A Conception Without Climax : S.<i> by John Updike (Alfred A. Knopf: $17.95; 279 pp.) </i>

John Updike’s women, dreamily sexy and accommodating to child-dreamers of the opposite sex, have largely abandoned that game and taken up power.

In “The Witches of Eastwick,” it was a shift into not altogether playful necromancy. In “S.,” propeled by anger and her husband’s unfaithful chilliness, the protagonist throws off her suburban servitude and conducts a picaresque outlaw’s revenge.

Sarah--the S. of the title--bears the same family name as Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne. In an epigraph, Updike quotes from “The Scarlett Letter” the passage describing Hester as she emerges from prison, cold as marble and “turned, in a great measure, from passion to thought. . . . The world’s law was no law for her mind.”

This would seem to signal the author’s intention pretty clearly, and in fact, it does. But, as “S.” begins to unfold, we are given a decidedly distracting picture. Sarah’s voice is fluttery, even gushy, as she relates in letters and tapes her flight from her Marblehead home to an ashram in Arizona.


At the same time, addressing by turns her husband, her grown daughter, her mother, her best friend, even her dentist, there is, under the flutter, a pulsing rage. The effect is poisonous sweetness; only bit by bit is the marble chill made to come through, though there are stony clues even from the start.

Part of Sarah’s narrative considers the life she has left and, in an angry purr, finds it awful. Part of it tells about the ashram--hard work, meditation and sex--and although the purr is louder, the anger creeps in just the same. Suburban past and ashram present; both have seduced her and exploited her, and she will take her revenge upon both.

The curious and estranging quality of “S.” is that all three modes occur simultaneously throughout. Sarah relinquishes nothing; she revels in the seduction, denounces the oppression and works her revenge, all at the same time.

Thus to her husband, a successful surgeon who has made them both rich for keeping his distance and seducing his nurses, she writes: “Charles darling, it was not your fault.” And she recalls her pleasure in his masculinity, the good times they had, her delight in their houses and cars and servants. “I loved you, my eternal date,” she writes, “the absent center of my storm of home-making.”

This is both ironic and sentimental, but it is not, as it may seem, an obituary to a dead passion. She caresses the memory even as she tells Charles how rotten he is; even as she informs him that she has emptied their bank accounts, sold their jointly held investments, and kept the proceeds, and expects, via her lawyer, at least half of whatever he may get if he sells their houses.

Her solicitude for her mother’s health barely masks her pleasure in telling her how old and foolish she has become; yet after the resentment, there is a pythonlike affection. Her letters to her daughter brim with effusive concern, yet she is vindictive enough to announce: “I had no climax when you were conceived.”

Writing of the ashram--modeled, to some extent, upon the Rajneesh settlement--she is flowery about the meditations and the mysteries; she swots up the terminology with the same whole-hearted efficiency that she once used to run her suburban life. At the same time, she carefully notes how the entire setup works to attract rich adepts and get control of their money.

She writes of brain-washing and sexual bullying; she also rhapsodizes about the eyelids of the ashram’s leader, the Arhat. “They’re so large somehow, and. . . . The ones get this funny bunchy extra wrinkle when he’s said something sly. . . .” She works and sleeps her way, bisexually, to the top, ending up as the Arhat’s chosen lover and as the manager of the ashram’s accounts.


Not literally ending up, though. Her last letters come from the Bahamas, where she has locked up a fortune, stripped impartially from Charles and from the Arhat both. “I have acquired at last,” she writes, “the means to be still.”

Sarah’s lack of stillness up to this point; her mix of sentiment, effusiveness, rage, wit and calculation, make “S.” a difficult book to like. It is not one of Updike’s successes.

You see what he is trying to say: In a world in which power and money outlast our half-meant pieties and our eroding pleasures, the path to true wisdom lies in grabbing it while you can. Sarah is a butterfly with iron talons; she has out-Charlesed Charles and out-Arhated the Arhat.

Her scheming is both comic and satisfying, and Updike discloses it with an accustomed skill. But the author, like Sarah, is bad at relinquishing. He has committed a neat bit of satire, but he lavishes so much empathy upon Sarah, her suburbs, her mysticism, that it all turns muddy. Even his prose suffers, particularly when he dots Sarah’s language with Buddhist terminology. Here, she writes of the Arhat’s meditative approach:


“He tries to create with his presence a kind of vacuum, a sunya , that penetrates the padma of the gathered sannyasins . He embodies or localizes, that is, purusha to such an extent that it leeches away all the prakriti in the people around him.”

Updike does append a glossary, which runs 12 pages. But we are not much moved to use it.