Monday, April 07, 2008

Updike's Witches

(reflections after re-re-reading THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK by John Updike 1984.)

John Updike's upcoming novel returns to some old characters for THE WIDOWS OF EASTWICK, so I've pulled out my old paperback of the 1984 novel THE WITCHES.... The main thing that strikes me, so soon after re-reading COUPLES, is how the books' lines run parallel:

We meet an insular community within an insular community (the couples' group within the suburb of Tarbox, MA, and the coven within the small town of Eastwick, ME). As we get to know them and their routines and lovers, a newcomer disturbs the equilibrium (Foxy Chapman in COUPLES and Darryl Van Horne in WITCHES). Long story short: the pleasures that ensue contain the seeds of the community's disintegration. In both novels, the dissolution of the community is not the end of the world, and life goes on for the individuals, away from each other.

I enjoy, as always, simply being immersed in the lives and sensations of these characters. There's also the tricky way that Updike plays Hawthorne's game of giving us magic that might also be mere rumor, or coincidence, or dream, or metaphor. One witch shriveled her husband to nothing, and she keeps his dust in a jar among the tomatoes; another turned her husband into a doormat. One shares a vision of flight. One casually kills a squirrel with her evil eye when she sees him raiding her bird feeder. Together the three witches wish cancer upon a rival -- but the young woman already said she felt a growth.

Written in 1984, the novel looks back with more than a hint of satire on the hippie - feminist - Weatherman currents running through the culture in 1969. Betty Friedan's THE FEMINIST MYSTIQUE referred to men's pretense of protecting women's mysterious closeness to nature, saving them from the rough world of male business and government. Updike catches a whiff of that in later feminists' own extolling of sisterhood. So there's this sisterhood of women who would certainly agree with the once-popular feminist bumper-sticker that "a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycyle," and yet they're all thrown into a tizzy of excitement and jealousy by meta-male (and Satan) Darryl.

I especially enjoy Updike's nearly plausible explanation of a magical thunderstorm. It's willed by the witch Alexandra Spofford to spite the sun-tanned and fit young adults whose frisbee and radios spoil her walk at the beach. Updike observes that the weather certainly has an effect on our moods; Alexandra simply reverses the process.

Updike is particularly rough on a Unitarian power couple of liberals, and Felicia, a literally sharp-tongued community activist (she spits up tacks, sticks, and feathers under the spell of her enemies). He usually shows empathy for all of his characters, but not with these. "Felicia had a considerable love for the underprivileged in the abstract but when actual cases got close to her she tended to hold her nose." The pompous Unitarian preacher - turned - terrorist blows himself up; his wife becomes leader of a rival coven and spits up pieces of insects in the pulpit, and Felicia's husband bashes her head in mid-screed. Updike slowly builds that scene of the murder by filling in the husband's reflections on the past and present between lines of spoken dialogue. After the crime of passion, someone (husband Clyde, or Updike's vaguely situated narrator -- who sometimes speaks for Eastwick) reflects, "Marriage is like two people locked up with one lesson to read, over and over, until the words become madness."

There's another set piece near the end: the devil's sermon, delivered in the pulpit of the Unitarian church. It's a stick in the eye of all who say that creation is good, pulling out of an encyclopedia the horrible slow deaths caused among wildlife by certain insect poisons and ghastly parasites, with gratuitous (even circuitous) processes that seem way out of range for evolution to explain. (Begins p. 321 in the Fawcett paperback of 1985.)

There's no way for me to read the book without flashing back to the movie, which starred Jack Nicholson as Van Horne, Cher as Alexandra, and Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer as the other witches. Cher's performance was particularly memorable in a scene that doesn't occur in the book: Alexandra rebuffs Van Horne's crude seduction with self-assured amusement, ending her list of his faults with, "And you smell." But Van Horne retorts with a description of Alexandra's life, her truncated expectations, her unexpressed dreams, and her self-delusions. He circles, while the camera closes in on Cher's face, and we watch as her smug smile freezes into a grimace and tears form in her eyes. The end of the movie is pretty silly.

John Williams' score for the movie is a favorite of mine. His main theme is a pastiche of Lizst's Mephisto waltz, and its recaps grow old; but the long seduction sequence is eerie and fun; and I love especially the piano toccata that Williams uses for a magical tennis game.

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