by John Updike
Bloated, meandering, tiresome—but with flashes of blinding grace—Updike’s 15th novel is a curious evocation of a time of unsafe sex and even more dangerous narcissism. Asked the history journal Retrospect to look back on the Ford presidency, Wayward Junior College history prof Alf Clayton instead tumbles into his personal past. His response to Retrospect, which provides the text for this book, interweaves those ’70s memories with the pages of a biography he was trying to write at the time. The libidinous Clayton, it turns out, is fascinated by James Buchanan, “the only bachelor President,” possibly “our only virgin President”—a man whose only recorded romance resulted in the young woman’s death, at age 23, of a “fatal hysteria” brought on by his social stupidity.
There’s just about as much drama—and stupidity—going on in Clayton’s New Hampshire household, or rather, households. Having ditched his wife, Norma, “the Queen of Disorder,” and their three children, he lives alone, in far seedier circumstances, counting on visits from his mistress, Genevieve, otherwise known as “The Perfect Wife.” The kids are depressed, sullen. Norma has gone on to affairs of her own. Clayton has convinced himself that “I was leaving this marriage as a tribute to marriage, to create a perfect marriage.”
He isn’t alone in his intellectual—or physical—groping. Just about all the faculty couples and half the student body are sexually changing, rearranging. “No condoms then, no fear of the microscopic,” Clayton recalls. “The dangers were all macrocosmic, vague and huge.”
The dangers for Buchanan were more specific, but loomed as large; “stiff and conscientious and cautious,” he pushed away the inevitable Civil War. And in the end, Clayton doesn’t get a handle on him: “Composing history is like packing a suitcase with objects that persist in overflowing, or underfilling the space,” he decides. Looking for facts, what Retrospect gels from Clayton—and his creator, Updike—is a more transcendent truth: “What a quick idle thing a life is, in retrospect. How quickly we become history, while wanting always to be news.” (Knopf, $23)