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March 17, 1988 - Image 66

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1988-03-17

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An 'A' for
Rewriting Hawthorne
Someone should tell John
Updike not to keep hark-
ing back to Hawthorne's
"Scarlet Letter" on our ac-
count-he no longer needs to
prove he's the last great heir to
New England literary tradi-
tion. For a neoregionalist like
Carolyn ("The Beans of Egypt,
Maine") Chute, New England is
merely where miserable people
happen to live. But Updike still
takes seriously those fusty old
Yankee antinomies: Plymouth and Merry
Mount, Calvinism and transcendental-
ism, judges and witches. Or at least serious-
ly enough to chronicle their diminishing
usefulness as paradigms of anything at
all. Sarah, the 42-year-old heroine of his
new novel S. (279 pages. Knopf $1795),
can still plausibly complain of growing up
in the "atrophied Puritan theocracy" of
Massachusetts. To Sarah's 19-year-old
daughter, Pearl, who has fallen in with the
deconstructionists at Yale, any old -ocracy
must seem preferable to their random uni-
verse of discourse; she drops out to marry
the son of a Dutch beer baron.
In his preoccupation with
Hawthorne, Updike, like Pearl,
has found a structure so rigid it An
seems parodic: is this really theM
best he can do for an organizing
principle? In his previous nov- tep
el, "Roger's Version," the main the
characters were named Esther, troph
Roger and Dale, echoing Haw- stude
thorne's Hester Prynne, her velop
husband, Roger Chillingworth, theor
and her lover, Arthur Dimmes- also d
dale. The triangle in "S." is that d
made up of Sarah-whose hiss- Lou G
ing initial suggests "Hester"- his ill
her doctor husband, Charles the p
Worth, and her Bhagwan-like must
guru, the Arhat. Sarah, who aroun
tells her own story in letters and er to
on cassettes, leaves Charles and howe
Massachusetts and becomes the strate
accountant at the Arhat's Ari- truly:
zona commune; finally she ab- In
sconds to the Bahamas after (198p
cooking the books and skim-
ming off some gravy. (Updike

with her friend Midge-who's betraying
her husband. But in following the Arhat,
Sarah is breaking faith not just with
Charles but with all Judeo-Christian tradi-
tion-especially Massachusetts Bay Puri-
tanism. "The lotus is nothingness," says
the guru in one of his taped discourses.
"'Save me from nothingness, great beard-
ed Jehovah!' you cry and imagine he says
from the cross, 'Today thou shalt be with
me in paradise,' when in fact he says only,
'I thirst.' You in the West fear nothing-
ness ... You must learn to worship the
lotus." Updike maintains an ironic de-
tachment from this old debate: the Arhat
may-or may not-be a fraud, but Charles
is no bargain.
'Male garbage': In shedding her old identi-
ty, Sarah adopts new scarlet (nudge, nudge)
clothes, a new language-Updike provides
a 13-page glossary of guruspeak-and a
new name, Kundalini, after "the serpent of
female energy dormant at the base of the
spinal column." The Ariat's mystic dis-
course on this S-shaped critter's ascent
through the chakras (energy centers), dur-
ing which "male garbage" is purged from
the soul, is an allegory of Sarah's progress
from Charles to the Arhat to her final tran-
scendent Bahamian solitude.
Part of the fun of "S." is the sheer fairy-
tale pleasure of seeing the underdog trick-
ster get what's hers-plus a little extra.
Sarah's discovery of Bahamian money
laundering and Swiss banking is far more
uplifting than the spiritual progress we
believe only on her say-so. Not even the
news that Midge-to whom she is baring
her soul-is baring her body to Charles
shakes her newfound self-confidence. And
it's hard to imagine Charles's affair with

acknowledges drawing on jour-
nalistic accounts of Rajneesh-
puram.) Lest anyone, anywhere, miss the
Hawthorne connection, Sarah often men-
tions her Prynne ancestors; Pearl, of
course, is also the name of Hawthorne's
demonic tyke. By the way, how many A's
can you find in this picture? Well, there's
the Arhat, his A-frames down in Arizona,
Sarah's lesbian lover, Alinga, the vitamin
A by which Sarah swears ...
As usual with Updike, hardly a chest
deserves to remain unlettered. Sarah be-
trays Charles with both Alinga and the
Arhat. Charles, who once betrayed her
with a series of nurses, now betrays her

Articulate Explanation of the Universe

phen Hawking is one of
world's foremost as-
ysicists. As a graduate
nt in the mid-'60s, he de-
ed a groundbreaking
y of black holes. It was
uring his student days
octors told him he had
Iehrig's disease. Today
ness has advanced to
point where Hawking
use a wheelchair to get
d and a voice synthesiz-
"talk." In a new book,
ver, Hawking demon-
s just how articulate he
A Brief History of Time
pages. Bantam. $18.95),

Hawking sets himself the
task of spelling out how
the universe works so non-
mathematicians can under-
stand it. The only equation
that appears is the inevitable
E=mc2. Hawking's abun-
dant humor, warmth and en-
thusiasm go a long way to-
ward making the physics
seem almost simple. Readers
who bear with him through
the occasional rough pas-
sages will be rewarded with a
better picture of the begin-
ning and end of the universe,
the nature of time and, of
course, black holes. And any-
one who enjoys watching a

good trashing will cherish
Hawking's two-page profile
of Isaac Newton, which ends
with this description of New-
ton's later years, after he left
science and became warden
of the Royal Mint: "Here he
used his talents for devious-
ness and vitriol in a more
socially acceptable way ...
sending several [counterfeit-
ers] to their death on the gal-
lows." This from the man
who occupies the same chair
at Cambridge-the Lucasian
Professorship of Mathemat-
ics-that Newton did 318
years ago.


APRIL 1988

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