Be a lamp unto yourself

John Lanchester

  • S.: A Novel by John Updike
    Deutsch, 244 pp, £10.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 233 98255 8

Is it possible for a novelist to write too well? This has sometimes seemed to be the case with John Updike, whose ability to evoke physical detail is unmatched. It is a virtue in accordance with his expressedly realist aesthetic. ‘My own style seemed to be a groping and elemental attempt to approximate the complexity of envisioned phenomena, and it surprised me to have it called luxuriant and self-indulgent; self-indulgent, surely, is what it wasn’t – other-indulgent, rather. My models were the styles of Proust and Henry Green as I read them (one in translation): styles of tender exploration that tried to wrap themselves around the things, the tints and voices and perfumes, of the apprehended real.’ The words that stand out in Updike’s description of what he is up to are ‘groping and elemental’. No one in their right mind would ever use either term to describe Updike’s prose, whose most striking characteristic is its evenness of texture and never-faltering fluency. It’s this evenness of texture that is the basis for the charge that he writes too well.

Martin Amis has described the effects created by Updike’s prose as being like cinematography – ‘rich, ravishing, and suspiciously frictionless’. The most memorable piece of Prac Crit performed on Updike comes from Mailer’s novel Tough guys don’t dance. ‘I had never looked at a pussy until I read Updike,’ grunts Tim Madden, the writer-narrator, after quoting an extract (‘Amber, ebony, auburn, bay, chestnut, cinnamon, hazel, fawn, snuff, bema, bronze, platinum, peach, ash, flame and field mouse; these are but some of the colours my pussy is’) from Updike’s story ‘My Neighbour’s Wife’. Madden goes on:

He has a rare talent. Yet he irks me. Even his description of a pussy. It could as easily be a tree. (The velveteen of moss in the ingathered crotch of my limbs, the investiture of algae on the terraces of my bark, etc.)

It’s true: one object in an Updike novel could just as easily be another, in that what is being described never seems to interrupt the flow of prose. The promiscuous consistency of attention Updike gives to the physical world begins to act against the intendedly realistic effect – because whatever the world feels like to live in, it certainly doesn’t feel this homogeneous and smooth. The repeated Updikean cry, ‘Look at this!’ can seem eventually to mean, ‘Look at me!’: our attention is gradually drawn more and more to the self-delighting consciousness behind the frictionless flow of detail. Over and over again, reading Updike’s prose, one feels the presence of an intelligence taking pleasure in itself, taking pleasure in its ability to notice so much and write so well, its ability to take such varying phenomena and blend them into such a flawless and consistent verbal surface. In its turn, this creates a problem with the narratorial consciousness of the novels, and with creating a voice in which to tell the story. Who can it be, who does all this noticing, all this writing?

There is every sign that Updike has been brooding on these two problems – call them the problem of sufficiently varied texture and the problem of credible voice – because, in S., he goes a long way towards solving both of them. S. is an epistolary novel, told in letters and tapes by Sarah Worth, who has left her stuffy East Coast doctor husband and gone to Arizona to join the Ashram Arhat, a religious community trying to build a permanent base for itself in the desert. (The portrayal of the ashram owes something to Frances Fitzgerald’s book Cities on a Hill and its account of the would-be city of Rajneeshpuram. Updike’s Arhat – ‘Deserving One’ – shares with the leader of Rajneeshpuram, the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Bernard Levin’s one-time hero, a fondness for sweeping past his adoring followers in expensive cars. According to Sarah, ‘you wouldn’t believe the peace he generates, even at thirty miles an hour.’)

Sarah’s first letter, to her husband, is written on the plane trip out; thereafter she writes to her daughter, mother, dentist, hairdresser (‘My husband and I are taking a quite unexpected vacation in the romantic Far West’), her psychoanalyst, her brother and her bankers; she sends taped messages to her closest confidante, Midge from the yoga group. Sarah is different things to different people, as the variety of the signings-off she has to employ demonstrates: ‘Love/S.’, ‘Much, much love,/Mummy’, ‘Cordially,/Sarah Worth (Mrs Charles)’, ‘Your customer and friend,/Sally Worth’, ‘Love and hugs,/Sare’. Later, as Sarah gets into a position of power at the ashram, she has to write official letters on behalf of the Arhat to those who would obstruct the path to universal enlightenment – the limousine company (who are owed a lot of money), the editor of the local paper and the Inland Revenue Service.

