Search for stability and the cliched failure in John Updike’s S.


This one is supposed to be fun, because there is a bit of form-twisting, and no further reason. In immediate second thought, I realize the easy downsides overrule the supposed lovely expectations. The biggest theme is hackneyed — the quest for one’s purpose, one’s “worth” (also the surname of the protagonist, Sarah); there is dullness in narration because this is first-person, and of all possible kinds of first-person narrators, we had a suspiciously deranged woman talking about her failed marriage and her flee to a religious commune to redeem her shattered self.

I no longer buy the sophomoric theme of “searching of self.” With all my momentary trusts on post-structuralism and reinvigorated exposure to the modernist horror, this theme should already goad an outright dismissal. But I felt like I had to give Updike a try. I remember, I turned to this after my scrumptious consumption of Franzen’s Strong Motion (a sort of conscious shift from a contemporary to an older, not necessarily classical author). I like Updike’s A&P and that other story of his I encountered because of my online job. The resignation of Sammy is something I can consider as the bravest moments in literature, perhaps at the level of Nora’s last stance in Ibsen’s A Doll House; and the ensuing bleakness and damning nebulousness, both charming and frightening, is for me one of the more memorable curtailments of a short story (I can think of Arabyas one of its league, and of course, The Dead). So for this novel, I thought perhaps I should give him a chance. Remarkably, a short praise from The Philadelphia Inquirer found at the back of novel pulled me closer to the novel, part of it says, “[John Updike] is the chief chronicler of the life and times of the modern American middle class — and perhaps its most important literary conscience.” This is the culmination of the 20th century, and the American middle class continues to be tentative and deeply anxious as ever.

S is Sarah Worth, abandoned by her husband Charles at the beginning of the novel, she sought refuge, reclamation, lasting occupation on a religious group venerating a certain Arhat, a literal living man trumpeting sometimes esoteric, sometimes ridiculous sorts of Buddhism which promises the attainment of purusha, or atman, or moksha, ultimate enlightenment.

What I found most interesting here is Sarah’s eventual failure to submit herself to the claims (provisions) of her commune and completely wall herself away from the previous world where she was in and she now indicts as materialistic, worldly and such. When she was still a loyal Kundalini, she maintains her letter and audiocasette-sending to her family and friends in the world she has left. Eventually, she was reprimanded by the Atman for this. The mere act of sending letters to the world outside her commune is in itself telling. She has yet to break away from the life she had in that previous life. And this already tenuous tie linking her to the realm where the Atman leads, will only be fully cut short when she had disorienting experiences with the Atman in their attempt at vajrolimudra, “the yogic technique whereby semen is retained and the rajas (female secretion,lotus seed) are absorbed.” Sarah felt that what was happening was no longer business, no longer according to the doctrines of the commune but already imputed with the personal motives of the Atman. And in a whiff, the collapse of faith on the collective ideals because of a single impurification from an individual — the collective principles not merely extirpated but also rendered highly improbable by a single case of an individual defilement.

And in the end, Sarah exited the commune; and she can only appear the most heart-rendered and toyed by the amalgam of cosmic forces and her environment and her own weaknesses as she knew of Charles and her friend Midge’s affair. She was peaceably resigned and dishearteningly incredulous at the same time, saying, “Charles, I can’t express how serene and benign I feel about you and me. Parting is an illusion.” and “it was somehow not nice to steal a woman’s husband while that same woman was trustfully giving and giving herself on these tapes. (278)” After all these fiascoes compounding and piling upon her and pairing up with her own rather skewed manner of looking at the world, we can facilely state that she had gone from bad to worse to wreck. I want to believe that Sarah had maintained her sanity and a crucial morsel of stability even after all that happened to her, with Charles and the Atman’s digressions. I want to trust Updike, that he was not shallowly comforting here, showing us that in the midst of all the bustles and breaking bastions of the 20th century, there are other things aside from dementia, or mental breakdowns. Sarah had found little, or fleeting of a worth in the Hinduist commune, but we can always assert, that possibly in this life, “worth” is not always much preferred than “non-worth.”

Updike in a desirable workplace
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