Sunday, February 22, 2009

Lacking Enchantment

This is from today's DNA.

Given that he wrote over 20 novels, it’s striking that most of the well-deserved encomiums that marked John Updike’s recent demise mentioned only a few: the Rabbit novels, Couples, and occasionally, The Centaur. Much was made of his glorious prose style and his prodigious, generous and well-informed pieces of criticism. The sad fact is that the quality of his novels showed a clear tapering off from those early, resonant volumes. This was evident even in 2006’s Terrorist, a brave but middling attempt to understand the fanatical side of Islam. And now, there’s his last novel, The Widows of Eastwick.

As is clear from the title, this re-introduces us to the trio of Alexandra, Jane and Sukie, first encountered in 1984’s The Witches of Eastwick. While that novel of fickleness and fornication was based in the late Sixties, this one is set in the near-present. While that decade was “decaying into the Seventies and [they were] full of juice and stuck in the middle class”; now, “people are as unhappy about Bush as they were about Johnson and Nixon. It’s another quagmire”.

The coven of witches, now in their late sixties and early seventies, has separated: Alexandra is in New Mexico, Sukie in Connecticut and Jane in Massachusetts. Each one has been recently bereaved -- their decent, competent but rather dull husbands have “passed”. After some travels together, they decide to spend a summer in their old haunt of Eastwick, where they find that inevitably, much has changed – from the shops to the diners to the cuisine – but old lovers and enemies remain, with the capacity to arouse, annoy and occasionally do harm.

It has to be said that the novel only gains momentum in the second half, with the first being given over to the travels of the three. We’re treated to many pages of their reactions to the tourist attractions of the Canadian Rockies, Egypt and China while tourist guides ramble on about the allure of the pyramids or the Great Wall. Things improve somewhat once the the witches reach Rhode Island – “a trinity coming together to form a cone of power” – but the overall temperature of the narrative remains tepid, notwithstanding the novelist’s valiant attempt to navigate the contours of the female mind. What little witchcraft is practiced degenerates into an essay on particle physics, with the ending, too, a bit more convenient than necessary.

Throughout, however, the prose is burnished and descriptive, as always. Consider this sentence on the perils of living in New Mexico: “The dryness of her aging skin, the thinness of the desert vegetation upon the depth of rocks and minerals, the monotony of the sunny days, the mountain winds hollowing her out, Nature’s grand desolation unsoftened: it all added up to a fearful weight to push through the day”. This being Updike, sex and scenes of it also puts in an appearance, never mind the age of the practitioners. And descriptions of semen as “the ambrosial, eggy-tasting food of a savage goddess” don’t help.

The changed world of today is contrasted with yesteryear more than once, with some social commentary and the occasional crusty generalisation. But in this, his last novel, Updike’s art proves to be a lot less than spellbinding.

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