In the Beauty of the Lilies
“I knew now that I had a real deadline,”Nicholson Baker wrote in U and I, which appeared in 1991. The task was
to write about Updike while people could still conceivably sneer at him simply for being at the top of the heap, before any false valedictory grand-old-man reverence crept in, as it inevitably would…. I would study my feelings for Updike while he was still in that phase of intellectual neglect that omnipresence and best-selling popularity inspire.
I don’t see anyone sneering at Updike, and the valedictory stuff still seems a shuffle or two away; but there is manifestly a move to turn Updike into an American monument, and monuments do get neglected, even if they are constantly looked at. He is so routinely praised for writing well that we don’t see how well he writes. Or how badly at times; the risks he takes to get where he is going. It’s possible that you have to be ready, as Updike is in his new novel, his seventeenth, to see New York City as predictably “hushed under a veil of enchantment”—the proof had “cloak” but there’s not much to choose between them—if you’re going to find, on another page, the unpredictable “lemon-yellow dog pee scribbled in the snow among the cigarette butts.” You may have to permit yourself a pompous picture of guns “possessed of a smooth inarguable beauty, haughty in their power to administer death,” in order to arrive at the marvelous ease of “the slither of death’s touch.”
Updike “forces us to reassess the American Dream” (Michiko Kakutani); In the Beauty of the Lilies is “American (in the best sense) to the bone” (James Kaplan). Updike, in his memoir Self-Consciousness, more modestly spoke of “what I had to say about America”; but even there the implication was that saying something about America was a major part of an American novelist’s business. It’s worth pausing over the eager nationalism of such a notion. Who reads Kafka or Calvino or García Márquez for what they have to say about Bohemia, Italy, or Colombia? Ah, but America is not a place, it’s a deferred, endlessly self-correcting idea, always looking for its own best sense? Just so. In Updike’s new novel, the following commonplaces are faithfully recorded, among many others. Americans are competitive (“He didn’t want to compete, and yet this seemed the only way to be an American”); America is open (“Land of opportunity, that’s still the good old U.S. of A.”); America is fast and tough (“In America opportunity doesn’t keep knocking”; “There are no free rides in America”). It’s not just that these maxims contradict each other, it’s that they are not even trying to say anything plausible. Opportunity does or doesn’t knock in Australia? There are lots of free rides in France or Singapore? Germans are not competitive? But of course the maxims are not meaningless. They assert a theory of difference which itself makes a difference, becomes a self-fulfilling promise. What’s truly American about America is that it’s American.
Of course there are historical differences among all countries, but that’s not what the mythology is about. Even so, there may be a difference in the United States that is not pure assertion, or the effect of it. It would have to do with religion, with the sense that even the secular is religious in this territory; the busy maxims would be aiming not at social or political distinctness but at a blurred form of theological election, refractions of God’s choice. “Some sense of religious mission is part of being an American,” Updike said in an interview. “So you don’t have to force the theme of religion on an American novel. It’s very much there, either its presence or its absence.” There must be (I hope) many Americans who don’t have this sense of mission; but there are many who do, and many more, perhaps, who have it without knowing it. By the time you’re even a little way into In the Beauty of the Lilies you find the lurking pun in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” pretty much irresistible, and increasingly oppressive. Christ was born across the sea; then borne across the sea, and born again, different, difficult, unappeasable. Even the screen careers of actors like Gary Cooper and Clark Gable can be read as gaunt and cryptic consequences of Christ’s American voyage:
Beasts of burden all but a few of them, they were unable to explain themselves and unapologetic about the lack; sons of an America where the Bible still ruled, they were justified in all their limitations by the Protestant blessing bestowed upon hardship and hardness.
The novel wants to connect the modern history of the United States to the history of the movies, and so opens with the young Mary Pickford falling off a horse and a Presbyterian minister losing his faith: simultaneously. Apart from flashes of interpretation like the one I’ve just quoted, the film connection is bland and dull, and was done much better in real life by Ronald Reagan. It makes Updike write sentences like: “It was the dead, unearthly grandfather she aspired to. In his unreality he held a promise of lifting her up toward the heavenly realm where movie stars flickered and glowed….” It’s one thing to find a secret theology in acting, another to believe there is a theology in every lazy metaphor. But the minister’s loss of faith is wonderfully described, and looks forward to the minister’s great grandson finding and losing again a crazed faith at the end of the novel—as if losing and finding, like presence and absence, were only variations on a theme. Or more precisely, as if in religion there were no loss or absence, only tortured forms of finding and persistence.
