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Updike and the Women

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John Updike in the fifties.  

At one point, the book even makes a coy meta-argument for its own genre, in a reference to one of Van Horne’s prized art pieces: a female figure, legs splayed, made of chicken wire and flattened beer cans, with a porcelain chamber pot for her belly. Alexandra, a sculptress herself, complains that the Ed Kienholz statue is “rude, a joke against women,” but the devil argues for its genius. “The tactility! There’s nothing monotonous or preordained about it … The richness, the Vielfaltigkeit, the you know, ambiguity.” Reluctantly, Alexandra’s hand creeps out to find “the glossy yet resistant texture of life.”

Even after 24 years, The Witches holds that same unsettling texture: Its protagonists are well-developed characters who are also damning cartoons. In the end, the women prove vulnerable to the devil’s blandishments (he plays to their vanity by bloviating about his love of women) and sink into jealous cruelty—then brew up the new husbands one suspects they wanted all along. Yet a peculiar sympathy undergirds the book’s coldest instincts.

In The Widows, Updike’s awed malice seems to have curdled into something like contempt. Bereaved, the witches—who have drifted apart—reunite to travel. They grieve, they get on each other’s nerves; finally, they return to Eastwick, where they make modest attempts to repair their social crimes. Their artistry, a major element of the original book, has dwindled to a nub: Alexandra spins a pot or two, Jane has abandoned her passionate cello playing, and Sukie writes gloppy romances, the hack effusions of a silly woman.

“What can I say about that?” Updike shrugs. “With the waning of everything, with the waning of the sexual drive, the witch capacity, there probably goes a certain lessening of artistic passion. I suppose I feel that in my own work. The world would really be none the worse if I were not to write anymore. But I keep wanting to do it, in part to fill the time. I don’t know what you’ve found, but nothing makes the time pass so much as writing. You look up, and two hours have gone by!” He smiles suddenly. “You know? It’s a wonderful antidote to boredom or dullness.”

It’s an astonishing thing to hear from an artist whose early years were a model of aesthetic ambition. Growing up in the small working-class town of Shillington, Penn., Updike went to Harvard on scholarship, then swiftly achieved his own grandest literary dreams. He moved to New York, made his name at The New Yorker, and had a wife and child at 22. (He has fond memories of their railroad apartment on 13th Street—so small they were forced to move the crib from room to room in order to sleep.)

“The world would really be none the worse if I were not to write anymore.”

When a second child came along, the couple moved to the suburbs, and Updike found he was relieved to be free of other writers. “I wanted to be the only lion in that part of the Serengeti,” he tells me. In the decades since that migration, Updike (unlike the blocked Bech) has been famously, almost supernaturally prolific, publishing 23 novels and more than a dozen short-story collections as well as reams of memoir and criticism. Along the way, he’s shown a capacity for stylistic risk—a quality that has guaranteed, and perhaps lends Updike the right to, a set of serious duds among his masterpieces.

In Updike’s view, part of the value of revisiting the witches was the opportunity to write about aging and death. “Taking those women into old age would be a way of writing about old age, my old age.” In this spirit, he took his witches on the same travels he has made, to Egypt and China, and he lent them some of his own sense of vulnerability, “the physical oddities I notice in myself, the arthritic pains, the perennially imperfect teeth. I’ve been spared baldness, but in a strong hotel light, you suddenly see your awful head that you never had to look at before.”

And yet whereas Updike has continued to publish, his witches have lost their art. I tell him I’m disturbed by this, by the way the book seems to conclude that motherhood is all. The first book, for all its satire, was set in a universe in which women’s possibilities seemed radical, infinite, in which, no longer defined solely by their families, they could do anything—smash a thunderstorm into a beach full of dismissive teenage boys, say. In the sequel, such ambiguity is snuffed. No longer fertile, or desirable to men, the widows are nothing.

Updike argues that his take is historically accurate: Witches were considered “the enemies of children.” Parenthood is existentially different for women—more demanding, harder to balance with work—while men are considered good fathers merely for winning bread. In his own family, Updike found being an artist an advantage. “You’ll have to ask my children, but my image of myself is as a casual but loving father who could bring to my four children the virtue, let’s assume it was, the virtue of my being more present than the fathers who were commuting all around us.”


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