One Nation Under Glass

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

Every house has a John Updike novel. Mine, I recently discovered, has three--Rabbit Run, Rabbit is Richand A Month of Sundays--although I'm sure I've never bought one myself, nor borrowed, nor stolen. And yet there they are, existence indisputable, a testament to the literary ubiquity of one of this nation's most respected living authors. Not just respected, but frighteningly prolific too. Forget Stephen King; with 17 novels, 11 story collections, six books of poetry, and twice that number of assorted children's books, essays, memoirs, and plays, John Updike is arguably the hardest working man in American letters.

Yet given that mountain of writing, I had until recently never made more than a few exploratory probes into the oeuvre. A short story here, a book review there, an introduction to the collected Kafka that ambushed me at its concluding byline. Updike may have been the first brave author to colonize the terrain of suburban sexuality, giving literary sanction to a reading nation's lust and license. But the moral quandaries Updike so expertly and explicitly describes--the meaning of fidelity, and its seamy converse--have not aged well, crowded as they are by the dross of countless inferior imitators. One is faintly embarrassed that Updike ever felt so compelled to extend his office hours to matters between the sheets. Some of his most popular novels now resemble exhaustive (if ever-nuanced) meditations on a stale Henny Youngman joke: Take my wife, please! Snare-slap, rim-shot, cymbal.

But where Youngman's refusal to evolve earns a grudging chuckle, atavistic authors take less kindly to the idea of obsolescence. In a 1991 interview, Martin Amis forwards this theory in regard to his crabby late father, Kingsley Amis: "I think after a certain point a writer disengages from what is really happening in the world and the real world looks not only strange but inimical.... [that author] writes about a sort of frozen world that existed 20 or 30 years ago." The same cannot be said of John Updike--at least not of late. His last novel was set in the slums of Brazil, and in a recent New Yorker story, the author revisits his old extramarital haunts to new effect. The philandering past now seems naive to the reflective narrator: "We hadn't learned yet to take the emotion out of sex. Looking back the numbers don't add up to what an average college student now manages in four years." He even considers "the possibility that... all the women had been suffering in our sexual paradise." At story's end, two of his ex-partners, Audrey and Winifred, are seen walking contentedly through a mall together, "holding hands." Updike is searching for the present in that mall, and if he's not quite hot, he's not frozen either.

With this we arrive at Updike's most recent novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies (Knopf), a thoroughly impressive American saga spanning 80 years and four generations. We begin in the spring of 1910 at a film shoot, in the burgeoning mill town of Paterson, New Jersey (under Updike's smart plotting, this means that film will be a guiding metaphor throughout). After a few pages we cut to the rectory of a Presbyterian congregation where the delicately constituted Clarence Wilmot is losing his faith in God (add religion and its discontents to the theme list). Mill workers protest, they strike, they are crushed like bugs. America is starting to happen.

But in the old days, prose moved slowly. As Clarence's spiritual crisis deepens, he cannot so much as pass through a doorway without leaving a deep heap of verbiage behind: "The milled and carved configurations of the spiky staircase and the inner vestibule door with its big frosted-glass pane rimmed in milky translucent colors were as they had been ten minutes ago." Later, we take a lugubrious tour of Clarence's library, which includes an encyclopedic account of the books that shake his faith and those that reaffirm it. Wake me up when we reach the First World War.

As a man most at home in the realm of books, Updike has never met a metaphor he didn't like; no person, place, or thing can exist except in reference to an animal, vegetable, or mineral. No single eyeball can escape rigorous analysis for color, content, and implied character. If the trademark micro-management of his cast's pubic regions has been omitted in this outing, Updike has spared us none of his queasying indulgence of the tactile. The pages are stuffed with double chins, half-hunchbacks and copulating ducks. Youthful reflections on a bathroom carpet made by a girl squatting on "the toidy." All accomplished writing, this--no lazy phrase or limp prose can be found. Updike remains the poet laureate of things one would rather not know, of insights often best left unseen.

Eventually, anguished by atheism, Clarence demits his office in the church, accepts a downward spiral of demoralizing sales jobs and fecklessly drags the Wilmot family down with him. Daughter Esther becomes a secretary. Son Jared goes off to war with the Huns. Teddy takes a paper route. Clarence begins to frequent the movie houses, swapping God for cinema, then becomes bedridden with TB, then dies. Will the next generation of Wilmots please step to the front of the line?

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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