Cross Genre Experiments in Magical Realism, Literary, and Women's Fiction
Eastwick is mundane, with a diner called Nemo's, a barbershop, and a committee to maintain the blue marble horse trough where Dock meets Oak Street, but the lives of its inhabitants are anything but.
Certainly the fact of witchcraft hung in the consciousness of Eastwick; a lump, a cloudy density generated by a thousand translucent overlays, a sort of heavenly body, it was rarely breathed of […] the rumor of witchcraft stained this corner of Rhode Island, so that a prickle of embarrassment and unease entered the atmosphere…
-The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike
Salem is a tourist mecca in season, the sort of place you'd expect to see a re-enactment of a witch running for her life, being captured, tried, and burned at the stake. But witches are now protected there, and congregate at festivals on the Common.
Around every corner of Salem lurks a history lesson. Dead ahead as I walk is the Custom House with its gold roof. This is where Hawthorne worked [...] using the locals as subject matter, revealing their secrets […] escaping west to Concord before the townspeople remembered their talent with tar and feathers. Still, they celebrate Hawthorne as their own. The same way they celebrate the witches, who never existed in the days of the witch trials, but thrive here in great numbers now […] The cops are everywhere. "You can't do that here," I hear one of them say. "If you want to have a bonfire, you have to go up to Gallows Hill, or to the beach."
-The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry
John Updike, a literary giant, and Brunonia Barry, a breakout novelist, wrote three very different stories about witches and witchcraft in contemporary New England, but there are many similarities in the cross genre experiments they performed on their subjects. Both authors' portrayal of life in the seaside towns evokes a true sense of time and place, as well as the Yankee personality of their inhabitants.
Updike lived in several places along the north shore of Massachusetts including Ipswich, a few deep breaths from Salem, which Barry calls home. While doing a midwifery internship in Beverly, I might have come across either author, or any of their characters, on my appointed rounds.
The Lace Reader’s Guide
The Lace Reader must stare at the piece of lace until the pattern blurs and the face of the Seeker disappears completely behind the veil. When the eyes begin to fill with tears, and the patience is long exhausted, there will appear a glimpse of something not quite seen. In this moment an image will begin to form [...] in the space between what is real and what is only imagined.
Brunonia Barry opens each chapter of The Lace Reader, her debut novel, with a segment of the fictional Lace Reader's Guide. The book was self-published before the buzz set off an auction involving three major publishing houses. It has elements of a psychological thriller that leave the reader haunted until the surprise ending. But far from urban fantasy or chick-lit, Barry’s heroines are consistent with protagonists of contemporary women's fiction. They value being female and rely on their sisters and the decent men they encounter. Most don't regard themselves as witches, but rather "quirky" or "old-school Unitarian with Transcendentalist tendencies."
Before Aunt Eva drowned in what appears to have been a boating accident, she read lace in her tearoom and taught etiquette classes to young children. But she still visits her niece, Towner Whitney, from time to time, to give advice and counsel. Ann, the town witch, dresses in black robes and runs a shop on Pickering Wharf. Towner doesn't prize her gift of sight:
Ann's assistant sits at a round table, tarot cards spread in front of her. A customer focuses attention on the cards, telling more with just her body language than the cards do [...] I could read the woman even from here: lost love, a sad slump of shoulders [...] Still I see more travel in her future. Tell her that, I'm thinking. Give her something to hold on to. Make voyages, attempt them, there is nothing else. Eva's voice, quoting. I don't know why anyone would want to do this for a living, telling people's fortunes. It would make me so sad.
Deeply affected by the incest and domestic violence that killed her sister and maimed another aunt, Towner is unable to tolerate appropriate intimacy with men who love and care for her. There is little overt sex in The Lace Reader, though both the act and gender roles play an important part in the ongoing conflict between Towner, her mother, her aunts and her uncle, Cal Boynton.
