Monday, January 12, 2009

Good witches and bad (Books - The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike)

I wrote a couple of posts back that the witchcraft in John Updike's The Witches of Eastwick was like the harnessing of the forces of nature gone mad. Having now finished it, I hadn't really known how right I was. By the forces of nature I don't mean the moon and the tides but rather the forces inside of us - lust, jealousy, greed. The witches' powers are enriched by their being single, which to Updike means in a state of implicit need. Alexandra, Sukie and Jane all crave the company of Darryl Van Horne, the new single man in town. Deep down the three women are just as nice, and just as duplicitous, racist, and narrow-minded as the rest of the people in Eastwick, the small town that is the setting of this novel. They crave the same things - companionship, sex, fulfilling work, a sense of agency. These three women are nearly just like everyone else, except that they practice rituals that subserve these inner forces for use in malevolent acts against others. Updike has sets up a story in which the witches are our heroines, although he is far from simplistic about good and evil. One way he does this is by creating a marvelous foil for our witches in the character of Felicia Gabriel. Felicia has given her life to improving every aspect of her town that she can. She does this the old fashioned way, by writing letters to the editor, chairing committees, and the like. She puts every ounce of energy she has toward observing and correcting the wrongs she sees around her. The trouble is, she sees them absolutely everywhere, and while one could say she is a force only for good, she has in truth become an enraged, bitter witch herself. She sees no good in anything she hasn't fixed, and has become a prude and a pedant. She eventually also becomes one of the witches victims and her demise is as horrible as it is hilarious. This book sends-up suburbia, leaving no character unchastised - neither the rich nor their servants, the drug addict in the parking lot nor the minister, and neither the good witches nor the bad.

The other pleasure this novel offers is the writing and whether Updike is exercising his "good witch" or his bad, he attains simultaneously erudition, comedy, and majesty. Take these two descriptions of the witches, one early in the novel reveling in Sukie's beauty and the other later, basking in the demise of Jane, they exemplify using talents, this case Updike's writing talents, in the service of the light and the dark:
Sukie was the most recently divorced and the youngest of the three. She was a slender redhead, her hair down her back in a sheaf tirmmed straight across and her long arms laden with these freckles the cedar color of pencil shavings. She wore copper bracelets and a pentagram on a cheap thin chain around her throat. What Alexandra, with her heavily Hellenic, twice-cleft fatrues, loved about Sukie's looks was the cheerful simian thrust: Sukie's big teeth pushed her profile below the brief nose out in a curve, a protrusion especially of her upper lip, which was longer and more complex in shape than her lower, with a plumpness on either wide of the center that made even her silences seem puckish, as if she were tasting amusement all the time.


"Isn't this cozy!" Jane Smart cried, coming in late, wearing almost nothing: plastic sandals and a gingham mini with the shoulder straps tied at the back of the neck so as not to mar her tan. She turned a smooth mocha color, but the aged skin under her eyes remained crepey and white and her left leg showed a livid ripple of varicose vein, a little train of half-submerged bumgs, like those murky photographs with which people try to demonstrate the existence of the Loch Ness monster. Still, Jane was vital, a thick-skinned sun hag in her element.

A lusty, energized, potent, and, at times, uncomfortable novel, but the writing is always an alluring pleasure. My other posts on it are here, here and here.

Next up: Stefan Zweig's Twilight and Moonbeam Alley put out in a beautiful compact edition by Pushkin Press on paper so yummy I could eat it.

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