Friday, August 19, 2011

John Updike's "In the Beauty of the Lilies" (1996)

It is a tour-de-force, a novel that telescopes 80 years of American history through the lives of four characters. A Presbyterian minister who loses his faith. A young man who fears the world and so settles for the routine of mail delivery. A Hollywood star. A joiner of a religious cult. What connects them is family, for the cult follower is the son of the Hollywood star, who is the daughter of the mailman, who is the son of the minister. Through these four generational representatives, Updike traces the loss of religious faith in American society, and its attempted replacement by cinematic and fanatic illusions.

And yet the characters are no mere tools. I finish reading the novel, feeling that I have lived with Clarence, Teddy, Essie, and Clark, that they are people I could have known had I lived in their time and place. Their realism is borne out not only by the acute observations and evocative language of the novel, but also by the clear motive force in their psychology. The same intellectual idealism that drove Clarence in his theological studies leads to his spiritual crisis. The sharp descent in the family's status and wealth causes Teddy's insecurities. Petted and pampered by her parents, though for different reasons, Essie grows to believe that she is the center of the universe. Neglected by a celebrity mother, Clark turns to one who gives him a sense of destiny. These people are not hard to understand. The same continuities that tie them together as a family appear in their individual characters. They develop but they don't change. There is no radical break in family or character.

When all is clear, all is too clear. And here is my reservation about the novel: though it struggles with the dark topics of religious doubt and death, it betrays a certain optimism in its power to illuminate the struggle. On the plot level, the optimism reveals itself at the end in an act of heroism. Despite everything, Updike seems to say, there is hope. James Wood in London Review of Books (quoted in Wikipedia) expresses the criticism more trenchantly:

For some time now Updike's language has seemed to encode an almost theological optimism about its capacity to refer. Updike is notably unmodern in his impermeability to silence and the interruptions of the abyss. For all his fabled Protestantism, both American Puritan and Lutheran-Barthian, with its cold glitter, its insistence on the aching gap between God and His creatures, Updike seems less like Hawthorne than Balzac, in his unstopping and limitless energy, and his cheerfully professional belief that stories can be continued; the very form of the Rabbit books – here extended a further instance – suggests continuance. Updike does not appear to believe that words ever fail us – ‘life's gallant, battered ongoingness ', indeed – and part of the difficulty he has run into, late in his career, is that he shows no willingness, verbally, to acknowledge silence, failure, interruption, loss of faith, despair and so on. Supremely, better than almost any other contemporary writer, he can always describe these feelings and states; but they are not inscribed in the language itself. Updike's language, for all that it gestures towards the usual range of human disappointment and collapse, testifies instead to its own uncanny success: to a belief that the world can always be brought out of its cloudiness and made clear in a fair season.

What Wood describes, stripped of its negative evaluation, is characteristic of Comedy. Updike may be usefully seen as a comedic writer. Wood's judgment, like mine, may, finally, say more about the spirit of our times than about the novel. The Tragic is, we think, a more suitable mode for representing our world. We want our literature to render us speechless.

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