Writers are always drawn to witches. It’s witchery they themselves aspire to, seeking for their own words the powers of spells. Other people fear witches and occasionally burn them, as they occasionally burn books and even authors. One senses in the tone of John Updike’s new novel about modern witches both the writer, who gets behind his creations most of the time, and the private citizen, who fears and dislikes them, but he negotiates out of the paradox a witty novel of manners, in this case the manners of America during the Vietnam era and of a small New England town, which seems, as Updike’s towns usually do, more full of hanky-panky than our town.
Jane Smart, Sukie Rougemont, and Alexandra Spofford are three women stranded by divorce in Eastwick, Rhode Island, where they cope with the various exigencies that compel divorcées—kids, cars, deteriorating houses, not enough money. Besides witchcraft, they bravely pursue part-time jobs as, respectively, cellist and music teacher, reporter for the local newspaper, and sculptress of kitschy figurines for the local gift shop. Against the suspicious and disapproving world of Eastwick, the three form a coven, or what might today be called a support group, sharing confidences about which of the local husbands they are sleeping with and other problems. Occasionally they collaborate on a spell against some collective enemy. Magic is a metaphor for social forces, as perhaps it always has been.
There is a rich, diabolical warlock, the satanic Darryl Van Horne, hairy and compelling newcomer in town, who accepts their sexual favors, directs their career choices, and generally represents masculine power and a male point of view. They bask together in a cauldron hot tub and he preaches, as the devil does, in church. Eventually he runs off with a local boy, one of the many jokes in the novel, but in the meantime affronts his three witch friends by marrying a pretty young thing, Jenny, whom they kill with a spell that causes her to waste away horribly, first enduring pain and chemotherapy. This gruesome demise is more than the three intended and scares them, but they are otherwise unrepentant about the damage they do. They are basically nice women just trying to get along.
And they are wonderfully well-drawn. In these times, a writer of either sex attempting to speak as the other is scrutinized for offense. One may venture into the mind of the opposite sex, but verisimilitude is thought to be beyond a writer who attempts to render the physical experience of being the other. Men know (they say) that Joanne Meschery, in an excerpt from a new novel, hasn’t got quite right her description of a lone male sailor: “For once he used the pump toilet rather than aim a casual piss overboard, that small act he’d been enjoying with a touch of defiance, like someone indulging in the forbidden.* It is natural that a mischievous and protean writer like Updike would be drawn to attempting women, but he makes a few tiny mistakes: Suki “had to sit on the toilet some minutes waiting for the pee to come.” Women’s insides were a “maze…for the pee to find its way through.” Which is not usually the way women feel. Otherwise his heroines are thoroughly convincing, as if he had a very good spy in the female camp to tell him things a, man would not otherwise know: “sunlight pressed on Alexandra’s face and she could feel the hair of her single thick braid heat up like an electric coil.” It’s odd that things that would be irritating to a woman reader as the thoughts of a male character seem acceptable, even familiar if given as a woman thinking about herself: “A woman is a hole, Alexandra had once read in the memoirs of a prostitute. In truth it felt less like being a hole than being a sponge, a heavy squishy thing on this bed soaking out of the air all the futility and misery there is….”
Except that they can bring on thunderstorms and cause insects and feathers to fall from the lips of people they dislike, events which are narrated with matter-of-fact realism, Alexandra, Sukie, and Jane are exactly like three divorced women in your town, or even you, in your divorced period, undertrained and anxious, drinking a bit too much, consternated by children, wreaking a little havoc among the more desperate or foolish local husbands. But these women have magic powers for evil, and so, you will now realize, did you. After Alexandra remarks absentmindedly to her friends that Clyde Gabriel’s horrible wife Felicia should be put out of her misery, Clyde bashes her head in and then hangs himself. Poor Ed Parsley, the minister, runs off with a hippy chick to pursue radical causes and is blown up trying to make a bomb.
The promotional material that came with the novel described it as “moving,” assuming, apparently, that this is better than “comic,” itself a term that has come to be misapplied to works of zany surrealism, with characters who have pretentiously absurd or descriptive names (he does allow “Sukie Rougemont” for his red-headed sexpot, and of course Van Horne). This is a comic novel in the tradition of Meredith, “where we have no dust of the struggling outer world, no mire, no violent crashes, to make the correctness of the representation convincing.” But the troubled male world of war and crime casts its more important shadow over the limited, domestic self-interest of the women witches.
The witches act as moral agents of someone else, whether of the author it would be impertinent to speculate, dispatching the foolish, the feeble, the left-wing, or the merely irritating according to their deserts, or worse, you may feel, for the standards by which people are judged are severe. “The revolutionaries were nicer really than Ed,” say Sukie, Alexandra, and Jane. “He was too old and too square, and that’s why they put him on this bomb detail, to test his sincerity.”
