BOOKS FICTION: God in moving pictures

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The Independent Culture
IN THE BEAUTY OF THE LILIES by John Updike, Hamish Hamilton pounds 16 In the Beauty of the Lilies traces a line through a family tree. It starts with Clarence Wilmot, a Presbyterian minister in Paterson, New Jersey who loses his faith in 1910, resigns his ministry, and declines - through door-to-door selling of encyclopaedias, excessive haunting of moving-picture houses and tuberculosis of the oesophagus - to death in 1920. The novel runs for four generations and ends in 1990, making a history of God in America in the 20th century.

Clarence's younger son Teddy does without God. He is born hypersensitive to other people's emotions - an affliction which is the opposite of autism - and suffers from growing up "in the debris of his father's infidelity". After his father's death he opts for a life a "minimal damage": he works in a drug store, marries Emily Sifford, who has a club foot, and becomes a small-town postman in Basingstoke, Delaware.

In 1930 Teddy and Emily Wilmot beget Esther, or Essie. At 13 she is kissing the boys, and well on the way to oral sex. She grows into a Delaware beauty, a New York model, and a Hollywood actress with a new name - Alma DeMott - who co-stars with Clark Gable, Gary Cooper (in Red Rock Afternoon, Updike's ludic sequel to High Noon), William Holden, Paul Newman, and so on.

Perhaps only doubters live a visibly religious life: Alma in her perfect secularity has "trouble understanding how people could doubt God's existence. He was so clearly there, next to her, interwoven with her, a palpable pressure, as vital as the sensations in her skin". God, she finds, has placed her at the centre of the universe and gives her what she wants. He "fit[s] her whole body like bathwater in the tub", leaving her completely free to live a multi-husbanded, vanity-of-vanities life.

Clark is born to Alma in 1959. She is a bad mother, pumped by stardom and the fear of ageing. Her marriage to Clark's father is brief. Clark inherits his birthright, Californian accidie: girls, drugs, wrecked cars and a series of failures at the edge of the film world. At 27 he is an advanced loser, working as a chairloader at his great-uncle's ski resort in central Colorado. "Zoned out" on margaritas, he goes home with a girl and finds himself fished, recruited to the Temple of True and Actual Faith, a community of Christian extremists living in a mountain farmhouse, led by a Vietnam veteran called Jesse, very well armed and impatient for Armageddon. Clark grows a spade-shaped beard and evolves into Esau (his new name), completing the four-stroke cycle of faith. These are the generations of Clarence.

It takes about 15 pages to acclimatise to Updike's rich style, with the 1910 archaisms and semi-liturgical periods. Then the sense of show disperses and Updike becomes visible, his hands in the entrails of detail, hard at work on his apparently God-given job. His treatment of Clarence's passage into atheism is luxuriant and infallible, lubricious with understanding. Religion, not sex, is the deep autonomic motor of Updike's sensuality, and his most fluent subject matter. He has never written very well about the physics of sex, although he is brilliant (within his limits - set partly by religion) on the psychology. There is always obscure, God-daring trouble in his genital descriptions, though he is brilliant, again, on the wider settings of sex. In this book Teddy's erections, flybound under Emily's courting hands, are "the bulges of these fleshly mysteries", a "sweet fist", a "sensitive bump", a "tender peak", an "explosive peak". Updike's handling of Abelard, Calvin and Duns Scotus is sexier; the unbending cleverness of Thomas Dreaver, the young presbytery moderator who tries to persuade Clarence not to resign his ministry, is the peak of the novel.

Clarence's 100-page chapter could have become a book without overlapping Updike's previous religious disquisitions in A Month of Sundays (1975) and Roger's Version (1986). If he had been born 400 years ago he would have been Johannes op Dyck and outdone Donne from a pulpit in Amsterdam. He gives Jesse a striking gift of speech: "Come the day of reckoning, these two [Reagan and the Pope] will be Number One and Number Two Antichrist, begging these mountains to fall on them and hide them from the Wrath of the Lamb. Sure as goat shit." Updike presents religion as he finds it - a vast country with an arduous but stable geography, inhabited, in the final reckoning, by nothing more mysterious than human beings.

Teddy does without God, but that is a form of belief. In solidarity with his forsaken father he suppresses the habit of prayer, even when he falls ill in the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918; "his father had fallen out with God, and Teddy would not go behind his back". Reflecting in old age, he realises he "must have had a grudge" against God. God could have given his father a sign, it wouldn't have cost much. His loyalty to his father is wordless and absolute: it is the form of his life. He doesn't want to give God the satisfaction of seeing him distressed.

Modern American worship confuses God and film; Updike's insistence on this point is pedagogical, although successful. In the first episode of the book a silent motion picture is made in Paterson, NJ. In the last, Teddy, returned to the silent era by his deafness, watches the TV news which features his grandson Clark's heroism and death in the siege of the Temple of True and Actual Faith. In between, Clarence falls from the romance of God into the ritual of film. Godless Teddy courts by cinema and produces Esther, a screen goddess. Clark knows the history and grammar of film as well as his ancestors knew the Bible: it is the medium of his failed life and successful death.

Updike enjoys this greatly. He only just manages to keep the brio of his research under control (he thanks 22 books, 32 people and the staff of the Beverly, Massachusetts, Public Library). His historical settings are data-stuffed, well maintained, his four leads are strongly supported by long-lived relatives - Clarence's wife, Teddy's brother and sister, Essie's brother. His prose dips occasionally into excess, then rises to bewilderingly effortless accuracy. When he writes from a child's point of view he is adult and routine (unlike J D Salinger, say). His description of Teddy is impressive, but it is not written fully from the inside. These are imperfections in the great theo-erotic novelist of our time, de facto Nobel laureate, chief archivist of the soul in 20th-century America.