IT IS WITH a certain mixture of dread and excitement that one finds John Updike undertaking the material of magic and witcheraft in his latest novel. The Witches of Eastwick. Updike is a terrific writer, this book should because for excitement. But he is also innocent of magic; in the way that one's marden great aunt is probably innocent of sex: one dreads his first chapter as one avoids bringing up procreation with auntie.
The strength of the book are Updike's wit, the warmth of his writing and his wonderful, if not quite magical eye for imagery. These qualities combine to make a pleasant but still not satisfactory slightly longer that the taste of its gifts.
Updike has pulled off the annoying trick of being tolerant towards his charactors without being sympathetic to them, as a result coming off strangely condescending. Although his story presents itself as a novel, it owes more to the spirit of gossip and farce that to the novel as it is traditionally understood. Although Updike has a refreshing faith in Christian grace, he does not seem capable of addressing the companion doctrine of damnation can such a man wisely choose to write about witches? Moreover, the plot ignores the literary possibilities of magic: writers such as Robertson Davies and Iris Murdoch have put magical material to broader and more interesting uses.
The plot is simple and unenchanted. Three women in the small town of Eastwicks have shed their husbands and their traditional roles, and become witches. They use their powers to cause all sorts of mischief to townspeople they dislike: they have many male lovers, most of them married men. Along comes a wealth, sexy stranger. Darryl Van Horne. The witches all fall for him, he, after gratifying all three of them for a short while, marries a most unbe-witching girl named Jenny Gabriel. Shocked, the witches hex her (all the magic in the book is flatly effective), riddled with cancer. Jenny dies After her death. Van Horne runs away to New York City with Jenny's money and with her younger brother Chris, having been not a wealthy, sexy man but a money-starved homosexual Rather brusquely, the witches marry and move out of town.
UPDIKE IS one of those not entirely trustworthy novelists who write from a theological point of view: he divides his characters into those who believe in salvation by works and those who believe in salvation by grace. Specifically, love being a kind of salvation, there are those who feel they must earn other people's love and those who feel love is theirs by right. Jenny Gabriel, the too-good-to-be-interesting heroine of the novel, tries to earn the love of those dear to her. The witches, on the other hand, feel that
little is more precious in an affair for a man than being welcomed into a house he has done nothing to support, or more...her house his, on the strength of his cock alone, his cock and company...no buying you with mortgage payments. No blackmailing you with shared children, but welcomed simply, into the walls of you yourself, an admission dignified by freedom and equality.
Love is incompatible with earning think the witches, in an impractical reversal of the older attitude that marriage cannot exist without income.
The disappointments of the novel stem from the fact that although Updike divides his characters quite clearly into two camps, he does not allow their fates to follow from their differences in character. The reader feels the tension between Updike's near-absolute confidence of judgment, made manifest in sharp epigrams and character assessment, and the lax, amorphous nature of his characters' daily lives. One longs atavistically for a dramatic event to produce and ultimately resolve the conflict.
Updike at times seems in danger of confusing positive spirituality with the mere lack of material goods For him, eating is an activity of strange violence:
All things, even giant sea slugs, feed, feeding is their essence and teeth and hoofs and wings have all evolved from the millions of years of small bloods struggles Updike broadens this vision of vicious feeding when he suggests that "The spirit needs folly as the body needs food."
The only morally attractive character in the book. Jenny Gabriel, dies by becoming food, literally by being eaten by cancer, a practical virtue seems to have no place in Updike's Eastwick. Jenny is summed up and dismissed by a witch who says: "I guess she was one of those perfectly lovely people the world for some reason never finds any use for"
While it is possible that Updike does not entirely share the Manichean simplicity of this witch's views, he does nothing to counteract the reductionist view of virtue as the lack of strength. The reader feels that Updike's vision although concerned with goodness, does little to characterize just what comprises and defeats it.
MUCH OF the beauty of the book comes from Updike's evocation of growth, metamorphosis, and decay. The most vivid moments portray the possibilities of an apparently depthless sadness; one sometimes feels that Updike, shorn of his religious convictions, would be capable of an analysis of or depiction of true hysteria. Analysis has connected hysteria to femininity and to certain forms of religious conviction; one wishes that Updike would explore such connections, rather than spending his time describing the details of sexual intercourse. In the manner of a writer of farce, he shuns depth to go for laughs instead. One suspects him at times of naivete, at other times of a certain sly hostility. While his writing retains a certain charm, Witches remains ultimately disappointing