Rabbits, Witches, Updike, Bitches

Illustration for article titled Rabbits, Witches, Updike, Bitches

Hi all! I was a little burned out—100K words' worth burned, let's say—on YA for a Fine Lines, and my Shelf Pleasuring transmuted itself into a work on the sequel without my doing. But no matter! There is still much more YA to be had. To be updated on the book and to see the cover, you can subscribe to the mailing list, and/or friend me on Facebook as "Shelf Discovery". There will be Plotfinders, there will be vintage scans, there will be giveaways, there will be events and announcements. In a week or two, because setting these things up almost cracked my frail brain.

It is important to begin any conversation about sexism in John Updike's works with the following six words: I did not start this fight.Okay. Who did? Well, the natural culprit is the author himself, of course, who likely rivals a first-year rotation in Obstetrics & Gynecology in his efforts to comprehensively depict womanity in all our leaking, bloody, flushed, heaving, viscous, gaseous, indolent glory. But it's not really his fault. The true blame must be placed squarely at the feet of formless claque of literary men of my acquaintance who, after blithely dismissing the bulk of the author's work, nonetheless, CONSISTENTLY, close with the following: "He does write women really well." I know. I know. Leaving aside the notion of "writing women" as some singular, definitive Arabesque, How the fuck would they know. (You don't even know the color of my eyes, do you?) Anyway. But I would also, before embarking, like to point out that, unlike these men, I am a huge fan of Updike's work, especially Rabbit is Rich, and appreciate him in all his Biden-like, verbose, dialogue-heavy, be-veined glory. The Witches of Eastwick, my bedraggled, original copy of which lies before me at this moment, was a book I stole off my parents' shelves and never returned, so bewitched (and bewildered) I was by its odd mixture of cultural commentary and pure sensuality, as if the reader were crunching down on one of the Macadamia nuts Rabbit, to the detriment of his health, liked to let explode in his mouth. Many books are described as "dreamlike," and this generally refers to a style wherein the author speaks with no affect in the present tense, often asserting some creative interpretation of self. (I am blue. I am broken. I am off-key.) But The Witches of Eastwick, trippy and demented, is actually like a dream. ("So there were these three ladies in this New England town and they became WITCHES, but in this weird way of like, witches NOW. Then there was THE DEVIL and they moved into his house. It was like a mansion. I think his name was Darryl. One of them played the cello...") In Witches of Eastwick, Updike's position toward his heroines—earthy, observant Alexandra, dreamy, seductive, Sukie, and sharp, intemperate Jane—is basically affectionate, that of a younger sibling who, while awed by the doings of the elder, still maintains embarrassing bits of information that better not be revealed when a certain someone comes to pick her up for the date. In Widows of Eastwick, that position has dramatically altered. If Updike were an out-of-work drunk, recently ditched bus-stop despot hurling insults at ladies as they passed, I could scarce be more taken aback. Not only is his idea of widow that of someone who suddenly, as Sukie comments, feels "small in the world." But his view of a woman's body seems to have radically altered. In Witches of Eastwick, Updike's take on the "demimonde of physical intimacy" is sort of amusing, as when Alexandra unsuccessfully tries to get her lover, Joe the Plumber (really!) to finish her off on the last day of her period. ("It's the tail end!" "How about I take a rain check?"). Now, when the women try to raise the cone of power, she is "Fearful, as she bent over, of releasing a gust of rectal smell..." moments later catching "a whiff of her own armpit." Sitting in a circle, three women think about "their nether parts, hairy and odorous and for many Christian centuries unspeakable." Facing a young woman, they are simply "three old ladies, gone brittle and dry in the corruption. They had once been such as she, here in this very town." In Witches, Updike wrote, "The air of Eastwick empowered women." Not anymore. But okay okay okay. I'm not a 'yoni' person, and, although I submit the "rectal" is taking a bit far, if you're suggesting the great degradation of the human body is an undercurrent of everyone's thoughts, you won't get any argument from me. HOWEVER, unfortunately, this is in stark contrast to the women's reveries about their former lovers (remember, they're lonely, bitter and corrupted, because nobody wants to have sex with widows):

Jane's: "He had a musical touch...under his hands and tongue there was bliss for Jane." Alexandra's: "Rapturous in lovemaking, he would call her his white cow, mia vacca bianca, taking her from behind...for in that era enlightened women went to some trouble to make themselves always available for sex. She had relished that, the gift of sin and sacrilegious birth control with which she enriched Joe's dull, hard-working, stuck-valve life by crouching passively on her knees and elbows on her creaking bed and letting herself be battered and pumped full from behind." Sukie's: "...he had introduced her to the body of a young man and a new power relation to sex: she as the instigator, the admirer, the predator, the worshipper. She would crouch naked like a ravenous she-wolf over first Toby's and then Tommy's body, marvelling at the perfect skin, the clean scent, the fat-smoothed interlace of muscles, the beautiful, fresh-furred, unfailingly responsive genitals. They were so beautiful and monstrous, these glossy erect pricks—Toby's circumcised, Tommy's not—that she had to take them into her mouth...pumping out a viscid, ropey, semi-transparent white substance, the ambrosial, eggy-tasting food of a savage goddess, gobs of it, so that it embarrassed the boys to look at her smeared, dazed face as she crouched there, hungry for more."


If I can do anything with this review, it is to raise this question: I am not sure WHAT I or any other woman has ever done to suggest to men that I approach their members with the same reverence and awe I might grant the downy crown of a baby's head. But I hate to break it to Mr. Updike and all of his fine supporters of his "writing women"—it will generally be acknowledged as a truth that in the matter of corruption, ugliness, leaky, hairy, unspeakable emanantions, eruptions, degradations and still more corruption, MEN TAKE THE CAKE. If we have convinced you of anything but, believe me—it's because we were trying to convince ourselves. I've been wracking my brains to think what item of popular culture has ever acknowledged this, and all I could come up with — heh — is the Sex and the City episode wherein Samantha flees an older lover, repulsed by his flabby white buttocks. (Sorry, young ladies. It awaits you, way sooner than you think.) Sex and the City, of course, is written by a gay man, the only other group with a vested interest in keeping this kind of problem to a minimum. And that brings me to my final point: If Updike REALLY wrote women well, he would know we come in (not on all) fours.

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Updike suffers from a syndrome that seems known to most male novelists I have read or met. I have yet to name this syndrome, but am taking suggestions.

The sufferer was usually, in his youth, holed up in his bedroom with (inevitably) comic books. His diet was an endless stream of self-love, provided by the teat of a mother whom he adored into his teens. She, in the oldest but sadly the truest of Freudian cliches, is the archetypal woman for her son - virtuous but altogether sexuallly passive.

The Father (this type of dude always grows up in heteronormative environment) worked and was frequently absent but was a "good man." This "good man" always harboured, however, some kind of "dreamer"'s impulse, which had obviously been kept in check by the selfish need of his wife and child for food and a roof over their heads.

As the Father started, and always failed at many a business endeavour designed to fulfil his Destiny as a good man, his young son came to see the Father as a brave man trying to escape his circumstances rather than as merely what the rest of the world saw, which is to say, an incompetent fool. And he grew angry with his mother, even as he loved her in her womanly perfection, for having needs that did anything but serve the Father.

Fast forward to this man's late twenties, in which he has already met, married and divorced a Sweet Young Thing who, again selfishly, mimicked his mother's slavish devotion to practical things like "actually eating." Shed of this young woman (and the child(ren) they share, of course, his mind being on Greater Things than mere progeny), he decides it is time to answer his True Calling, and write The Great American Novel...

And so it goes...