China Mieville has a favorite quote that says, in essence, that writers ought not to be too proud of themselves. That the kind of self-conscious observation they engage in is in reality done by everyone, and that writers are alone in thinking that these mundane observations are of such importance that they ought to be committed to paper. This is, in my mind, uncharitable to good writers, who do not merely set their boring observations down on paper, but go on to synthesize something interesting out of them. They record the noise, and draw out the essence that is the signal. But John Updike demonstrated no writing talent in The Witches of Eastwick, and ought to take this stricture to heart.
The Witches of Eastwick is not a good novel because it sets down the observations, but does not go on to make anything out of them. Updike is clever and observant and has a way with words, but a failure to conceive of the characters in anything like a truly lifelike manner means that the book is just a string of scenes disrupted by interminably long purple passages. This is probably because John Updike, for all his celebrated imagination, can only conceive of women in terms of their sexual differences from men–that they give birth and that they like fucking men. They have little personality beyond those differences.
This, for example, is what John Updike thinks a liberated woman thinks about for a nearly page-long paragraph right before she enjoys a good hot tub orgy with her two best friends and the tall, dark, but not handsome, stranger who’s just moved into town:
“…she was reminded now of her four babies, how as they came one by one it was the female infants suckling that tugged at her insides more poignantly, the boys already a bit like men, that aggressive vacuum, the hurt of the sudden suction, the oblong blue skulls bulging and bullying above the clusters of frowning muscles where their masculine eyebrows would someday sprout. The girls were daintier, even those first days, such hopeful thirsty sweet clinging sugar-sacks destined to become beauties and slaves…”
This book is written the way a white guy dances–no beat, no rhythm. Too in love with his own cleverness to ask any bigger questions, to see that something logical links scene to scene. He had a few interesting thoughts about babies while writing this orgy scene, and he just jammed them in without considering the context. Who the fuck thinks about babies right before an orgy starts? Who would want to go back for seconds with that person? Updike characters, apparently. Or–is this some of that magical realism?
It’s all even worse when you consider that the book is set during the Vietnam War. The two characters who care about the unjustness of the war are a man branded as effeminate, and a woman branded as a shrieking harpy, whose husband literally murders her in an effort to get some peace and quiet. That’s what passes for moral complexity in Updike’s world–sure, it might be bad that a great superpower invaded a weaker country and massacred its citizens for no good reason, but have you considered that the people who think this is bad are really annoying?
As satire, this is just shit. Satire is supposed to be clever criticism. Equating the deaths of Vietnamese and Americans with annoyingness displays a sad and stupid lack of perspective that is no doubt also responsible for how unsexy the orgy scene is.
I still can’t get over how bad the orgy scene was. I bet even Burning Man has better orgies than this.
I suppose now I should finally say a word about the premise. The book is about a triumvirate of witches who are divorced or widowed, and their inescapable magnetic attraction to a rich new guy who moves into town. And they have a lot of sex with him even though he is very annoying. Unbelievably, this is supposed to be a feminist book. As far as I can tell, Updike is the kind of guy who sees feminism, and thinks it means it’ll be easier for average-looking guys like him to get laid. An important observation, but one that misses the point, which explains why this book doesn’t have one.