The males, sincere and hapless, are seen through the eyes of the women and the narrator with cruel objectivity: “his swinging gabbling pallid genitals,” or “when he laughed his lips pulled back strangely, exposing back rows of jagged teeth with pockets of blackened silver.” The witches are drawn in sympathetic imagery of bountiful, if merciless, nature. The language in both cases conveys the opposite of what is meant, a suitable joke for a work of black magic, wrought by the chief magician, the narrator, who is more interesting than the characters, for he/she is smarter, like a very good tour guide through a lesser ruin, goaded to antics of invention by the triviality of his task. But he has, of course, a wonderful way of putting things. Somewhere out there sits the living writer at his desk, who has elsewhere written that he has to make alimony payments, and thus we may suppose has emotions about divorcées, but our relationship in this work is with a “paper being,” whose affection for them is undiminished by their destructive antics. One senses between the author and his narrator a pact, with the author as silent partner, hoping not to take the fall.
It is the narrator who diverts our interest from Alexandra to Sukie to Jane with imperious rapidity, preventing us from getting really attached to them, though we may like them better than he does. The narrator has a real talent for malice, which, elsewhere, as in Rabbit Is Rich, one sees author Updike trying to hold in check. Despite her liberal sentiments, no one was ever so horrible as Felicia Gabriel. She simply embodies all forms of horrible people of whom you have wondered why doesn’t someone bash their heads in. It is the narrator who facetiously serves up the ostensible metaphysics: “Like frozen shit in an outhouse in winter,” he says, magic reminds us “that there is more to life than the airbrushed ads at the front of magazines,” and “though dreadful offered the consolation of completeness, or rounding out the picture.”
Like human history, the implied future in a novel has only three ways of going: things will get better for the characters, worse, or stay the same. Modern novels tend to reverse the formula of the nineteenth century by rewarding the wicked and punishing the good, to make a point about modern life. We consider these endings “realistic” though of course they are equally conventional. In any case, this is a realistic modern novel, so the bad prevail and the others are destroyed, which may also suggest that the author has more fellow-feeling for the bad than for the foolish. None of the characters is good. In the end the three witches, who have grown a little apart after the distressing debacle of Jenny’s death, secretly devise marriage charms, find nice men, and leave town. The lesson is perhaps that women make trouble when left on their own.
Despite their friendship, Sukie, Jane, and Alexandra are competitive and mistrustful of one another, and contemptuous of men while depending on them in the old-fashioned way, as in a play by Clare Boothe Luce or a modern English-man. If the narrator sometimes errs about what it is like to be a woman, this does not really compromise his version of events, for he is reliable on what it means to be a woman, perceiving accurately enough the economic basis of the sexual struggle. Magic “powers” are after all inferior powers, attempts by the weak to redress social inequities, and magic is always vanquished by temporal power, or, in the current parlance, patriarchal power.
And it is no accident that each of the divorcées is an aspiring but amateur artist, doing music or writing or Play-doh sculpture ineptly and part-time. The attraction of pseudo art, or sub-art for the powerless, has not escaped Updike, whether it is as a form of protest, a vehicle of expression, or because it appears easy, suited to the talents of beings who have not been conditioned to try very hard. (Art is an interest of Van Horne’s. When Alexandra and Sukie marry and leave off magic, they will become professional artists.)
Similarly, the protagonists engage in a lot of sex but any pleasure they may feel is not reported. Perhaps sex too is only a means to power over men. But it may also be the narrator’s oversight, or something his informants were unable to convey. These moments of opacity in such otherwise clear, marvelous renditions of female consciousness are what lend to the narrator an air of sexlessness or transvestism, an androgynous intelligence that only occasionally lets out a material male squawk. “I feel gypped,” Sukie says.
“That’s how you tell a real woman,” joked Darryl Van Horne in his throaty, faraway voice. “She always feels gypped.”
Comedy is a tense form, so Updike lets himself go, like an underexercised racehorse, on passages of description. During the publication of his recent collection of essays, there was much thrashing about trying to characterize his tone, his critical register, his place as a writer of fiction, and so on. Every writer is incomparable, of course, but there is something about Updike’s combination of sagacity, sensual language, and a sensibility a little depressed that prompts the notion that Updike is our Colette: brilliant, versatile, hard, industrious—a professional person of letters, able to write reviews, poems, fables, novels, rich wonderful descriptions. Both share an allegiance to the adjective. An ordinary writer might just say that Sukie went indoors, but here “the great oak door yielded to her push as if sensate, and in the marble-floored foyer, with its hollow elephant’s foot, a sulphurous pillow of heat hit her in the face.” The book crawls, teems, with adjectives, luckily amusing ones.
Both have the same attraction to, and air of being repelled by, or suspicious of, women, and the same rather sentimental regard for what they imagine as quotidian life (“there comes a moment in the year when we know we are mowing the lawn for the last time”)—natural stars who suffer the isolation of that condition, locked in or locked out and looking on. Colette, of course, was an actress, and loved to be seen, and she wrote about herself. It could be that Updike’s famous self-effacement is really a form of spiritual pride, a way of showing his superiority to the sweaty exertions of the Roths and Irvings, say, to be known, to lock the reader in dramas of artistic development and personal Angst. But it should be remembered that Updike’s tact and detachment are virtues, after all, and, in the case of this novel, essential, for a more felt, exercised tone would have made it too uncomfortable, and perhaps a too uncomfortably true picture of the lives of women, and of what men really think of them, to bear.
June 14, 1984
“In Transit,” Willow Spring (Spring 1983) ↩