In the hot June of 1910 the Reverend Clarence Arthur Wilmot, rector of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Paterson, New Jersey, experiences a “ruinous pang,” feels the loss of his faith “like a physical event.” It’s here that we see some more of the stylistic risks Updike is taking. He is willing to write of Clarence’s “descent through the shadows of this stifling afternoon into the bottomless, featureless depths of Godlessness” and of his perception of the conversation around him as “a carnivorous phantasmagoria projected on a wall of his inner void”—which even allowing for a little simulation of Clarence’s mental style is not exactly underwritten. I’m not too sure either about his falling “asleep upon the adamant bosom of the depleted universe.” But then there is the “giant space of comprehended loss,” where comprehension is far more desolate and encompassing than understanding would have been; and there is the brilliant use of “infidelity” to mean not a marital lapse but a fall from the saddle of belief.
There is also the extraordinary evocation of the solidly material world in which this loss takes place. There is the scent of sweet ham from the kitchen, with all the details of a recipe; Clarence’s “grimace of difficulty,” as he removes one of those celluloid collars we’ve all but forgotten; the hall of the rectory where faith takes its leave:
The irregular open space of the parsonage in which [Clarence] had paused and been assailed by this realization was defined by the closed door to his study, the doorless archway into the dining room, the inner front door, with its large decoratively frosted pane framed in leaded rectangles of stained glass the color of milky candies, and the foot of the dark walnut staircase that, in two turnings punctuated by rectangular newel posts whose points had been truncated, ascended to the second floor.
You can lose your faith anywhere, of course, but Updike makes us feel that Clarence could have lost his beleaguered faith only in this ornate and heavy place, the interior of a substantial, claustrophobic America. In another register entirely, there is the long discussion Clarence has with the regional moderator, who cannot accept the minister’s resignation without a year’s delay for second thoughts. The moderator, a modern man who has studied at Union Theological Seminary, as distinct from Clarence’s Princeton, marshals all the arguments for a pact between God and a shifting, relative world. Clarence is unconvinced, but enormously taken by the fluency of his superior’s case, spread out over some eight or nine pages, and we would indeed be guilty of “intellectual neglect” of Updike if we didn’t take it seriously, if we thought it was only background, or dutiful historicizing.
Clarence persists in his apostasy, becomes a sadly unsuccessful encyclopedia salesman, and dies of tuberculosis and disappointment. The narrative turns to his wife and children, and particularly to his son Teddy. Most of the family moves to Basingstoke, Delaware, where the diffident Teddy, after much hesitation, marries a lame girl and becomes a mailman. The novel does become rather dutiful here, splicing in events like the end of World War I, the Scopes trial, the Wall Street crash, the arrival of the talkies, so that we know time is passing and America is growing both older and more modern. But then there is this beautifully paced account of the place where Teddy works for a while, and meets his future wife:
The drug store’s big plate window displayed above a pyramid of sunfaded goods two ornamental suspended globes, one holding iodinered fluid and the other a blue liquid like watered-down ink. Entered by a door cut into the corner, the store had a magazine rack to the left of the door and on the two sides to the right a series of five-foot slant-faced display cases; attached to the case holding cigars and snuffs and cigarettes, a little flaming gas jet was cupped in chrome; the flame was lit at seven-thirty in the morning, when the store opened, and turned off at nine at night, when it closed. There was also, screwed into the wood like a pencil sharpener, a cigar cutter—a miniature guillotine where children were always wanting to insert their fingers…. The soda fountain was a new thing, installed in 1929….
Somewhat later, Updike’s prose discreetly echoes that of Proust and Joyce—there are jeunes filles en fleur, and Joyce’s “heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit” becomes a “humid blue-black sky and its clusters of unreachable stars,” while the earth itself is “a fruit being pressed to yield its juice”—but he has already done quite a bit of restoring of lost time and redeeming of lyrical distances. The drug store’s historical equivalents are gone, and the children are dead or ancient; but the flame and the mischief are alive in these cherished details.
Teddy’s daughter becomes a movie star, and changes her name from Esther to Alma. She has parts opposite the aging, Biblical Cooper and Gable, makes a movie called Cream Cheese and Caviar with Paul Newman, stars in a musical called The Last Time We Saw Topeka. She belongs to Doris Day’s generation, but has an edge that reminds people of Rita Hayworth. Alma is tremendously contented with herself, but she’s also fiercely hard-working, and she has a family inheritance of endurance and diminishment: “So much loneliness in living, so much waste. So much unredeemable loss.”
