Updike: A Month of Sundays

While on a trip last week, I took along an old paperback edition of John Updike's mid-70s novel, A Month of Sundays. Penned in the first-person, the story recounts the misadventures of Rev. Tom Marshfield who writes the memoir as part of his rehabilitation while exiled in Arizona, banished from the ministry because of his adulterous habits. A grumpy Barthian (must be a Princeton grad! ;-) with no patience for the soppy humanism of Tillich and his ilk, Marshfield is nonetheless an unabashed, unashamed, and unrepentant worshiper in the temples of lonely, middle-class suburban women. Indeed, one must be struck by the difference between Marshfield and, say, Graham Greene's adulterers: the latter at least seem to think they ought to be penitent; Marshfield doesn't ever seem bothered by such notions.

The novel is a curious little time capsule, a peek into the swirling mores of the early 70s--though generally as viewed from a WASPish distance. It's also classic Updike: page-turning, unctuous prose laced with a strange eroticism that was probably more titillating than it ought to be. In fact, as I was reading it, I was concious of how the power of the story could so quickly create its own plausibility structures, a world in which Marshfield's behavior doesn't seem reprehensible. Perhaps Updike means to make us guilty by association, but I think more likely he means to create a world where there should be no guilt associated with such behavior. It the protagonist is a professing a Barthian, the ethos of a story is nothing other than "express-yourself" liberalism.

(And it should be noted that this is just the sort of novel that is rife with material to substantiate the claim that Updike is a misogynistic objectifier of women. While I know he always bristled at the charge, and though he'd likely offload the blame onto his first-person narrator, it's very hard to come away from the book and not share a sense of taint.)

Finally, it seems to me that Updike is never willing to not be "Updike." That is, Updike is never willing to relinquish the aestheticism that is his defining voice, even when he's writing in the first person of another. So the book--like any first-person work by Updike--is beset with a problem of voice and authenticity; in short, in Updike's hands, everybody sounds like Updike.