Sunday, November 02, 2008

Updike's Magic Revisited at Eastwick

(reflection on John Updike's novel THE WIDOWS OF EASTWICK, and an appreciation of Updike called "A Fan's Note on Updike's Long Game," by Adam Gopnik at the website of the National Endowment for the Humanities at

Of Eastwick's trio of witches from Updike's 1983 novel (which was set in 1968), all three are now widows, but only Sukie is still on the youthful side of 70, and she's making her fortune as a writer of romances. Sukie sits unblinking at her laptop describing a widow served in bed (double-entendre fully intended) by a younger male slave who harbors deep resentments against her, when her male "wife" enters the room with groceries. He's the younger brother of a woman cursed and killed by the coven all those years ago, and he has sought revenge. Reflecting on the conflation of fantasy and reality, and how sexual relations require some theatrical and imaginative art, she thinks how cave painters thrust themselves through moist crevasses to paint their artwork, intended to bring their next hunt to fruitful climax. There you have Updike's big themes tied together in a single image: magic (here substituting for religion), sex, and art.

While I enjoyed revisiting Eastwick and watching the witches deal with the long-range consequences of their past deeds, I was fascinated more by discerning Updike's process of writing the novel. He slightly augments the sub-titles of his original outline to become the Coven Reconstituted, Malefica Revisited, and Guilt Assuaged. He sets the exposition in faraway places that fit his theme, as Alexandra visits ancient tombs in Egypt and reflects on pharaoh's doomed attempts to hold on to life through priests' preservatives and artisans hopeful provisions. Then, after hooking up with Jane, the two visit the tombs of the first emperor of China, and the tomb of Mao, eerily similar. There are teases of magic, but Updike, like Hawthorne his model, always provides the reader a natural explanation for what seems to be a witch's spell. At last, Sukie joins the trio when her husband dies suddenly (Jane's magical doing?), and they make a trip together to their old home, Eastwick, in Rhode Island.

Once there, Updike's strategy is clear: to re-create the story line of the original novel in reverse. From chapter to chapter, this means re-encountering the coven's old nemeses and lovers, or their families. The central portion "Malefica" was about their curse on the woman they envied, and "Malefica Revisited" is about a curse going the other way. While the original novel begins with the arrival of satanic Darryl Van Horne (identified now with Jack Nicholson's cinematic embodiment of the character), and ends with his strong presence disintegrating, this novel builds up to an encounter with Van Horne by proxy. And, as the subtitle "Guilt Assuaged" suggests, these witches work magic to bring blessings to lives that they had once cursed.

To say that we can see Updike's efficient craft at work is in no way a complaint. Updike fancied himself a visual artist before he was a literary one, and this novel is simply a reversal of the patterns of lights and darks from the original, rather like Monet's identical views of a cathedral in different lights.

On his design, Updike hangs insights about our age, about aging, and his favorite themes. The visits to graves of long-passed empires occasions thoughts about the US and future decline. All references to magic bring up the idea that witchcraft simply takes advantage of processes in nature already at work under the surface -- like cancer, like giving birth, like electrons and their charges. At a funeral, he compares such ceremonies to blindfolds worn by prisoners before a firing squad, small comforts to help us get through big changes (p. 232). Repeated chores are lightened in youth by expectation of something to come (283). Revisiting an old home inspires opposing thoughts. One can suddenly recognize the "bliss" of living in a certain place that has been concealed by the "plod" of daily chores (p.234). On the other hand, aren't all places less magical than they are remembered (p. 288)? These elderly women don't relate to teens, even the ones who are related to them, and see them as strange and alien:
Eastwick's children, flaunting their growing power, ignoring the old woman sitting in a parked car, vying for attention from their peers with female shrieks and boisterous boyish jokes, testing freedom's depths... Little do they know, Alexandra throught, what lies ahead of them. Sex, entrapment, weariness, death. (235)
I recently read an appreciation of Updike at the NEH web site. There, self-proclaimed "fan" Adam Gopnik writes of Updike's long career. He writes that one wants to "triangulate" Updike...
with Richard Wilbur, for a stubborn graceful adherence to craft and finish in a time of improvisation and amnesia; with Wallace Stevens, for the intimation of the numinous in the ordinary Sunday mornings of the mid-Atlantic states; and with Shakespeare himself for the ability to get himself expressed fully, unimpeded, and for the desire, even in the face of time, to set down, for readers still unborn, all the sweetness of our common life.
So true. And Gopnik writes about Updike's constant theme:
And he is a moralist, too, of a surprisingly old-fashioned kind. Throughout all that varied work, one theme has risen and been repeated over and over. Updike’s great subject is the American attempt to fill the gap left by faith with the materials produced by mass culture. His subject is how the death of a credible religious belief has been offset by sex and adultery and movies and sports and Toyotas and family love and family obligation.
In Updike's novels, those attempts to substitute the material for the spiritual are doomed; but the material, the spiritual, and the imagination are all closely interrelated, and that's the magic in both Eastwick books.

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