- In the Beauty of the Lilies by John Updike
Hamish Hamilton, 512 pp, £16.00, April 1996, ISBN 0 241 13653 9
It seems safe to infer from his now majestically large oeuvre that John Updike’s ultimate ambition is to get the whole of America, its geography as well as its history, the fluctuations of its spiritual as well as of its material wellbeing, into his books. The contribution of the four Rabbit volumes to the realisation of this plan (one volume per decade since 1960) is easily recognised, but many other novels, though less clearly devoted to the annotation of historical change, have a similar purpose. Here is another double-length historical novel, profusely recording the vicissitudes of four 20th-century generations. Its familiar abundance, its detailed accounts of past places, customs and technologies, as well as of individuals and their interrelations, familial and sexual, are as usual impressive (a comparison with Arnold Bennett comes, uninvited, to mind, only to be dismissed unexamined, as almost certain to be deceptive). But here there seem to be occasional lapses, moments even of bathos, so that neither in conception nor in execution can this book match the last of the Rabbits (1990) or the exhilarating assurance of Roger’s Version, four years earlier. Yet it can still astonish, though less by its boldness than by its almost infallible competence.
The story covers four generations and virtually the whole of the 20th century. First we learn of Clarence Arthur Wilmot, a Presbyterian minister in Paterson, New Jersey. Like many a minister in generations earlier than his, Clarence is undergoing a painful loss of faith, brought on by reading Robert Ingersoll’s Some Mistakes of Moses and other scornful and persuasive incitements to infidelity. His life is ruined, and Updike tells us, with characteristic thoroughness, why this was so and what it felt like. ‘Life’s sounds all rang with a curious lightness, as if a resonating base beneath them had been removed. They told Clarence Wilmot what he had long suspected, that the universe was utterly indifferent to his states of mind and as empty of divine content as a corroded kettle.’ Unsaved, he had given way to that ‘lively tendency to disobey God’ attributed by Calvin to all men lacking the gift of grace; but ‘lively’ is hardly the word for dis-graced Clarence. The savour has gone out of existence; even his family, the comfort of his house, the ordinary happiness of the period kitchen (menus provided) no longer appeal.
Updike is almost alone among his contemporaries in his willingness to study this state of dull spiritual privation, what used to be called wanhope; or at any rate to study it in a religious, quasi-theological context. He alone would seek the origins of Clarence’s discomfiture in German Higher Criticism: Semler and Eichhorn, Baur and Welhausen, Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu, all those learned Christians who ‘undermined Christianity’s supporting walls and beams’. The above reading list probably contains no work that was unfamiliar to George Eliot, who was also interested in the pains of spiritual emptiness, or disappointment.
While all this is happening to Clarence, little Mary Pickford faints on the set of a movie. The history of the movies is used throughout the novel to mark the passage of 20th-century time. When Clarence finally induces his superiors (credited with very persuasive though unavailing arguments against him) to let him resign his ministry, he becomes a silent movie buff and so a conduit for information on the subject. Other temporal indications derive from newspaper reports of what is going on in Paterson particularly and the world more generally. The local silk industry and its problems are touched on; the ‘dung-strewn’ streets of Paterson are described, and the Ford Model Ts and Oldsmobiles that chug through them. We are privy to the discussions of Clarence’s Church Building Requirement Committee. Conscientious density of information is one of Updike’s hallmarks.
Clarence, himself in a sort of affectless hell, is preaching a sermon on the parable of the tares cast into the furnace when his voice gives out and it’s all over. He had not foreseen that loss of faith would entail loss of caste, but this becomes evident when he tries to make a living by selling encyclopedias door to door. He grows ever feebler and dies inert, hollowed out by loss of vocation. One of his sons, Jared, is wounded in the First World War but returns to a successful life, his motto being ‘Money gives and pussy takes.’ Another son, Teddy, is more like his father, tame, numb, also plump and not very smart; a failure at the local bottletop factory, he takes a job as a soda-jerk; the contents of the drugstore are elaborately described, down to the ice cream chests from which the melted ice could be heard ‘dripping away into the pans underneath, next to the canister of pressurised carbon dioxide for the sodas and the nitrous oxide for the whipped cream’.
