Upbraiding Updike for Wordy “Witches”

“And oh yes,” Jane Smart said in her hasty yet purposeful way, each s seemed the black tip of a just-extinguished match held in playful hurt, as children do, against the skin. “Sukie said a man has bought the Lenox mansion.”

Flickr image by garlandcannon

John Updike loves the English language. He loves the way words feel when they are said, or how they look on a page when they are read. But he loves them too much.  In his Rabbit books, the sort of  heavy-handed prose that kick-starts The Witches of Eastwick is tempered by the characters, who fight and crap and screw (using more colorful verbs than that). Their earthiness and averageness grounds the writing. It makes it more beautiful. This book, though, has an unauspicious start. Read the first page and see how Updike is so proud of his well-chosen words. They fit just so, like a fastidious host’s dining placements. You want to get in there and mess the whole thing up, add  a little chaos! In my opinion, there is a big difference between Updike the short story writer (at their worst, his short stories are WASPish, alien, half-baked Cheever) and Updike the novelist of the Rabbit books (at their best: human, graceful, messy, reflective).

I haven’t read anything else by him, but I hope—really hope—that Witches of Eastwick askews the persnickety prose he sometimes prefers in favor of honest, forthright storytelling. I’m not impressed by someone making paper snowflakes.

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  1. […] being told Tom is anxious, but I don’t feel it. Considering the book I just finished, John Updike’s prolix The Witches of Eastwick, this is a welcome break from Vocab R’ Us. Highsmith looks to be of the school that cries, […]



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