One Nation Under Glass

John Updike's 17th novel takes on a century of American dreams.

Often, In the Beauty of the Lilies reads like the model project of an American Studies professional society. As the narrative turns to aimless Teddy and his tour of duty as a small-town soda jerk, we are treated to a two-page inventory of a 1930s drug store: "Olvilo Soap 7¢, Marrow's Boudoir Talc 52¢, Sodiphene 21¢, Terra-Derma Laxative 89¢." Updike, as always, has done his research and done it well. Sometimes the author filters snippets of history through the family's Philco radio. Other times he doesn't bother, ticking off Lindbergh's flight, Al Capone's imprisonment, and the Teapot Dome Scandal with no pretense to context. The mission here--to reveal the social fabric of The American Century out of a well-chosen patchwork of accumulated detail--is vaguely Gump-ian in nature.

We shift from cautious Teddy to his brazen daughter Alma, a Hollywood star at the twilight of the studio system. Time has accelerated; Alma, a woman wholly at home in her plastic age, can walk through a room in a single sentence. Unlike his creation, the author appears less comfortable as the century enters its second half. With the distinctive Hollywoods of Nathaniel West and Joan Didion at the chronological bookends of Alma's career, Updike struggles to inscribe his own vision into the celluloid of California.

In the final segment, Alma's son Clark holes up in a Colorado Christ cult. A failed actor, director, producer, and ski bum, Clark has fallen from the centrality of screen life all the way out of society's orbit--the apocalypse culture that polygamist leader Jesse calls "Gog and Magog." The author's facility with scriptural quotation again amazes, as the situation goes Waco up in the mountains, (right down to the tear gas siege and the buried school bus). In a one-page, one-sentence rant, Updike's camera--now television instead of film--pans the exhausted nation Clark has left behind, from nose rings to the end of love as we know it.

Curiously, In the Beauty of the Lilies mostly skips the years associated with the author's greatest cultural resonance, 1965-1985; perhaps they've already been done. But one detects a weak nostalgia in the cynicism of the passages after that period; returning to Martin Amis's theory, the world seems to have become strange to Updike, if not yet inimical. By the end of the novel, the author's long and successful courting of zeitgeist has reached a provisional separation. When (or if) the divorce will come remains for the next book to decide.

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