Friday, January 9, 2009

Nature gone awry (Books - The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike)

I am continuing to enjoy John Updike's sumptuous sentences and comic riff on suburbia in The Witches of Eastwick. In this section the three witches, Alexandra, Sukie, and Jane, assemble for their weekly get-together as Alexandra muses privately on her fear of cancer.
The platter was coarse tan earthenware gouged and glazed with the semblance of a crab. Cancer. Alexandrea feared it, and saw its emblem everywhere in nature - in clusters of blueberries in the neglected places by rocks and bogs, in the grapes ripening on the saggin rotten arbor outside her kitchen windows, in the ants bringing up conical granular hills in the cracks in her asphalt driveway, in all blind and irresistible multiplications.

"Your usual?"


"I guess it's still tonic time," Alexandra decided, for the coolness that had come in with the thunderstorm some days ago had stayed. "How's your vidka supply?" Someone once told her that not only was vodka less fattening but it irritated the lining of your stomach less than gin. Irritation, psychic as well as physical, was the source of cancer. Those get it who leave themselves open to the idea of it; all it takes is one single cell gone crazy. Nature is always waiting, watching for you to lose faith so she can insert her fatal stitch.

I enjoyed this section on a number of levels. Updike captures that sort of obsessional neurotic fear one can get caught in from time to time, where one see the object of one's fear everywhere. It is itself a sort of cancer, the growth of a seed of knowledge gone amok. Then there is Updike's making literature of science. Although it is a little less absolute that Alexandra's understanding would have it, cancer is thought to occur when the programming that governs the balance of cell replication and cell death goes awry. Finally though, what I like most about this passage, is that the witches in relation to the sedate Rhode Island town they inhabit are themselves forces of nature gone crazy. That is what witchcraft is about, the harnessing of nature's powers to achieve some end (it doesn't have to be nefarious). I am experiencing Updike's novel as a comic take on the way suburbia has tamed the forces of nature in us all.

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