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John Updike’s witches return,widowed and wrinkled,but America has moved on

Written by Sudeep Paul |
January 18, 2009 11:54:06 am

The Widows of EastwickJohn Updike
Hamish Hamilton,Rs 450

John Updike’s witches return,widowed and wrinkled,but America has moved on

In every literary generation,the most representative writers aren’t necessarily those most obviously tied to the period concerns. Why did John Updike write about wizardry and witchcraft set in a time when Nixon was polarising America? And how did The Witches of Eastwick (1984) become a representative American novel (notwithstanding the later,massacring cinematic adaptation)? Updike — about whom it was acknowledged from the start that he wrote exceedingly well,but doubted in some quarters if he had anything to say — was never liked by the generation of writers that passed into middle-age waiting for him and Philip Roth to go. Updike was the fourth pillar of the triumvirate of post-war American fiction — Saul Bellow,Roth,Norman Mailer — as the Gentile outlier,who rivalled the Jewish masters and yet knew his place. His fiction too would spring from the death of the American Dream,from the inexplicable yet axiomatic paradox of life going on as it heads nowhere. But not with as much high drama. Yet,wasn’t Rabbit drama enough? Updike is the poet (and he is a versifier too) of suburban/small-town America’s hidden heartbreaks and joie de vivre — sex,adultery,discord,divorce,decay and death.

The Witches,while it dealt with all this,was,however,a break with the Rabbit Angstrom books. If Rabbit felt things had run their course,Alexandra,Jane and Sukie — the three witches — lit a pseudo-feminist path to women’s empowerment,bringing back hope. They were “empowered” divorcees,in a small Rhode Island town,devouring the men and using sorcery to destroy other people’s lives,not excluding murder,suicide and sterility. The devil in flesh was an Eastwick newcomer named Darryl Van Horne (played by Jack Nicholson) — the comic,evil and intellectual centre of their lives. But through their myriad desires,Updike showed how mundane their lives,all lives,are — witchcraft (the “maleficia”) gets you no more than a little warmth and sex,and a lot of calumny and hatred. And small-town America continues unabated,unchanged. But the strongest indignation in the book was at the treatment of female divorcees,in closed minds and closed societies. All of it was darkly comic,punctuated by pathos,just as violence underlies the “effortless”,smooth Updike prose.

Updike has made a living out of revisiting old characters and taking them through story cycles; bringing them back to show the world that they are still going,and to show them that they are not going strong,that time is running out. The Widows of Eastwick has taken its time,coming 24 years after we first met the trio. They are widows now,living away from Eastwick,their children with children of their own,and living further away. They now travel the world — which takes up the first third of the book that reads no better than a travelogue. Updike might as well have skipped this long preamble and begun with their return to Eastwick for the summer. Things brighten up and gather pace,and vintage Updike takes over once they are back where they began. Old hostilities are reignited through memory and proximity,but the flames never rise till the brother of one of their victims attempts revenge.

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The Widows was written for the reason writers,conscious of their own mortality,take stock of bodily decay,of approaching oblivion and see how the magic has weakened. Not only is the occult weaker,but as the witches wrinkle and sag,they cannot use sex as the social tool of individual fulfilment and empowerment (although an Updike book can’t be complete without the act testing his descriptive powers). But in this post-9/11 America,what has really changed is the dominant generation’s character. The witches’ children disappoint them. Not because they are failures,but because they have settled down and tend to their families with a vengeance. The skeleton of the book is America’s generational shift — from the self-indulgence and hedonism of the ’60s-’70s,from negligent,adventurous and self-absorbed parents to their devastated offspring,who seem bent on not repeating history. It is the ordinariness and domesticity of the grown-up children,their lack of “sin”,in their technology-driven lives that has made the occult redundant — children “take your genes and run them to the ground”,as Alexandra says. If America lives in its small town,it has aged and weakened along with the generation that saw it climb to the zenith. Perhaps it is done with adventurism. But this decay flashes a sign of health and regeneration around,partly driven by which the witches attempt an atonement — and fail. Their magic cannot undo the past; it can do neither good nor evil. As things move towards the inevitable,with whimpers,Updike never makes you feel you are repeating yourself — the result of a sensuousness brought alive by the precision of diction and observation that will characterise his next book too. But what that will be about is another matter,except perhaps a Pennsylvania or Rhode Island setting.

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