It can’t be doubted that On the Perimeter and The Witches of Eastwick are quite different kinds of book. They were destined to be sold, reviewed and read separately. They have fallen together here by chance and a certain editorial logic, and though at first they appear strange bedfellows, they turn out to breed fruitfully with one another. They should be bought and read together, for they are both in their different ways texts for (and perhaps of) the end of time, books of the Apocalypse. Between them they raise many important issues about the nature of men and women and the nature of nature: On the Perimeter by virtue of a chilling subject-matter fixed with a steady eye, The Witches of Eastwick through the potency of John Updike’s imaginative release.
On the Perimeter records what Caroline Blackwood found at Greenham Common and in the town of Newbury, when she visited the nuclear protest encampments there in March this year, shortly before the town council attempted to evict the women for good. One of the incidents Blackwood describes involved a coachload of soldiers from the base. As the bus emerged from the main gate and passed the women camped outside, the soldiers took down their trousers and exposed their backsides:
The military bullocks loomed at us from the windows of the bus. They looked like huge white one-eyed sea monsters in a tank. The nasty ink black eyes of the anuses stared at us. They were very malevolent and they seemed to be surrounded by murky perimeters that varied in their shades of darkness.
Place beside this an episode from The Witches of Eastwick. Darryl Van Horne has been playing tennis on his indoor court one winter afternoon, with Sukie Rougemont, a witch. After the game he asks Sukie a favour:
‘Kiss my ass,’ he said huskily. He offered it to her over the net. It was hairy, or downy, depending on how you felt about men. Left, right ...
‘And in the middle,’ he demanded.
The smell seemed to be a message he must deliver, a word brought from afar, not entirely unsweet, a whiff of camel essence coming through the flaps of the silken tents of the Dragon Throne’s encampment in the Gobi Desert.
Caroline Blackwood and the women at the Greenham Common main gate have no difficulty interpreting the message the soldiers feel compelled to deliver them. It shouts at them coarsely from very near – of contempt, hatred, aggression and fear. To the women, the incident is just another example of the sadistic male behaviour they have had to put up with from the military ever since the start of their peace vigil, two and a half years ago. It is a form of assault, on a continuum with rape. Like the victims of rape, they are afraid to appeal to the law for redress, because the law, being male, secretly sides with the men who abuse them, and is liable to tell them they asked for what they got.
Reading the second passage one could be forgiven for coming away with the impression that in John Updike’s imagination there are women who do not mind having a man’s bottom shoved into their faces. But, unlike On the Perimeter, which is written in a style half-way between documentary and polemic, designed to leave the reader in no doubt about how what it describes is to be understood, The Witches of Eastwick is a hyperbolical fiction which floats us into a constant state of interpretative uncertainty. If Sukie doesn’t want to kiss Darryl’s ass, she can, we know, transform it at the murmur of an abracadabra into a pancake or a huge marshmallow or a backgammon board. So what are we to make of her compliance? Is she degrading herself, or are we to regard such practices as quite ordinary? Is Darryl trying to humiliate her? Or is he just a great big baby wanting his bottom kissed by a surrogate mummy? Is John Updike trying to humiliate Sukie? Does she really think Darryl smells like a Chinese camel? Or is it John Updike who thinks that’s what Darryl would smell like? What, in any case, is the camel doing inside the tent? And does John Updike really intend to propel the whole episode through metaphorical hyperbole to the edges of the hilarious and the absurd?
The equivocal character of Updike’s vision in The Witches of Eastwick has provided widely divergent accounts of the book in the American press. By some it has been cast as a comedy of manners, a charming period divertissement on life in middle-class America during the Vietnam era. Others have seen it as a diseased farce, a bilious Thersitical outpouring, soured by a deep-seated misogyny. I think it is both these things and more, all at the same time, which is why reading it is such a queasy experience, like eating an over-ripe mango, at once richly appetising and prone to make one gag.
