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March 15, 1996 - Image 8

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The Michigan Daily, 1996-03-15

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8 - The Michigan Daily - Friday, March 15, 1996

el )


John Updike
In the Beauty of the Lilies
As the 20th century comes to a close,
it is to be expected that certain works of
art will appear, fiction or otherwise,
that attempt to summarize and critique
the phenomenal changes that have oc-
curred this century. When time offers
such a neatly packaged period of tri-
umphs, upheavals and tragedies, after
all, it is tough for anyone with an aes-
thetic eye to resist the temptation to put
one's personal slanton it. John Updike's
new novel, "In the Beauty of the Lillies"
-his 17th -is an admirable attempt at
such summation.

Updike begins his story in 1910 and
continues it, through four generations,
up to 1990.
The first generation has as its pro-
tagonist Clarence Wilmot. Wilmot is a
Presbyterian minister who, within the
first four pages ofthe novel, loses all his
faith in a divine being. It is a sudden and
oddly believable disillusionment that
sets the stage for all that follows within
and without the lives of the characters.
Afterthis sudden "death" ofGod (which
Updike is so gracious to point out as
such with more than one mentioning of
Nietzsche, Darwin and Ingersoll)
Wilmot's life is irreversibly altered. As
a man of great principle, if not faith, he
cannot bear the role of hypocritical
minister and thus, after much delibera-
tion and pain, he resigns from his or-

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Without any other means of provid-
ing for his family, Wilmot'giradual1y
descends from a pensive intellectual to
a broken encyclopedia salesitia strug-
gling to earn a few dollars to keep is
-family's diet, if not their prite, from
starvation. After many individual inti-
dents and years, Wilmot finally, in OIW
age, turns to the soma of einema
provide comfort. Within the family lore
his addiction to movies becomes leg-
This last solace for Clarence estab-
lished, the novel moves grudgingly on
to Teddy, Clarence's youngest son.
Teddy's life is one of extreme medioc-
rity. He proves himself gifted in school
(like his father) but is unwilling to "be-
tray" his father by achieving any sort of
success or even finding real happiness.
After working as a Soda Jerk fo@
several years and passing up every op-
portunity that comes his way, the short,
squat Teddy marries a naive and even
less attractive farm girl by the nameof
Emily. Shunning all excitement,'except
for the occasional sexual romp, these
two start a simple household with two
children and Teddy's mother. While
Teddy never aspires to anything more
than the postal service (he is probably
the idealized mailman) he andEmilyd
manage to give birth to a beautiful
daughter, Essie.
Essie's story, predictably, encom-
passes the third chapter of the novel.
She is, almost from birth, full ofpassion
for Hollywood. In childhood, she at-
tends movies with a devotion akin to
that of her Grandfather. In her teen-age
years she sets out to make herself a part
ofthem. The story of her long and fairly
successful climb into the business of
Hollywood is, in a sense, a clima fo
the family and the book.
However, Essie's one child, Clark,
fails quite purposefully to pick up the
torch of his mother. After years of drift-
ing and drug abuse, Clark finds himself
a member of an ultra-rightist Christian
commune that (as Updike so con-
sciously makes us aware) bearsa strik-
ing resemblance to the Branch-
The last part of the novel (Clatk's
chapter) is almost entirely dedicated to
a standoff between Clark's cult andthe
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Fir'e-
arms. The confrontation ends, in the
novel just as it did in WacQ, Txa s
What is so incredible about thisnovel
is not the story itself; while entertaining
and interesting, Updike has constructed
more intriguing stories. From this long
family history that is scrupulously real
istic, he has created a significant alleW
gory for the 20th century. The first
chapter demonstrates religion as an in-
adequate relic for modern society. We
are too rationalist,too secular to sustain
faith as a real factor in our lives. With
Clarence, he tenuously replaces this
void with "The Movies."
In Teddy's chapter (for Teddy him-
self is a pretty static character)religion
and cinema are in a state of consta4
upheaval and competition. It is not clear,
yet, which will triumph, although film
seems to have the upper hand.
And, as Essie's life goes onto show,
film does "win." Essie, in .her movie-
star passions, creates a veritable reli-
gion out of film that seems, at first, as
durable as any belief in God. Butjust as
religion is threatened by fim (in the
earlier chapters), film is quickly threat-
ened by the popular phenomenon .of-
television. .7
This new conflict is carried o7er to
Clark's life and wreaks havop uppnit.
Just as religion failed Clarence, film
fails Clark. But rather than create anew
religion out oftelevision, he retreats(or
is it progresses?) into Christianity:

Thus, in the camouflage of a tragic
family, Updike successfully and con-
vincingly examines the need forfaith of
any kind in our modern culture. -
As ingenious as this workis, as
whole, Updike does make some atro-
cious blunders. He is so concerned with
rooting the individual chapters intheir
particular periods that he often goes on
for many pages summarizing and ex-
pounding upon the major political and
cinematic occurrences of any given
moment. It is as if, for a minute or-two,
he's forgotten he's a novelistand hot a
pedantic and opinionated historiat
Also,in those rare moments ofsexua
intimacy, Updike's senses fail him;he
could just as easily be detailing aZgolf
tournament as a hand job. Lastty, it
cannot go without mention, his attempts
at making the last two chapters rrore
lively by playing with and restructuring
their chronology sometimes is quite
frustrating. After so much of the story
has been told in the order of occurrence,
the later sections' use of flashback
seems such a breach of the authbr'
established voice that it is almost unfor-
But it is only "almost unforgivable"
for, on the whole, Updike has delivdred
an ambitious, complex and powetful
narrative that will serve not only as a
work of art but as an important esta-

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The University of Michigan
School of Music
Sunday, March 17
Faculty Recital
Complete Beethoven Sonata Cycle-Program 3:
Sonata No. I in D Major, Op. 12
Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24, "Spring"
Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47, "Kreutzer"
Andrew Jennings, violin and Anton Nel,piano,
Recital Hall, 4 p.m.
Monday, March 18
Michigan Youth Ensembles
MY Chamber Singers, MY Band, MY Women's
Chorale and MY Symphony
Hill Auditorium, 7 p.m.
Tuesday, March 19
Guest Master Class and Recital by hornist
Gail Williams of the Chicago Symphony
Masterclass: 2:30 p.m.
Recital: 8 p.m.
Recital Hall
Thursday, March 21
Faculty Recital
Anton Nel, piano; Stephen Shipps, violin
" Pasquali-Ysaye: Sonata in A minor
. Schumann: Sonata No. 2 in D minor
* Messiaen: Theme and Variations
s Ysaye: Poeme Elegiaque
" Ravel: Tzigane
Recital Hall, 8 p.m.
Friday, March 22
Concert Band
Dennis Glocke, conductor
Charles Daval and Jean Moorehead-Libs, soloists
" Vivaldi: Concerto in C for Two Trumpets
" Broege: Sinfonia
* Hindemith: Symphony in B-flate
Hill Auditorium, 8 p.m.
Sunday, March 24
UM Percussion Ensemble
Michael Udow, director
McIntosh Theatre, 4 p.m.
Public Lecture
Glenn Watkins, Earl V. Moore Professor of Music
"Stravinsky: War Games, 1914-1919"
Recital Hall. 4 p.m.

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