March 28, 1988 12:00 PM

by John Updike

The woman protagonist is a descendant of the old New England Prynne family and has a daughter named Pearl; the novel begins with a passage from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and then there is the single letter of the title, which stands for “Sarah” but could represent “scarlet” or “scandal” or “sex.” It might just as well stand for “sucker,” however, since this whole project is a red herring. Whatever possessed Updike to write this often misogynist, often tedious send-up—centered on an Eastern religious sect’s ashram in Arizona—it wasn’t the spirit of Hawthorne. Irving Wallace maybe, but hardly Hawthorne. The novel begins with Sarah Worth, mirroring Hester Prynne’s release from prison in the Hawthorne work, leaving her husband and running off to Ashram Arhat, a commune presided over by an ostensible Indian mystic. (Updike notes in a foreword that he drew on reports about Rajneeshpuram, the Oregon commune city noted for its Rolls-Royce collection, sexual shenanigans and financial peculiarities until its leaders absconded and their followers deserted it in 1985.) The book consists of letters written by Sarah as she becomes closer and closer to the ashram’s leader, the Arhat. Updike is scathing—often scathingly funny—on the Arhat’s sect, which encourages younger converts to go home and steal jewelry from their parents, is devoted to building something called the “Hall of a Millionfold Joys” and is largely run by an asexual Irishwoman who spends most of her time running up big expense accounts. Her portrayal of Sarah is equally scathing but much more subtle; it often seems to be a covert parody of feminism in which Updike vast writing skill camouflages the condescension. True, Sarah writes about how free she finally feels at 42; at the same time, however, she is relentlessly envious, hypocritical uncaring and whiny. At one point she write to her estranged husband and belittles his new girlfriend’s interest in hatha-yoga: “As far as she’s concerned it’s just a slimming exercise—which she does need, granted—but as far as spiritual energy goes she might as well be doing aerobics to the Bee Gees.” Sarah writes to her brother, “One of the thing you as a male will never have to know is how much a woman can suffer—jealousy, humiliation, panic, sense of betrayal—such a churning would shake a man to pieces—his nuts would come off his bolts, and all the studs out of his dress shirt.” And she tells her mother, “You were a good mother, given the half-ass absentee style of your generation.” Sarah is also salting away hundreds of thousands of dollars—from sources that are unclear—in bank accounts in Switzerland and the Bahamas. Suggesting what? Since there are no admirable women in the book, it becomes as much a sneaky excoriation of the women’s movement as of fraudulent religious sects. Then too, Updike packs the novel with religious jargon, so that Sarah writes to the Arhat, “Master, having already bestowed upon me the mudra of dama…do not withhold your abhayamudra.” A glossary at the end of the novel suggests “mudra of dama” means a yogic gesture of boon-granting and “abhayamudra” means a gesture dispelling fear. But the nuisance of having to look this up is typical of the novel: It’s an apakva (unripe) piece of avidya (ignorance) lacking the gunas (qualities) of buddhi (intelligence), kalpana (imagination) and karuna (compassion). Mr. Updike, have you ever met Shirley MacLaine? (Knopf, $17.95)

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