The idiom of the novel is peculiar: realism jazzed up with magic. Without the magic there would be no plot, but it galvanises events in the book so coarsely, so childishly, that it never seems integral to what happens. As a narrative device, magic is made to perform every kind of function: from providing innocent fun and games (tennis balls transformed into bats, wooden spoons into snakes) to enforcing a dreadful cruelty (animals gratuitously killed, a young woman made to die horribly from cancer), to creating diversions into pure grotesque (women expectorating feathers, insects and carpet tacks, husbands reduced to coloured dust or plastic table mats). The agents of these effects are three divorced women: Alexandra Spofford, Sukie Rougemont and Jane Smart. In rejecting their husbands they have discovered themselves, and discovered themselves to be witches. The arrival in Eastwick (Rhode Island) of Darryl Van Horne, a dark and hairy stranger from Manhattan, arouses their intensest interest, and they vie with one another for his sexual favours. He grants them these freely, to each on her own and to all three together. Meanwhile one of Sukie’s married lovers, Ed Parsley, a Unitarian minister, runs off with a young girl and blows himself up in a cellar making bombs to chuck at the Establishment. Only his fingertips remain. Sukie’s next lover, Clyde Gabriel, awakened to the awfulness of his life by Sukie’s body and spirit, smashes his wife’s head into a pulp with a poker, altogether destroying her face. Clyde hangs himself in the stair-well. When Clyde’s daughter, Jenny Gabriel, marries Darryl Van Horne, Alexandra and her two friends cast an evil spell on her and she dies of cancer. Darryl then does a bunk with Jenny’s brother Chris, leaving the three witches to lick their wounds. They soon get bored of being single, so they conjur up new husbands for themselves and get married again.
In its portrayal of the feminine, The Witches of Eastwick is something of a tour de force. There are four major female characters in the book, each given distinct life. Moreover, Updike gets inside the skins of his women and tells us what it feels like. Yet the plot moves contrary to this sympathy for the female, tugging us in the direction of a virulent misogyny. It is as though Updike created his characters out of love, setting them in motion only to punish them. He makes them strong but deprives them of the will to use their strength constructively. He grants them independence, then causes them to squander it and finally takes it away from them again altogether. Having endowed them with creativity, he reveals what they do with it to be mediocre. He forbids them to love their children or keep their houses clean. Worst of all, he refuses them morality and fathers upon them a deed (the hexing of Jenny Gabriel) as evil as anything in the history of Western literature.
To leave the Eastwick succubae soaking in Darryl Van Horne’s eight-foot oak tub, pleasantly stoned and drinking Margaritas, and to move to the half-starved peace women at Greenham Common huddled in their makeshift polythene tents with little to eat, no means to stay dry and no water to wash with, is to cross a fair portion of the entire spectrum of what contemporary Western society currently has to offer in the way of images of women. Nor at Greenham Common is there any ambivalence about the significance of the feminine. The symbolism the protest proclaims – of women as the guardians of peace, men the wagers of war – is a traditional one, and one that most people, even those who revile the Greenham women most bitterly, accept, just as they accept that Mrs Thatcher, in becoming a tough and warlike leader, had perforce, like Lady Macbeth, to unsex herself, an assumption fatuously confirmed by President Reagan some years ago when he called Mrs Thatcher ‘the best man amongst us’. Though Caroline Blackwood finds the militant lesbianism of a few of the Greenham women regrettable because it blurs the real issues at stake, she tends to obscure matters herself by reinforcing the interpretation of events near Newbury as a confrontation between female and male. Her description of the busful of bums, for example, amplifies the incident beyond a point where we can view it dispassionately. By conflating the image of a male posterior with the missile base (a terminus ad quem for the species) she turns the incident to splendid rhetorical advantage. But rhetoric only excites us and we need above all to keep calm. There may be more sinister and complex forces at work in the nuclear arms race than the need for the male to assert itself.
The soldiers’ bottoms might more provokingly remind us of the part played by anality in the build-up of nuclear arsenals. ‘Cleaning up’ and ‘mopping up’ and similar expressions are standard jargon in military operations. If it wasn’t for the mess they create afterwards, nuclear weapons would provide the species with an unprecedented means to cleanse itself. Hence the frisson of fascinated horror that met the invention of the neutron bomb – the ultimately ‘clean’ weapon. It is especially interesting how frequently the local residents interviewed by Caroline Blackwood complain about the Greenham women on the grounds of their dirtiness, smell, disorderliness and mess. One of the reasons given by the council for evicting the women was that the camps constituted ‘an environmental health hazard’. The nuclear missile base is at least neat and clean.
