Sunday, January 4, 2009

A writer who takes the trouble (Books - The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike)

Only 3 days into the year and I have already started a book not on my list! Actually, I had reserved John Updike's The Witches of Eastwick at the library in October after having read Sam Tanenhaus's excellent review of the recently released sequel in the New York Times Book Review and forgotten all about it. I figured if I were going to read The Widows of Eastwick, I should read the predecessor first. I also hadn't had much luck getting through a novel of Updike's. I had tried both The Centaur and Couples and found them dated, though I have yet to give any of the Rabbit novels a try. Fifty pages into The Witches of Eastwick all that has changed. I am enthusiastically admiring Updike's observations of 1980s suburbia - as rich as they are hilarious. But most of all it is his descriptions I marvel at - whether of people or of places - they unfold specific detail, by specific detail, in seemingly effortless sentences that move steadily, nobly, like a royal procession or a great river.
Coal pulled her on, past a heap of barnacled square-cut rocks that had been part of a jetty built when this beach was the toy of rich men and not an overused public playground. The rocks were a black-freckled pale granite and one of the largest held a bolted bracket rusted by the years to the fragility of a Giacometti.
That description expects something of the reader. Updike's spare use of commas makes one slow down to feel the rhythm of the sentence. They build detail upon detail in multiple realms at once. In the first sentence, we see the rocks as barnacles but the in the context of both the town's geography and its sociology. In the second we learn of the rock's specific identity and then, in addition, this rock's unique detail of a bolted bracket whose shape we can clearly see in our mind's eye, if we are well-versed in modern sculpture.

This train of paragraphs in which Alexandra, one of the three witches, takes her dog Coal for a walk on the beach, also does service as a lengthy description of Alexandra herself.
Alexandra wore her hair in a single thick braid down her back; sometimes she pinned the braid up like a kind of spine to the back of her head. Her hair had never been a true clarion Viking blond but of a muddy pallor now further dirtied by gray. Most of the gray hair had sprouted in front; the nape was still as finespun as those of the girls that lay here basking. The smooth young legs she walked past were caramel in color, with white fuzz, and aligned as if in solidarity...

Coal plunged on, snorting, imagining some scent, some dissolving animal vein within the kelpy scent of the oceanside. The beach population thinned. A young couple lay intertwined in a space they had hollowed in the pocked sand; the boy murmured into the base of the girl's throat as if into a microphone. An overmuscled male trio, their long hair flinging as they grunted and lunged, were playing Frisbee, and only when Alexandra purposefully let the powerful black Labrador pull her through this game's wide triangle did they halt their insolent tossing and yelping. She thought she heard the word "hag" or "bag" at her back after she had passed through, but it might have been an acoustic trick, a mistaken syllable of sea-slap. She was drawing near to where a wall of eroded concrete topped by a helix of rusted barbed wire marked the end of public beach; still there were knots of youth and seekers of youth and she did not feel free to set loose poor Coal, though he repeatedly gagged at the restraint of his collar. His desire to run burned the rope in her hand. The sea seemed unnaturally still - tranced, marked by milky streaks far out, where a single small launch buzzed on the sounding board of its level surface. On Alexandra's other side, nearer to hand, beach pea and wooly hudsonia crept down from the dunes; the beach narrowed here and became intimate, as you could see from the nests of cans and bottles and burnt driftwood and the bits of shattered Styrofoam cooler and the condoms like small dried jellyfish corpses.
What a couple of paragraphs. I am going to march through my reading of them. We begin by learning just a little about what Alexandra looks like (we have learned more before this point) but Updike cannot do that without making a comparison, as I see it, it is Alexandra's own comparison of herself to the sea of youth in which she is awash. We can feel in that description her yearn to be sexual but her awareness of her own middle-aged status, her lack of physicality as she resents the boys' "insolent" game of Frisbee and then feel the slap of the insult on her back. "Hag," a nasty slap if she is already feeling her age, although the word does double-duty as a synonym for witch. Updike cannot resist adding Alexandra's notion that she could have mistook the sound of the surf for a word with an "a" vowel in it. A highly unlikely mistake, adding both humor from the third-person narrator, and awareness of a slightly desperate optimism from the interior perspective of Alexandra that this narration affords the reader. I love the mixture of the sexual and the inanimate that repeats itself again and again - the boy murmuring into the girls throat like a microphone, the rusted barbed wire and youth, the condoms and the stryrofoam. Finally, I love to death the fact that the plants growing on the beach are given their names - beach pea and wooly hudsonia. It is the mark of a writer who takes the trouble to see and to write precisely so that what we read can feel effortless. That or it indicates he can name them on sight as handily as he can a Giacometti. If the reader cares to do a little research, then he can see along with the writer, the patterned, eucalyptus-green leaves of the beach pea, and immerse himself further in the world of the story rather than skim across the surface of the narrative with the general knowledge that there is some sort of plant there. I also like the fact that this detail can flow from the twin perspectives of the narration, both from the third-person omniscient narrator who knows everything we need to be told, and Alexandra's interior perspective. It struck me as I read that sentence that, as a witch, she might know the names of the local flora.

I have a whole additional rant on how I read what the witches stand for in this suburban Rhode Island beach town, but I'm going to save that for another post.


Eva said...

I've always been a bit hesitant of Updike, but this one sounds great. :)

Lindsay said...

The Witches of Eastwick was one of the first Updike novels I read (the other was Terrorist, which I thought was uneven in terms of characterization), and I liked it a lot.

What I latched onto in that particular scene you quote was the combination of curmudgeonliness and playfulness in Alexandra's summoning the storm cloud to chase away the beachgoers. I liked that quality about her.

Ted said...

Eva - Give this one a try, I was the same and this one has got me.

Lindsay - I really enjoyed discovering your blog and your fascinating combination of interests! Yes, that's interesting what you pick up on in Alexandra, she is a bit of a grouch, that's true. Maybe it's her self-consciousness about her age, but I'm not sure yet. I'm really admiring the writing a lot.