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Fun, Well-Written, But Spiteful
am 21. März 2000
I was very impressed by Updike's ability to create characters that are wholly believable, and to craft a story that is hard to put down -- I read this in a couple of days, and enjoyed it. The protagonist, Sarah, sounds very much like any number of people I've met, down to the fine details -- a difficult stunt to sustain over the length of a novel that is essentially her dictation. And, to be sure, the book is funny, as many have claimed. It is also rather mean spirited, however.
Sarah leaves her husband for a "spiritual" commune or ashram, which Updike modeled on the one established in the 70's by Bhagavan Shri Rajneesh in Oregon. Having lived in a community that bears much similarlity to the one portrayed, I can vouche for the accuracy (greatly exaggerated, of course) of the likeness. But although my own experience was no less disappointing than Sarah's, I would have liked to have thought that a writer of Updike's ability and insight would not stoop to getting the usual belly laughs at the expense of all those who have tried to find spiritual growth through Eastern traditions. He seems to have steeped himself deeply in the language and philosophy of Buddhism and Hinduism, but only to lampoon those who are drawn to them. His portrayal is clever, and certainly captures the worst aspects of such endeavors, but it veers towards the most cynical view imaginable -- that those who pursue such traditions and lifestyles are viciously greedy, self-indulgent frauds, and those who steer clear of them to pursue the stock market or whatever are far wiser souls. If you want to wallow in that perspective, this book's for you.
Updike's portrayal of Sarah herself is similarly tainted. She is ultimately revealed as selfish, petty, and grotesquely hypocritical, using her "feminism" as a means to express all her worst qualities. Of course, there's no reason not to have such a character in a novel, but I got the impression that this was Updike's view, if not of all women, than at least of women of a privileged background, or women who leave their husbands but aren't willing to impoverish themselves in the process, or who look for salvation in offbeat ways. (And I'm not any of the above.)
In short, S. is a cheap shot at feminism and all things "new age," but an entertaining one.