Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike

"The Witches of Eastwick" may well be Updike's most well-known novel, as he remains a cult writer to many. (The brilliant Rabbit novels, which are his best and most famous work, don't seem to have had the wider cultural prominence of, say, "Portnoy's Complain" or "Gravity's Rainbow.") The reason for this, of course, is the 80s film that was made with Jack Nicholson as Darryl Van Horne and Susan Sarandon, Cher and Michelle Pfeiffer as the witches. I must have read it not long after it came out (it was published in 1984)and enjoyed it immensely. Reading it again 20 years later, the enjoyment remained, but if anything, it's improved with age.

The 80s film has done it a number of disservices, not least by associating it with that time, when the book is firmly place in a particular time, the early 70s. The Vietnam war remains a crucial backdrop to the novel. The story, simple enough, is of a stranger, Darryl van Horne, coming to town, buying the "old Lennox mansion", and drawing in three divorcees in the town, Alexandra, Sukie and Jane. What draws Horne is their abilities, known to each of them, used sparingly, and for frivolous means. For these three women are witches, meet regularly in a suburban "coven" to share gin and reminisces about men. Female friends of a similar age call their own meeting a "coven", and Updike's novel offers a potent mix of female empowerment on the one hand, and a paeon to the mysticism of women on the other.

The 3 witches are already aware of their powers when van Horne comes to town; having not only deposited their respective husbands, but also using them for various domestic reasons. But this is a much darker witchcraft than Samantha in Bewitched, or even the Desperate Housewives-style of the recent for TV "Eastwick." In many ways, I think the novel is set firmly in the same world that his earlier sex comedy "Couples" takes place. It is a small town America that is no longer tied so much to its twin pillars of church and family. This is the messy America of the early 70s, with Vietnam firmly in the background, and the shock of economic downturn (and ruin) on every doorstep. Into this reality of the American dream Updike plants one of its most shameful episodes, the Salem witches, but in, what I think is a highly original conceit, witchcraft here is real, and part of being a woman. Their powers are acknowledged, even accepted by their community - as if in the madness of the times, a little witchcraft is the least of the problems.

What makes "The Witches of Eastwick" retain its power is both the richness of Updike's writing, for which this subject matter is perfect, and the originality of the story. Its frequent adaptions have shown how clean a concept it is - that of the small town contemporary witches and, as importantly, the arrival of van Horne into their lives. For van Horne has materialised, (and will dematerialise, just as quickly), without explanation. Have the witches conjured him up? Or, having detected their power has this "devil" turned up on their doorstep to harness it? Part of the book's brilliance is that Updike never gives us more than a few clues about van Horne's provenance, the strongest being the name. van Horne is in many ways as hapless in the affairs of man as he is magnetic to the women. His only power over the world is what he gets people to do for themselves. This is Crowley's "free will." He is a very modern devil as well; collecting pop art (he had no time for the abstract expressionists), installing hot tub, tennis court and stereo system; and he draws the three women into a web that they don't even understand for themselves. He provides each of them with the foil they need for their own talents - whether its admiring their music, their sculpture or their beauty. Yet, it is when the witches are together with him, mutually pleasuring each other in the hot tub, that their "cone of power" seems at its height. This is late 60s/early 70s sexual utopianism given a magic air. Under van Horne's prompting the women begin to take what they want from the town of Eastwick - not content with having affairs, the dreadful wives of their men have to suffer as well. All, you know, will not end well.

It is the friendship between the three women which is one of the book's triumphs. For Updike paints three very different women who share mutual respect, but have different characteristics and want different things. The beauty of Updike's prose to me has always been that he writes with his mouth full, there's abundance on every page, and in every sentence. By the end of his writing life, this abundance could sometimes slip over into parody, the books themselves unable to carry the weight, but in "The Witches of Eastwick", he has a subject that demands this omnivorousness. Written in three distinct acts, the "cost" of witchcraft begins to show in the collateral damage that affects their lives. The ordinary wives who they accidentally widow become a religious-charged coven of their own, the local priest being replaced at the head of his congregation by his previously subjugated wife; and the young son and daughter of the couple who have died as the result of the witches, return to town and become part of van Horne's coven - eventually driving apart van Horne's influence on the witches, when the young woman marries van Horne (and, we later find, the young man becomes his lover.)

In "witches" I think Updike found a grand subject that also offers endless opportunity to satirise small town life. van Horne is a most peculiar kind of devil, actually impotent (in both ways) without the powers of the women. He is drawn to them and to Eastwick like a parasite. When he gives a sermon to the local congregation at the end of the novel he talks about nature's parasites. The implication is that the witches too are this; but in reality he is talking about himself - and by implication, if this world of parasites is God's world, then shit, they might as well have given the other guy (him, the devil) a chance. This playful irreverance has mostly stood the test of time. Programmes like "Desperate Housewives" and "True Blood" seem to echo the ideas of Eastwick in different ways. Of course, Updike's fecund women (their many children are virtually running feral, uncomfortably out of earshot), are a very different kind than you find in Angela Carter's fairy tales, but that's because they are existing in a real world. The ultimate fantasy, of course, is that they are looking for the perfect man, and that they find him in the devil himself, shared between them, and a creature they cannot ever possibly be ruler over. Women are given a forceful sexuality in the novel, with men just dupes controlled by their wandering penis, but the novel ends with them all conjuring up the next male, and leaving Eastwick. Is there a conservative moralism here, that female sexuality uncontrolled by marriage is dangerous? It's one reading I suppose, but Updike is delightfully ambiguous.

I'm not sure whether Updike is studied extensively in Universities these days; if so I wonder if "Witches" is one of those studied? It deserves to be. It seems to offer a nice satirical counterpoint to the sixties and seventies suburbia of "Couples" and the Rabbit books, and remains both a delightful read, and a highly accomplished metaphor. Updike woudld revisit the Witches in his last published novel, "The Widows of Eastwick". Their enchantment is hard to resist.

Found this contemporary review by Margaret Atwood which intrigueingly compares it to the Wizard of Oz.

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