike's Roger's Version, and the covers of the books are the same sickly shade of pale green. A coincidence, I'm sure, but an interesting one.) Her first chapter, "Gender Asymmetry and Erotic Triangles," is the important one for Updike studies.
First, a definition for those not familiar with queer theory:
"Homosocial" is a word occasionally used in history and the social sciences, where it describes social bonds between persons of the same sex; it is a neologism, obviously formed by analogy with "homosexuality," and just as obviously meant to be distinguished from "homosexual." In fact, it is applied to such activities as "male bonding," which may, as in our society, be characterized by intense homophobia.
So "homosocial" does not refer to homosexuality exactly, but instead a range of activities involving pairs or groups of men. Sedgwick's point, however, is that the line between homosexuality and homosociality is so thin as to not be a line at all; both experiences exist on a continuum, and it is possible for men to be engaging in homosexuality under the auspices of homosociality. (This system is not such a problem for women, who cross from one to the other without much problem.)

In her first chapter, Sedgwick claims that love triangles (in literature and, I suspect, in real life) demonstrate this continuum well, since "the bond between rivals in an erotic triangle [is] even stronger, more heavily determinant of actions and choices, than anything in the bond between either of the lovers and the beloved." We see this sort of phenomenon all through Updike's catalogue. There is the rivalry between Rabbit Angstrom and Ronnie Harrison, for example. The women passed between the two men come and go--Ruth in Rabbit Run, Thelma in Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, and, after Rabbit's death, Janice in "Rabbit Remembered." These relationships are controlled in large part by the rivalry between the two men. Rabbit makes Ruth go down on him after hearing she did so to Ronnie years before; Ronnie's rivalry with Rabbit must have played some part in his decision to marry Janice; and Rabbit shows little interest in anal sex until he learns that Ronnie and Thelma engage in it. Updike's use of anal sex is telling, since sodomy is chiefly associated, at least by straight men, with male homosexuality.

Sodomy shows up in Roger's Version, as well. The novel deals with Roger Lambert, a staunch Barthian professor of heresy at a New England college. Roger doesn't have much faith, despite his claims that he does, but he's still personally offended when a young science student, Dale Kohler, tells him that he wishes to prove God's existence with a computer. The novel is heavily theological, but that's beside the point as far as this post is concerned. What's important is that Roger imagines Dale to be having an affair with his wife, Esther, and that much of the last half of the novel is composed of his fantasies about the affair.

We are never certain whether the affair actually happens or not--Roger is told at the end of the novel that Dale is sleeping with an older woman, but we don't have any real evidence that that older woman is Esther. But Roger is convinced and constructs graphic fantasies about their lovemaking. These hypothesized acts are far more explicit and detailed (far more Updikean, in other words) than Roger's own sex scenes, which primarily take place off-camera. Roger goes into great detail about Dale and Esther's lovemaking, and, tellingly, imagines at one point that the two engage in anal sex. He seems to enjoy the thought:

In truth Dale's desire, with Esther's connivance, to possess her completely, her slender perishable body, has led them lately in their lovemaking to that smallest, tightest orifice as well. Dale remembers the grip of the cold greased sphincter and the sight of the nape of her dear neck tense at the other end of her spine and blushes.

But it is Dale, not Roger, who blushes; nor does he blush when describing the oral sex Esther performs on his rival:
Esther loves being sluttish with this boy; he is so purely grateful and astounded and would never think to use it against her . . . This tall bony youth of shining skin and thrilling phallus has been somehow delivered to her. She gorges herself on his flesh until her jaws ache. In the respite, gasping and wiping her lips, she croons, "So big. Too big for my mouth."
Creepy. Roger imagines the two acts most associated with male homosexuality and applies them to his rival's hypothetical affair with his wife, taking great pleasure in describing them and imagining Dale's penis to be enormous. Surely there's some wish-fulfillment there. His fantasies of the affair even begin with a description of what he imagines Dale's penis to look like:
I pictured a white shaft: tense, pure, with dim blue broad veins and darker thinner purple ones and a pink-mauve head like the head of a mushroom set by the Creator upon a swollen stem nearly as thick as itself, just the merest little lip or rounded eaves, the corona glandis, overhanging the bluish stretched semi-epiderm where pagan foreskin once was, and a drop of translucent nectar in the little wide-awake slit of an eye at its velvety suffused tip.
All of this begs a question: Who is Roger jealous of in this fantasy? It appears to be Esther, more so than Dale, since he thinks about his ostensible rival (maybe something closer to beloved) almost all the time, imagining not only his affair with Esther but his day-to-day life as well. The feelings seem to be mutual; Dale says at one point that he thinks of Roger as he is lying in bed at night.

This homosoci-/sexuality between rivals is not unique in Updike's work--it has showed up in everything I've read by him--but Roger's Version's fantasy setup allows Updike to foreground the desire between Roger and Dale. But what do we do with it? Despite his own frailness--he was not particularly athletic as a child and has suffered for seven decades with psoriasis--he is one of the most masculine writers still alive; a character in In the Beauty of the Lillies even receives his salvation by becoming a big, tough man and killing some people. But the homosocial desire present in these books subverts our very notions of masculinity (perhaps even Updike's notions, as I'm not sure how much of this results from conscious artistic decisions)--it has a similar effect to the dirty jokes nerds tell about football players tackling each other.

Perhaps with a little more probing (pun intended), this could be ammunition in the battle against Updike's sexism--anyone, after all, who subverts notions of heterosexual masculinity this much can't be an out-and-out sexist, can he?


slant-truth said...

Your "little gender theorist," huh? I'm going to assume that patronizing tone is ironic, sir. Mostly because I've spent the past 3 hours looking at satin samples and am in danger of having my angry feminist card taken away. Seriously, this is very interesting, and I hope you turn it into a paper. If you do, check out Gayle Rubin's "The Traffick in Women" for more foundational thought on women as currency in a male homosocial world.

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

The lengths to which you'll go to rescue Updike from charges of sexism...

Honestly, I think I lack the sophistication for modern novels. I never realized until now that all those scenes were in Roger's imagination.