The American reading public prefers famous writers to suffer. The approved pattern is a meteoric rise like that of a Roman candle, exploding into brilliance at its apogee and then descending and becoming extinguished in the glare of newer fountains of colored fire. The descent ideally will be haunted by demons of a particularly nasty sort and end in a classical purgation of terror and fear, with biographers and critics scrambling round to pick up the holy cinders.
A writer who achieves the initial detonation yet does not fall apart—who remains high in the empyrean, producing another and yet another burst of red and green stars, risks provoking first discomfort and then a lethal mixture of boredom and spite. Over the years something of the sort has begun to happen to John Updike. Critics are irritated to realize that after over three decades of success he has not become an alcoholic or a drug addict, suffered a debilitating illness or a serious bout of writer’s block; nor has he lost his gift for social observation, his intellectual acuity and erudition, his love of the sensual world, or his remarkable, poetic talent for description. Voices have begun to be raised suggesting that Updike does what he does too easily for it to be really good (as if sweat were a kind of golden glaze). It has been said that his work is “all surface” and fails to show the marks of a painful struggle with words and ideas.
Years ago I had a summer volunteer job on a highbrow magazine in New York.There, when someone complained that an article was too closely argued or too novel intellectually, the editor I most admired would remark sardonically: “The fish swims too well.” Updike, like these imaginary fish, began to be criticized because he swam too well. He was blamed for doing exactly what he had been praised for earlier, even though it was admitted, sometimes grudgingly, that nobody did it half so skillfully.
Rationally speaking, such criticism seems perverse and ungrateful. Updike’s stories about middle- and upper-middle-class people in the northeastern United States were and are marvelously subtle, sociologically accurate, beautifully observed and yet more beautifully written, opening out at unexpected moments into both comedy and tragedy. At his best he is, more truly than John Cheever, the Chekhov of American suburbia. In such tales his tone, even at the start, was elegiac; perhaps it is significant that his first novel dealt with the lives of the elderly inhabitants of a poorhouse.
No matter what the subject of Updike’s stories, underlying even the most light-hearted was a sense of the inevitable ravages of time. The memory of some moment of past happiness or unhappiness—usually linked to physical details of weather and scenery—often in the end weighed heavier than the original event. Over and over again that kind of “spot of time” (in the Wordsworthian sense) was re-created for the reader in words just as it had been re-created for the narrator or central character in memory, accumulating a still greater freight of nostalgia and distance.
Updike’s latest volume of stories, Trust Me, displays his many talents wonderfully. Here again is his unerring instinct for the language, the clothes, the cuisine, the characteristic chatter of a particular place and time. In “More Stately Mansions,” for instance, he is spot-on about the tastes and attitudes and speech patterns of two erotically involved couples in a declining mill town: one rising working-class Italian, one declining WASP. In “The City” he portrays with great clarity the almost supernatural experience of a traveling sales representative who finds himself in a strange midwestern hospital with acute appendicitis.
Unlike many contemporary observers of middle-class mores and possessions, Updike doesn’t employ his acute sense of detail just to provide atmosphere. “Still of Some Use,” for instance, describes how a man helps his ex-wife clean out the attic of their former home. They find “dozens of forgotten, broken games”: Monopoly, Comic-Strip Lotto, Drag Race, Mousetrap. Not only are the games exactly the right ones for the people and the period; they all slowly and silently become metaphors of the family life of which they were once a part.
One of Updike’s most attractive qualities is his ability to make much of little—to open out the simplest encounter or incident into significance. In “Unstuck,” a new but erotically failing marriage gets another chance when the husband and wife work successfully together to get their car out of a snowbank. The sexual overtones in their efforts are so delicately sketched that the joke remains latent until the last few lines:
He walked to his car and opened the door and got in beside his wife. The heater had come on; the interior was warm. He repeated, “You were great.” He was still panting.
She smiled and said, “So were you.”
Though Updike is best known for his tales of middle-class life, he can and does move successfully beyond these limits. “Poker Night,” for instance, is the first-person narrative of a factory worker and long-time poker buff who has just discovered he has cancer and gone home to tell his wife.
Alma did and said all the right things, of course. She cried but not so much I’d panic and came up with a lot of sensible talk about second opinions and mysterious remissions and modern medicine and how we’d take it a day at a time and had to have faith.
But she wasn’t me. I was me.
While we were talking across the kitchen table there was a barrier suddenly that I was on one side of and she was on the other, overweight and over fifty as she was…. I had handed her this terrible edge.
You could see it in her face, her mind working. She was considering what she had been dealt; she was thinking how to play her cards.