Thus is the variety-of-texture problem solved by Updike: the range of functions performed by the letters, and the subtle variations in self-projection Sarah resorts to in writing them, make this one of the most aerated and various novels he has written. Her voice shows Updike’s powers of ventriloquism to the full. In inventing his narrators, Updike sets himself the task of creating an idiom differentiated from his own and at the same time sufficiently flexible to carry the burden of his own urge to notice and to evoke. So what happens in S. is a process of translation, the translation of Updikean aperçus into the idiom of his character – the breathless, hurried, faux-naive idiom of Sarah Worth. Here she is warning her daughter, who has just gone to Oxford, about the upper-class English: ‘People (which I see only in the dentist’s office, but must say I do devour eagerly there) and the National Enquirer (which Irving my yoga instructor is devoted to for its spiritual dimensions, its ESP and UFO news) are so full of the young English nobility and their dangerous drug habits that they pick up in imitation of the rock stars, out of class guilt and a subconscious Marxist wish to destroy themselves I suppose.’ (Updike takes care to give Sarah just enough education to make that range of reference credible: she did two years in college, specialising in modern French philosophy, though ‘all I remember now is essence procedes existence or is it the other way around?’) The novel is full of these moments of translation, which often work to broaden the humour that is always latent in Updike’s prose – the sly private humour which is one of the factors behind the self-delighting quality in his work. ‘Charles now just seems impossibly small,’ Sarah says of her husband to Midge, ‘like one of those bugs you see crawling across a piece of paper or a bathroom tile and though it looks a mere dot you know if it was magnified enough would show fangs and hairy legs and long pokey things, but who wants to bother?’

There is also a more complicated way in which Sarah’s voice is crucial to the novel. The slight aura of bad faith which sometimes attaches to the narrator’s voice in Updike’s fiction (‘Look at this!’ becoming ‘Look at me!’) has already been mentioned: another writer whose work has this feel to it is Nabokov. Nabokov’s favourite technique for dealing with this difficulty was to create obviously deluded and obsessional narrators, men whose hyper-alert, self-pleasuring prose style was one of the symptoms of their derangement. As Humbert Humbert puts it, ‘trust a murderer to have a fancy prose style.’ In his last novel, Roger’s Version, Updike did something similar. It wasn’t clear how far the events of the novel, especially the enthusiastically adulterous behaviour of the narrator’s wife, were the product of the narrator’s overheated sexual fantasy. By extension, therefore, the whole style and manner of his voice – an especially sour, lascivious version of Updike’s usual voice – was called into question.

In S., Updike takes that process a stage further. Because letters always offer an authorised version of the self, there is a sense in which they are always slightly, subtly, false: they allow us to display ourselves as we would like to be seen. Updike takes the opportunity offered by this fact. The element of overwriting, of ‘literariness’ in his style is heightened and displaced in the epistolary manner of his character – a manner which is throughout the novel shown to be manipulative and duplicitous. Her letters have a writerly relish in their own fluency: it’s a version of Updike’s writerly relish in his own fluency, of course, but thanks to this device our sense that the narratorial voice is secretly pleased with itself becomes one of the book’s assets. Sarah’s Dear John letter to her lesbian lover at the ashram is a masterpiece of smugness. ‘Our time together has in my mind a precious fine fragility, a crackled gold-rimmed rightness, that makes me hold my breath as I try to set it down.’ The letter’s final salutation (quoting the Buddha’s last words) is wonderful: ‘Be a lamp unto yourself.’

The story we are told by Sarah’s letters is slightly at odds with the story we are permitted to infer from them, and the fiction takes place as much in the juxtapositions and elisions between the letters as it does in the letters themselves. For one thing, Sarah is much more impressed by the Arhat than we are ever likely to be. His Arizona experiment is a continuation of work begun in India, the land of his birth. (One version of his life has it that he was due to be mutilated by his parents in order to increase his earning-power as a beggar, but escaped.) The community he founded experimented with a potent home-brewed mixture of encounter therapy and tantric yoga, the latter making great use of maithuna (‘that’s what they call fucking in Sanskrit’), along with ‘strange things like food fights and blue movies – anything to wake people up, was the Arhat’s approach.’ The sanyassins – ‘pilgrims’ – work a 12-hour day in the Arizona desert (‘work is worship’) before staying up half the night ‘absorbing energy’ in the ashram disco. The nights are very, very cold.

It doesn’t take Sarah long to grasp the nature of life in the ashram. ‘The fact is that along with being really quite as heavenly and freeing as one used to imagine there’s also a strong element, everything being so loosely structured, of dog-eat-dog.’ She secures a job in the ashram office, writing and typing letters for the Arhat, and in her letters home trying her best to interfere in everyone’s life. Her daughter, Pearl, has formed an unsuitable attachment to a Dutch count, scion of a brewing family called the van Hertzogs – ‘I keep wanting to write “warthogs.” ’ Her mother, in Floridian retirement, is being pursued by an ex-admiral, who keeps giving her what Sarah tells her is bad investment advice. ‘The stock-market really isn’t for people advanced in age with short-term goals.’