You've probably heard of my mother, May Whitney. Everyone else has. I'm sure you remember the UPI picture a few years back, the one with May leveling a six-gauge at about twenty cops who had come to her women's shelter on Yellow Dog Island with a warrant to take back one of her girls [...] What made the photo so compelling was that my mother looked like Maureen O'Hara in some fifties western. Cowering behind May in the photo was a terrified-looking girl who couldn't have been more than twenty-two, with a huge bandage on her neck, rescued from a husband who had gotten drunk and tried to slit her throat. Her two little children sat behind her playing with golden retriever puppies.
May barricades herself and the women on Yellow Dog Island. Members of The Circle don't use magic, but rather weave traditional Ipswich lace; a symbolic retooling of lives shredded by violence and abuse. Boynton, a psychopathic Calvinist religious fanatic, is as mentally ill as his niece and far more dangerous. The hero, though this can hardly be classified as romance, is Detective Rafferty, a great friend to the witches in a town whose charter expressly protects their activities.
Barry uses journals and flashbacks, as well as first person, present tense with chapters in Towner's point of view; those in Rafferty's are in third person, past tense. That, and other foreshadowings are seamless enough that I never noticed until I went back the second time, knowing the ending.
From "Witches" to "Widows"
The Witches of Eastwick, first published in 1984, is steeped in 1960s holdovers like references to the Vietnam War, drugs and free sex, with a splash of Andy Warhol and 1970s orange, green, and brown, yet not a whisper of AIDS. One can almost hear the lyrics of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" and Donna Summer's "Bad Girls" pounding in the disco as the coven participates in orgies, rituals and some very nasty spells.
The book was made into a movie of the same name, which Updike said in an interview with Neal Conan (2008) bears little, if any, resemblance to the plot of the novel, with a screenplay that gave fine actors and actresses very little to work with. He saw it once and chose to forget.
The Widows of Eastwick (2008) was the last novel Updike published before his death on January 27, 2009. He reconvened the aging coven to deal with regrets, revenge, kickbacks and karma, but these are not your typical little old ladies. Their spells may be weaker, but these girls still have the stuff to raise the cone of power.
The basic structure is the same for Witches and Widows: three long sections entitled The Coven, and the Coven Reconstituted, Maleficia and Maleficia Revisited, Guilt and Guilt Assuaged. Updike uses omniscient point of view, but the main character is Alexandra, the witch who embodies the nurturing, elemental connection of the witches to the Earth and to each other. She mediates both literally and figuratively between Sukie, the flighty, free spirit, and Jane, the refined yet most wicked. Male witch wannabes, or perhaps envious gods or demons in disguise grace the pages, focusing their attention on mastering electrical currents, deeply fascinated by female power and fertility.
The real Witches I know are far more like those Barry portrays than Updike's kinky, temperamental ones. Even Alexandra, the most even-tempered, conjures a violent thunderstorm when some kids piss her off. She kills crabs running for their lives, and a puppy that barks too much. Jane, whose speech pattern reminds me of a serpent, is the most vicious of the three, but even the mercurial fun-loving Sukie so entranced a lover that he subsequently bludgeoned his wife to death before hanging himself.
In Witches, Darryl Van Horne, the horny, creepy millionaire with the gothic mansion and devilish tendencies is sleazy and chauvinistic. He is described as:
[...] a bearish dark man with greasy, curly hair half-hiding his ears and clumped to the back of his head so that from the side it looked like a beer mug with a monstrously thick handle. He wore gray flannels bagged at the backs of his knees somehow and an elbow patched jacket of Harris Tweed in a curious busy pattern of green and black.
Nevertheless, the witches find him irresistible despite "hairy backed hands" and a penis that "felt as if it were covered in tiny little scales." Van Horne jilts the threesome, which visits him weekly for naked romps in a hot tub, margaritas, marijuana, and orgies on black velour mattresses. Jane convinces the others to go along with the plot to punish the young initiate who has stolen their fun, and the threesome performs a most intricate spell.
