Insidious alchemy: god and oil in the petrofiction of John Updike

Hannes Bergthaller*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


‘After His death, God turned into oil, and oil became a surrogate God,’ Antti Salminen and Tere Vadén write in Energy and Experience. This essay examines two novels by John Updike in order to validate this startling claim: Rabbit Is Rich presents an intimate chronicle of late 1970s, post-oil crisis malaise. TheCoup presents something like a reverse perspective: narrated from the perspective of the deposed dictator of an African petro-state, the novel satirizes both petroleum-fueled American affluence and the futile attempts of a Western-trained anti-colonial elite to stave off the latter’s destructive effects on the local ecology and traditional lifeways. Both novels can be read as a sustained effort to explore the obscure connections between the decline of faith and the rise of consumer culture, to detect the afterglow of a spent religious force in the experiential texture of American society during the age of oil.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)130-140
Number of pages11
JournalGreen Letters
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2019 Apr 3
Externally publishedYes


  • Phenomenology
  • petrocriticism
  • petroculture
  • religion
  • suburban fiction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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