Over the years, Updike has been deservedly praised for his detached sympathy for his characters, including those that other writers might implicitly or explicitly condemn. In “Killing,” for example, an estranged husband pretends to try to comfort his wife, whose father has just died. It is clear that Martin, the husband, is or has become a rather dreadful person:
Martin was lethal in his new manner, all efficient vitality, hugging the children ardently, talking to each with a self-conscious and compressed attentiveness unknown in the years when he had absent-mindedly shared their home. He even presumed to tap Anne on the bottom as she stood at the stove….
“Anne, dear,” [he remarked] “tell us all why you can’t seem to replace the burned-out light bulbs. Is it the unscrewing or the screwing in that frightens you?”
And yet in the end Updike allows Anne to recognize her part in the breakup of the marriage and in what Martin has become, and to forgive him; as Updike implicitly does.
The title of the book, and its jacket copy, suggest that “the theme of trust…runs through” this collection. Trust and mistrust, however, have always been part of Updike’s world. What is new here is a growing consciousness of illness, aging, and death, which have begun to threaten not only parents and children and friends, but the central characters in these tales.
As a short-story writer Updike has always soared smoothly above most of his contemporaries, and almost always to the sound of applause. With his novels he has had a more bumpy flight. The best of them, like Of the Farm and the Rabbit trilogy, are marvelous, and even in somewhat less successful works like The Centaur and Couples there are many passages of great wit, warmth, and brilliance. But Updike has made the tactical error of allowing other, less serious, books to appear under the name of novels. If, like Graham Greene, he had called his minor works “entertainments,” jeux d’esprit such as The Coup and The Witches of Eastwick might have met with less resistance.
S., surely, belongs in this group. Updike has spoken of it as part of a projected trilogy based on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and the first volume, Roger’s Version, relates the adventures of a contemporary Roger Chillingworth who is obsessed, like his original, with his wife’s adultery and with God. S., Updike announced, would be the story of a modern Hester Prynne, told by herself in a series of letters and tapes.
There is no denying that Sarah Worth, the Boston society matron who begins by dabbling in Yoga and ends up in an Arizona ashram as second-in-command to a very dubious Indian guru, is a memorable character. Updike has got her tone absolutely right; anyone who ever attended one of the Seven Sisters colleges knew girls who sounded exactly like Sarah, though most of them were a lot nicer. Her woozy self-abnegation and egoistic materialism are wonderfully comic:
Don’t you see, dear muddlehead, we were a wave, a certain momentary density within the maya-veil of karma-events…. I have nothing but my love of the Arhat, and he promises me nothing,…that my ego will become nothing, will dissolve upwards.
I do hope you aren’t letting the lawn boys scalp that humpy section out by the roses…. They should be spraying for aphids now…. I assume you will be renting the Cape place this summer. Be sure to send me half the proceeds.
Sarah’s old-money prejudice, sensual curiosity, and infatuation with fringe religion are wonderfully observed, and so is the way her prose changes when she is writing to different correspondents. In inventing these correspondents, Updike hasn’t resisted a few digs at persons in the literary world who have had reservations about his work. Sarah’s dentist is Dr. Podhoretz (“I promise to keep flossing and using the rubber tip on my gums,” she writes him), and one of the ashram followers is called Ms. Grumbach. “Dear Ms. Grumbach,” Sarah writes at her guru’s dictation, “It filled me with limitless happiness to receive your precious letter and to hear of your perfect love.”
It is difficult, though, to see any real connection between Hester and Sarah Worth, apart from her last name and the fact that she has a daughter called Pearl. Where Hester was independent, dignified, and passionate, Sarah is flighty, vain, and sensual. (Hester, who, Updike hints, is an ancestor of his heroine, would never have gone off to the seventeenth-century equivalent of the Ashram Arhat.) Moreover, Sarah’s relationship with her daughter is the reverse of Hester’s. Apparently from purely snobbish motives, she tries unsuccessfully to break up Pearl’s marriage to the son of a beer manufacturer:
He is a floater, dear—a fleck of suds on his father’s malodorous fortune…. He comes to Oxford to study economics and just happens to make the acquaintance of an innocent golden American girl whom he of course wants to marry and not just incidentally thereby get himself his green card.
When Pearl becomes pregnant her mother’s reaction is shamelessly self-centered: “After wounding me in these various other ways you want to make me into a grandmother…. With so many of these teen-age pregnancies now it’s obviously a childish way of punishing the world.”
Silly as she can be, Sarah Worth is also shrewd. When she enters the ashram she conceals her financial situation from the staff; later on she appears to be moving large chunks of its assets into a numbered Swiss bank account.