In Widows, a younger version of Darryl named Chris Gabriel returns from "the Sodom of New York" where he tried his hand at acting and studied with Van Horne (who doesn't re-appear in the sequel). Homosexual and willing to give bi-sexuality a trial, Chris is as fascinated with electricity as Darryl was in Witches. Chris uses electric shocks to wreak havoc and exacts revenge for the spell the coven put on his initiate sister thirty years prior. It takes effect when one of the witches blasphemes the Goddess during a sabbat, and she goes down in a frantic, almost funny karmic scene.
The circle Alexandra cast using powdered dishwasher detergent and an odd assortment of candles from a downtown shop is opened quite unceremoniously by a vacuum sucking up the evidence, and a frantic search for clothes.
[...] the paramedics who responded said the place had a funny smell to it, and the rug had just been vacuumed, and the victim's underpants were on backwards.
But Updike's writing is so entrancing, and his character motivations so well developed, he is able to infuse the essence of Wicca into both stories even though considerable license is taken with the interpretation, and the proscription against the use of black magic ignored. This is not Harry Potter fantasy, despite the fact that Jane does fly up to the Van Horne mansion a couple of times to see what he's up to. The elements of fantasy begin in the first pages of both Witches and Widows, immediately pointing a wand at magical realism.
In Witches, the three first husbands, dead from supposedly natural causes, are kept as mementos. Alexandra’s "rested on a kitchen shelf in a jar, reduced to multi-colored dust, the cap screwed on tight."
Jane’s ex "hung in the cellar of her ranch house and was occasionally sprinkled, one pinch at a time, into a philtre, for piquancy. Sukie had permanized hers in plastic and used him as a place mat." As Jane put it, they served a "fucktion."
In Widows, the coven reconvenes after many years apart, when "the husbands whom the three Godforsaken women had by their dark arts concocted for themselves did not prove durable. Wicked methods make weak products. Satan counterfeits Creation, yes, but with inferior goods."
Updike was a literary writer, noted for his portrayal of troubled, adulterous characters. He lingers on description, with elegant prose that runs off on tangents, describing things in more detail than the story requires. This is certainly not customary in genre fiction, but it is also a hallmark of other magical realists such as Gabriel García Márquez.
The monotonous travelogue opening, and the you-shall-suffer-for-my-science-fiction content (five pages about Chris Gabriel's theory of manipulating electrical currents) made my eyes glaze over in Widows. But Updike earned multiple awards, including two Pulitzers, and with them the credentials to experiment with impunity. He stated in a June 2006 interview with Charlie Rose that the term literary fiction, when applied to his work, greatly limited him and his expectations of what might come of his writing. He believed all his works were literary simply because "they are written in words."
It seemed like Updike padded the sequel to bring a reader unfamiliar with The Witches of Eastwick up to date (a task he succeeded at in my view), but in doing so meandered aimlessly back to the scene of the crime. In a New York Times review and commentary, Michiko Kakutani suggested that the reunion was contrived and a major flaw in The Widows of Eastwick, but in my view, the call to atone for past misdeeds could clearly have drawn the coven back. I just wonder why they toured Canada, Egypt, and China first.
In contrast Barry's writing style is contemporary, slipstream, and tinged with sarcastic noir, lingering less in place, focusing on an intricate character driven plot woven as tightly as Ipswich lace. Towner suffers from mental illness, so her voice is rambling, disjointed and at times, childish.
On Misogyny, Black Magic, Dying, and Rebirth
Blood, the cut-your-finger type as well as menstrual and catastrophic hemorrhage, figure heavily in all three novels, as it does in traditional Wiccan belief and practice. I don't agree with most of Updike's takes as a male writing about distinctly female functions, but he does nail the female point of view in a few scenes:
[...] 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 sudden suction [...] The girls were daintier even in those first days, such hopeful thirsty sweet sugar sacks destined to become beauties and slaves. Babies: Their dear rubbery bowlegs as if they were riding tiny horses in their sleep, the loveable swaddled crotch the diaper makes, their flexible violet feet, their skin everywhere as fine as the skin of a penis, their grave indigo stares and their curly mouths so forthrightly drooling. The way they ride your left hip, clinging lightly as vines to a wall to your side, the side where your heart is. The ammonia of their diapers. Alexandra began to cry, thinking of her lost babies, babies sliced into bits and fed to the days, the years."
