• Evan Symmonds

Updike's prose

Week seven or eight of lockdown (Who knows now? Time plays such strange tricks these days) and there's good and stimulating walking in the forest around the house, and after a few weeks of reading science-fiction classics, I found myself wanting something denser and more perceptive about the real world and people in it. I turned to The Witches of Eastwick, for entertainment, rather than the Rabbit chronicles. No doubt Updike falls foul of feminist revisionism these days, in terms of his objectification of women from the male gaze, but his level of perception and detail of attention may yet allow him to stand out from the crowd of the time in which he lived and wrote, and like D H Lawrence perhaps Updike will regain some lost prestige.

Here's part of a paragraph:

Blunderingly thunder rumbled and cursed. Tiny speckled sand crabs were emergingh now from their holes by the dozen and scurrying sideways toward the frothing sea. The color of their shells was so sandy they appeared transparent. Alexandra steeled herself and crunched one beneath the sole of her bare foot. Sacrifice. There must always be sacrifice. It was one of nature's rules. She danced from crab to crab, crushing them. Her face from hairline to chin streamed and all the colors of the rainbow were in this liquid film, because of the agitation of her aura. Lightning kept taking her photograph. She had a cleft in her chin and a smaller, scarcely perceptible one in the tip of her nose; her handsomeness derived from the candor of her broad brow beneath and gray-edged wings of hair swept symmetrically back to form her braid, and from the clairvoyance of her slightly protuberant eyes, the gun-metal gray of whose irises was pushed to the rims as if each utterly black pupil were an anti-magnet.

The stand-out sentence is of course, 'Lightning kept taking her photograph.' It's an easy hit, and something a creative-writing student might be easily pleased with, it's a cliche. I like the energised personification, though, of 'kept taking.' Context is all, though, and it's the way the point of view switches out of Alexandra's perspective to give us that detached lightning flash. There are some long sentences here, too, but also a run of deliciously small sentences expressing the biting crossness of Alexandra. There's also a lot about light in the surrounding sentences, none of which is cliche; and the clash of liquid and hardness, to go with small nature and Alexandra's will to power adds spin. Liquid, gun-metal, sacrifice. And where did that last phrase come from, 'as if each utterly black pupil were an anti-magnet.' And how the thunder is blundering, but Alex is dancing from crab to crab. Updike suspends us between two points of view, hers and his, sympathetic, but also distanced by those slightly protuberant eyes.. There's a lot of simultaneity in Updike's prose: we see everything 'as it is', but also everything is always something more. Auras, clairvoyance, anti-magnetism: it's a woman on a beach in a storm.

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