Teddy, like his dad, goes to the movies, and they have a part in his slow courtship of a lame girl, whom he finally marries. Though the world, we are told, was getting sexier, their courting takes place on a settee of crimson cut plush, ‘with the street light throwing a dim diagonal copy of the window lace on the floor-boards’, while a six-tone Silvertone radio with mahogany console, ordered from Sears and Roebuck, plays to mask their sighs. Teddy tries his luck in New York but gives up, goes home and becomes a postman. We are told what you needed to do to become a postman in those days, how you managed your round on foot, bicycle or Model T, as well as what it was like to have a brief modest honeymoon in Philadelphia.
Teddy occupies the second long section of the book. His daughter Essie, who becomes a film star, rules the third section. Her films, her relations with famous co-stars, and many tricks of the movie trade, are set forth in the customary detail. Essie marries frequently and has a rather neglected son called Clark, who drops out of Hollywood, fails when given a job by Uncle Jared, and winds up in a Waco-style religious commune. The commune’s impressive armoury benefits from the novelist’s knowledge of firearms: ‘You take an old AR-15 like this, and add an AR-15-M-16 upper receiver part, and you got yourself an M-16, fully automatic. You just pull the trigger and it’s k-k-k-k – goodbye, gook.’
Clark gets the faith, fundamentalist and very different from the learned Presbyterianism deserted by his great-grandfather. He accepts the apocalyptic doctrines of his leader and complies with the usual commune conditions – for example, the women, including his woman, belong to that leader. There comes the Day of Reckoning, with quantities of accurate apocalyptic detail and an elaborately described battle, in the midst of which Clark experiences a crisis of faith very different form his ancestor’s, very Nineties-ish and end-of-millennium; yet not entirely unconnected, merely the latest, basest and most modern of the exemplary spiritual conflicts of this family.
This is a novel planned with much care. A note at the end thanks a lot of people for ‘invaluable help with the particulars’ – theologians, the United States Postal Service etc; and Updike also cites a number of books, movie reference works, a study of the Paterson silk strike of 1913, an account of the Waco siege and other books about American religious cults. But a great deal more information comes directly from the hard disc in Updike’s head. He must be one of those on whom nothing is lost. The effect can be somewhat laboured, one feels ungratefully that one could manage with rather less authenticating detail, but it is after all a hallowed way of proceeding. Henry James’s criticism is obviously very out of date, for nobody could claim that the American scene as here presented is lacking in density.
Underneath the busy surface there is Updike’s permanent preoccupation with the vagaries of the spirit in ex-Puritan America. The careful abundance of the writing testifies to his love and admiration for the daily beauties and oddities of American life, past and present, but the deep structures suggest sadness and disappointment. Something serious has been lost or at any rate eroded, a seriousness of intellect but also of spirit. A sign of the degeneration is the difference between Clarence’s religious life and the later fundamentalism accepted by Clark, a doctrine that cuts off all serious thinking at the root. A comparable decadence is registered in the life of society more generally, and it might now be agreed that Jared was right about the money and possibly about the pussy, too.
In the past Updike has certainly not shirked the task of recording modern American sexual life in all its ingenious varieties, and it is rather surprising to find that in this latest book sex is treated in a fashion that seems both embarrassed and embarrassing: ‘she took him, the grotesque helpless core of him, out of his pants – a strong smell came to their nostrils, like crushed bug’. It is as if the seriousness of the underlying subject forbade a less bizarrely solemn account of a hand job. But one expects and gets so much from this splendidly inventive writer that it would be unreasonable to fuss about occasional disappointments, when the prolific becomes prolix and the deep anguish just a little voulu.