One of the most disturbing moments in The Witches of Eastwick occurs when Alexandra, who has been resisting the plan to cast a spell on Jenny, finally gives in: ‘She said, “Oh hell. Let’s do it.” It seemed simplest, a way of cleaning up another tiny pocket of the world’s endless dirt.’ Of all the witches Alexandra is the closest to nature. Natural forces are said to flow through her. But nature in Updike’s universe is no less ambiguous in her purposes than woman. Rapturous descriptions fill this book, setting up a natural world of breathtaking gorgeousness and delicacy, while the characters are obsessed with nature’s cruelty, her ruthless and obscene flux. ‘Nature kills constantly, and we call her beautiful,’ muses Alexandra. She sees signs of cancer everywhere. In the Unitarian church Van Horne gives a sermon entitled ‘This is a terrible creation’. The subject is parasites. As Brenda Parsley coughs up bees and butterflies while trying to give a sermon on evil, Jenny Gabriel, who is dying, wonders who can be responsible for this new outburst of magic. She reflects: ‘Perhaps none of the three was willing this, it was something they had loosed on the air, like those nuclear scientists cooking up the atomic bomb to beat Hitler and Tojo and now so remorseful, like Eisenhower refusing to sign the truce with Ho Chi Minh that would have ended all the trouble, like the late-summer wildflowers, golden-rod and Queen Anne’s lace, now loosed from dormant seeds upon the shaggy fallow fields where once black slaves had opened the gates for galloping squires in swallowtail coats and top hats of beaver and felt.’ On Greenham Common a very different view of nature prevails. The Greenham women are also Green women. Feeling themselves to live in the shadow of imminent annihilation, they cling to a belief in nature as wholly benign, having recourse to the thought of the Common before the base was built, as a fortifying symbol of all they are fighting for. The idea that the Cruise missile might be in some way consonant with nature’s purposes would appal them. I hope they are right to be appalled.
Caroline Blackwood’s chief stylistic resource is simplicity. She writes as though she were an immensely clever and articulate child or an enfant sauvage launched upon the world for the first time in adulthood. In her approach to life on and around Greenham Common she affects a total lack of preconception, which leads her to express more than usual surprise at the things she finds. When people speak, she takes it for granted they mean what they say, and goes on to wonder why they said it. When something happens, she takes it at face value, deducing its significance from an ingenuous scrutiny of surface characteristics. This allows her to give the impression (often, in fact, sly) of letting things speak for themselves, and it helps her to tie down to particulars what could so easily have drifted into pontificating and prejudice. Corrigan, her latest novel, has the same simplicity and clarity of exposition as On the Perimeter, making it read a little like a children’s book, with that over-accentuation also typical of people talking to foreigners or to the slightly deaf.
Corrigan tells the story of how an elderly widow, Devina Blunt, is conned by a sham Irish cripple called Corrigan. Arriving in her genteel Wiltshire drawing-room out of the blue, Corrigan sets to work milking Mrs Blunt of large sums of money by persuading her that she is helping support a home for the handicapped called St Crispin’s. Corrigan is not in fact a cripple and St Crispin’s is a pancake house behind Paddington Station, but the business of providing for it, and the enjoyment of looking after him, give Mrs Blunt a new sense of purpose and a reason to go on living, both of which she had lost after the death of her dear husband, ‘the Colonel’. By the time Mrs Blunt dies of a heart attack while drinking champagne with Corrigan, she has, it seems, rumbled his game. But rather than expose his deceit, she has preferred to humour it, because of the meaning and pleasure it gives her. The other character to be deeply affected by the arrival of Corrigan is Mrs Blunt’s daughter, Nadine, a sadly constrained young lady, whose life has dried out completely in the stifling atmosphere of marriage to an arrogant shit. In the process of coming to terms with the changes in her mother’s behaviour brought about by Corrigan, Nadine discovers she too has unused potential, and she at last summons the strength to break out of her ghastly marriage. Corrigan argues for the wisdom of ingenuousness, the importance of the immediate, the superiority of means over ends. The virtues, in fact, of the Greenham Common peace protest.
William Blake said The Excursion caused him a severe bowel complaint. One knows what he meant, and not just about Wordsworth’s poem. Books are a kind of food, and reading a process of ingestion with direct consequences for the body. If The Witches of Eastwick turns your stomach, According to Mark will settle it again. It is altogether alkaline nourishment, as soothing and palatable as a bowl of Farley’s rusks and warm milk. Scatological and eschatological considerations do not impinge on Penelope Lively’s ordered English world, where the sun shines out of the sky and not out of anyone’s arse and where the prospect of eclipse in the long night of a nuclear winter never enters anyone’s head. The book’s determination to keep clear of anything unpleasant is typified, probably unintentionally, by the name of its central character – Lamming. True to his name, Mark Lamming avoids rushing headlong into a major life crisis capable of changing him completely. He is 41, his marriage is a model of good adjustment, his career as a writer is developing nicely, life appears to hold no surprises for him. And then he falls in love. An abyss of emotional uncertainty opens momentarily before him. But it is not the intention of any of the women in his life – the girl he falls for, Carrie, Diana his energetic and sensible wife, or Penelope Lively, his motherly creator – to let him plunge into it. Firmly and efficiently they shepherd him back to the safety of the connubial bed, which is actually where he prefers to be anyway.
‘Company executives get coronaries; those of us who are in the book business get a bad attack of life,’ reflects Mark at the height of his deranging passion. A bad attack of life just about sums up the failings of this pleasantly readable book. Penelope Lively has a major talent for transcribing life as we already know it to be. What she has yet to develop is the ability to refresh us with strangeness.