Updike portrays a realistic combination of male fascination, fear and disgust with childbirth, lactation, and related physiology when Darryl Van Horne dares to ask the coven their opinion:
"Tell me, honest, how does it feel when the milk flows?"
"How does it feel," Jane asked irritably, "when you come?"
"Hey come on, let's not get ugly."
Alexandra perceived genuine alarm on the man's heavy, seamed face; for some reason coming was a tender area in his mind.
"I don't see what 's ugly," Jane was saying. "I'm just offering a physiological sensation that women can't have [...]"
Alexandra offered, apropos of giving milk, "It feels like when you have to go pee and can't and suddenly find you can."
"That's what I love about women," Van Horne said. "Their homely similes. There's no such word as 'ugly' in your vocabulary. Men, Christ, they're so squeamish about everything—
blood, spiders, blow jobs."
I wouldn't describe the sensation of milk let-down that way. And an injury, surgery, a bloody nose or hemorrhoids are just not the same as the monthly reminder of female power and fertility. Updike's sex scenes, which follow societal trends and become more graphic from Witches to Widows, were as frustrating and unsatisfying to me as they were to the women, all of whom were portrayed as jaded recipients, with no reciprocation promised or delivered.
There is a misogynist tinge to the characterization in both Witches and Widows, but no likeable characters of either sex. The males are self-centered cheaters and liars, the women shrews or caricatures. Updike has been criticized for misogyny and racism, but defended himself to Neal Conan as writing with a sincere heart about common people in everyday situations, believing that there can be no happy characters in fiction.
Barry portrays Wiccan principles in a respectful, spiritual way, consistent with traditional teachings. The Lace Reader begins with Towner describing her hysterectomy for uncontrollable bleeding, and her recovery continues throughout the story, an ongoing symbol of the pain and grief she has suffered. Barry sympathetically portrays an ex-boyfriend's anguish at the pain and suffering he caused by forcing Towner into a sexual encounter after her recent surgery.
Barry brings The Lace Reader to a breathtaking conclusion, pulling all the lacy threads together, exposing the extent of the unreliable narrator Towner's illness after a scene which evokes the ritual of rebirth for both she and her sister.
And the Witches, now the Widows of Eastwick, as well as their creator are:
[...] gone, vanished, we were just an interval in their lives, and they in ours [...] The weather seems tamer in these times; there are rarely any thunderstorms [...] But as Sukie's blue-green ghost continues to haunt the sunstruck pavement, and Jane's black shape to flit past the moon, so the rumors of the days when they were solid among us, gorgeous and doing evil, have flavored the name of the town in mouths of others [...] We meet it turning the corner where Hemlock meets Oak, it is there when we walk the beach in off season and the Atlantic in its blackness mirrors the dense packed gray of the clouds, a scandal, life like smoke rising twisted into legend.
This review and commentary was written before I learned of John Updike's death from lung cancer on January 27, 2009. I am deeply saddened by the passing of a true creative genius and chose to make no substantive changes after reading the retrospectives and hearing the eulogies, to avoid clouding my objectivity.
Updike's death makes his comments in the interviews with Charlie Rose and Neal Conan even more poignant and insightful. Clearly his own personal experience with the dying process influenced both plot and characterization in The Widows of Eastwick. This adds an even deeper layer of meaning to Updike's portrayal of aging and coming to terms with the life one has lived. His soul, and all its human fears and foibles, is reflected in the visions of Sukie, Jane, and Alexandra.