John Updike is on the record as an admirer of the Protestant theologian Karl Barth. References to Barth are scattered throughout Updike’s work, and Roger’s Version made it clear that Updike gives to Barth’s theology his imaginative assent, if not his belief. The central tenet of that theology is the idea that god is totaliter aliter, ‘wholly other’. ‘There is no way from us to God,’ Updike says in Roger’s Version, quoting Barth – ‘not even a via negativa – not even a via dialectica or paradoxica. The god who stood at the end of some human way would not be God.’ The cold absolutism of Barth’s theology is what seems to make it sympathetic to Updike, and the epigraph to Roger’s Version has a lot of bearing on S. ‘What if the result of the new hymn to the majesty of God should be a new confirmation of the hopelessness of all human activity?’ Well, indeed: what if? What if you held such a belief, and you happened to be a novelist? The answer seems to be that you would write comic novels. Precedents exist in the work of Catholic or Anglo-Catholic writers like Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark and A.N. Wilson. The greater the distance from which human life is seen, the more like a certain kind of black comedy it tends to look. Updike has praised the ‘sublime hard-heartedness’ of Waugh’s fiction, and contrasted it favourably with the ‘claustrophobically human’ universe of Kingsley Amis.

There is something of that hard-heartedness about S.. A growing commitment to Barth’s theology appears to have led Updike to write a kind of novel he once despised: ‘there is no need to write “funny novels” when life’s actual juxtapositions and convolutions, set down attentively, are comedy enough,’ he says in his attack on Amis. As S. progresses, however, it becomes just that kind of ‘funny novel’ – the kind which systematically debunks and exposes its characters. When the ashram’s accountant has a nervous collapse (caused, it turns out later, by massive doses of drugs being added to the communal food), Sarah takes over the accounts. Sarah, or Kundalini, as she is now known (the honorary ashram name means ‘the energy-serpent that rises’), opens bank accounts in the Bahamas and Switzerland and takes advantage of the ashram’s financial chaos to start embezzling money. While making a tape to send to Midge, she is interrupted by the Arhat; the tape continues to record as they enjoy maithuna together. The ashram, under investigation by a number of State and Federal agencies, begins to collapse. The Arhat turns out to be an impostor, no more an Indian than Sarah herself is – in fact, his real name is Art Steinmetz, and he comes from the wrong side of the tracks in Sarah’s native Massachusetts, ‘just one more bright good Jewish boy, who even put in a few terms at Northeastern studying sales engineering and business administration before the peace movement got to him and he took off’. In India, he was ‘just one more guru obscuru’, so he came back to America. ‘This is the place to score. This is where duhkha translates into money.’ (Duhkha means ‘dissatisfaction’, ‘disillusionment’, ‘pain’.) Sarah leaves the ashram and goes to the Bahamas to enjoy her swindled lucre. The last letter in the book is to her husband, who has run off with Midge.

In trying to formulate the sense of duhkha I felt with S., I turned back to a piece Updike published in the New Yorker in September 1985. ‘At War with my Skin’, was about the author’s psoriasis. (The disfiguring condition is caused by over-production of skin cells; it manifests itself as blotchy red spots, ‘ripening into silvery scabs’, and there is no cure, although sunlight has mitigating effects. It’s what the Michael Gambon character had in The Singing Detective.) Updike described the absolute centrality the disease had had in his life: the years of sunbathing, starting a private penance in April in order to look presentable by the time the summer arrived; the topping-up trips to the Bahamas in the winter; marrying ‘the first comely and gracious woman who forgave me my skin’ – unable, all his life, to pass a reflecting surface without checking the state of his psoriasis. The essay talked about the family Updike abandoned in 1974, and about the sources of his writing, his ‘over-valuation of the normal’ and ‘relentless need to produce’. There was a pain and a directness about the piece (and about its sequel, ‘Getting the words out’, in which Updike wrote about his stammering and asthma) that was all the more effective for the contrast with its author’s usual Barthian disengagement. By comparison with ‘At War with my Skin’ and with the best of Updike’s fiction – The Coup, A Month of Sundays, Roger’s Version – S. is a Fabergé egg, a miracle of craftsmanly ingenuity and, as I have said, of problem-solving, which to a large extent leaves its author and its reader uninvolved. It is a new departure in Updike’s work in its twist towards the comic, and its willingness to embrace the fashionable assumption that what really motivates people is money.