S. is not a serious retelling of Hawthorne’s tale, but a broad, highly erotic satire on New Age or Old Hippie fringe religion. It borrows very liberally (though with acknowledgement) from Frances Fitzgerald’s brilliant and devastatingly comic portrait of the melodramatic decline and fall of Rajneeshpuram, Oregon.* This material has been supplemented by extensive—perhaps too extensive—research into cookbooks of Hindu ritual and yoga exercises. The long disquisitions on yoga and mysticism and the thick sugary sprinkling of Sanskrit terms in the text (plus a thirteen-page glossary at the back) do little to give this book weight.
But even as an entertainment S. is not wholly satisfactory. One problem, I suspect, is that in writing this book Updike finally responded to the deluge of criticism he has suffered from feminists. For years they have complained that he is unfair to women and that he dislikes them. Such complaints, Updike has said, “surprised me…and I suppose they even hurt my feelings…. I never thought of myself as anything in my role as a novelist but fair and sympathetic.”
Indeed, the criticism must have seemed strikingly unfair since, unlike many of his contemporaries, Updike has always loved women. In dozens of novels and stories he has celebrated them: his hymns to the charm of his imagined mistresses are the modern prose equivalent of the elegant, intimate compliments of seventeenth-century love poetry. Most disarmingly, his appreciation has never been limited to the young and beautiful. He has praised the looks and manners of all sorts of women from babyhood to old age. One of the stories in Trust Me, for instance, contains an unforcedly appreciative description of a seventy-year-old woman who is dying of cancer in a Boston hospital:
She looked pretty against her pillows, though on a smaller scale than the woman he had known so long. Her cheeks still had some plumpness, and her fine straight nose and clear eyes and narrow arched brows—old-fashioned eyebrows, which looked plucked though they weren’t—still made the compact, highly finished impression that had always excited him, that kindled a fire within him. Her hair was growing back, a cap of soft brown bristle.
Typically, Updike has found even the flaws in women’s beauty moving and sensually attractive:
When she crossed her legs like that, her skirt slid up to reveal an oval vaccination scar her childhood doctor had never thought would show. There were a number of awkward, likable things about Karen in spite of the smug politics: she smoked a lot, and her teeth were stained and slightly crooked…. Her hands had the rising blue veins of middle age, and a tremor.
Here, of course, is a hint of where the trouble lies. The premise of most of Updike’s work is that men are in the world to do, and women simply to be. He genuinely loves not only women’s bodies, but their hearts and their souls. What he is uncomfortable with is their minds. Why, he seems to be asking, should creatures so complete and perfect in themselves want to argue or have political opinions? And why should they complain of a writer who has loved them so long and so truly?
Some of the irritation Updike must have felt at what from his point of view was mean and misplaced criticism began to appear in The Witches of Eastwick. In response to the complaint that his women never had careers, he replied memorably:
Knowing that there is this reservation out in some quarters about my portraits of women, I’m constantly trying to improve them…. The Witches of Eastwick was a very determined attempt to write about women who did have careers of a sort—they were professional witches.
(In fact, when the novel begins, witchcraft is only the hobby of Updike’s three heroines. They are all, in a debased way, in the arts: one gives piano lessons, one makes comic figurines for local gift shops, one is a small-town journalist.)
But what really irritated feminists about The Witches of Eastwick was not the professional issue; it was the implied proposition that a woman without a man becomes a witch who will debase herself sexually and sleep with the devil himself. The happy ending of the novel, in which each of the witches finds a good man and gives up sorcery, only infuriated these critics further. Yet in spite of everything, the three witches were charming and seductive, both in the novel and in the film made from it. After this, however, things began to slide. In Roger’s Version neither of the principal female characters is particularly attractive; and in S. Updike has done what no one could have guessed he could ever do: he has created a wholly hateful woman.
“I saw this as being a woman’s novel by a man,” Updike told an interviewer recently, possibly in a somewhat mocking tone. “And indeed, the binding of the book is pink,…a feminine, hopeful, fresh pink.”
No work by John Updike has ever lacked wit, energy, poetic charm, and the lively play of ideas. Often while I was reading S. I would stop to marvel at some passage of description, or to laugh aloud at some wild situation he had conjured up. But much as I disliked Sarah Worth, it made me uncomfortable to read of her lengthy humiliation at the hands of the self-proclaimed Supreme Mediator Shri Arhat Mindadali and his gang; and it was no more pleasant to see her reject her guru out of ingrained North Shore snobbishness when she discovers that he is really a Jewish-Armenian college dropout from Water-town. A comedy in which everyone turns out to be either a knave or a fool or both, however brilliantly imagined and told, is destructive to the spirit. In the end Updike’s latest book, in spite of its feminine, hopeful, pink binding, left a sour, gray taste in my mouth. I look forward, though, to the third volume of the trilogy, which will feature a contemporary version of Arthur Dimmesdale, the passionate and conflicted man of God—the one of Hawthorne’s three principal characters who seems closest to Updike’s own heart.
May 12, 1988