She had been there, the audiences felt—in the musty back seats of Plymouths, at the lunch-hour sock hops, in the alleyway behind the drug store and the ice-cream parlor, at the edge of town with its stupefying view of rural emptiness. Alma had paid her dues, out in the desolate America of earning and spending and eating and breeding and listening for the music, in a way the princesses Grace and Audrey had not. Kim and Marilyn had paid or were paying theirs, but somehow numbly, with anesthetized blonde wits; it was Alma’s heartbreaking gift to suggest that she was fully aware, knowing more than she could say, more than the script could say, even as the plot demanded that she be cast out—murdered, exiled, imprisoned—for failing to conform.
That desolate America: a myth made for disenchantment. But even its disenchantment is like no other.
Alma’s son Clark—chief representative of the fourth Wilmot generation in the novel, and the hero of its astonishing fourth part—is a spaced-out Hollywood failure of about thirty, a man who has fluffed too many deals and quit too many jobs, when he ends up in the Colorado commune of the True and Actual Faith. The prophet of this faith, a messiah born this side of the sea, is Jesse Smith, an aging, balding charismatic with a line in revolutionary theology which makes Clarence Wilmot’s unbelief look like a quibble, along with his moderator’s sophisticated reassurance. Jesse Smith not only knows the Book of Revelation by heart, he has turned the message of the Gospels into an extraordinary dream of martyrdom. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” you recall, speaks of dying to make men holy, and dying to make them free. Nothing about living on, at least in this world.
The novel ends in an apocalypse which recalls Waco and Jonestown—Jesse’s face is “glazed with happiness” when the men of the commune start killing the women, sending them early to their heavenly reward—but Updike is probably also thinking of another revolt against modernity, that of Antonio Conselheiro in Brazil, whose weird uprising is the subject of Euclides da Cunha’s Rebellion in the Backlands, one of the “great books” mentioned as having gone into the making of Updike’s own “small” Brazil. Fundamentalist America in another latitude and scenery. The end arrives for the Temple of the True and Actual Faith when the children of the commune, begrudgingly sent to school, are taught about Darwin and the possibility that the Christian religion is a historical formation. One of the men takes out the tires of the school bus with an M-16—the commune has an awesome armory, a picture of Armageddon in its own right—and the winter siege begins.
When the siege ends in the spring, with an attack by the FBI and the National Guard, members of the commune set fire to their own house, and start to kill each other. Our hero Clark, coming to his senses the way a man brought up on movies ought to, finally kills Jesse, and frees many of the women, and most of the children—dying himself (of course) in the process.
Updike’s ironies are pretty complicated here, since he has Clark’s mother Alma, still religious in her own way, say to God, “Thank you, Lord, for letting my son become a hero at the end.” Alma, did she but know it, has only Updike to thank for this arrangement, and he ends his novel on a newsreel image of the rescued children, the word repeated to emphasize the saved generation: “Then a concluding zoom of the four or so women with smoky faces coming out of this storm hutch like they’re scared they’re going to be shot, then stepping into the open, squinting, blinking as if just waking up, carrying or holding on to the hands of their children, too many to count. The children.” It’s as if Updike got nervous about his own power to animate Jesse Smith and give him those wonderful harangues (“Those murders and idolaters, those whoremongers and liars will soon be at our gates. But, little loved ones, I am Alpha and Omega. My enemies shall be thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, and I will give the faithful freely of the water of life. There will be for us no more death, or sorrow, or crying”). Just before Clark shoots Jesse the language, otherwise sympathetic to almost every point of view, starts telling us what to think, makes sure we know who the hero is: He “shot the false prophet twice…. He had never liked looking at the supposed holy man’s bald pate….” The “theme of religion” in America, as Updike well knows, will need more than a shoot-out and a couple of adjectives to put it to rest.
The structure of the novel suggests that Clarence Wilmot’s fall from faith has somehow caused this carnage and confusion; that the failure of belief will not have awakened modern America to reason, only delivered her to more craziness than anyone can bear to contemplate. “The death of one god is the death of all,” Wallace Stevens wrote. On the contrary, Updike’s novel suggests. The death or senescence of the institutional God is the birth of a cloud of avengers. Is there no secular hope, no brighter, more modernizing reading of Clarence’s lapse? No release from religion which is not a further flight into religion? Not in this novel, or this novel’s America, where “the snake pit of history bequeaths us its mad dreams.” “The patterns of damnation are glamorous,” Jesse Smith says. “Lucifer was the fairest of the angels. But God scraped him off the edge of Heaven like a little piece of goat shit.” When the bad guys have all the lines, what are the good guys to do?