Here is John Updike's "Ragtime," his 17th novel, a quasi-documentary in which the troubles of the characters are paralleled by real-life events. Mary Pickford struggles on a sweating horse; the Patterson strikers listen in raptures to IWW revolutionary Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Mr. Updike's repressed Protestant men lose their faith.
Mr. Updike, an icon of American literary life, falters under this project because history does not in fact interest him. He perceives it as an assault of nature, the unexpected blow of an earthquake or a tornado, immune from the efforts of men to shape it or contain it. Meanwhile his people, as in his more charming marriage stories about the Maples and in the Rabbitt ** novels, are passive, weak and lacking in energy and conviction. As they hit the wall of the millennium a certain lifelessness paralyzes the narrative.
"In the Beauty of the Lilies" is a family saga. Each of its four sections focuses on one generation as the reader is led from 1910 to the 1990s and events clearly based on the massacre at Waco of the Branch Davidians. The first half, "Clarence" and "Teddy," is easily the most compelling. Mr. Updike is at his best in depicting the spiritual struggles of middle-aged men. Father Clarence passes on his fear of life to his son, who is named ironically for the bluff, self-confident ex-president. The inadequacies of the father are visited on the son; the Protestant work ethic figures not at all.
Teddy's daughter Essie ("Alma") becomes a movie star, improbably. She even has sexual intercourse with Clark Gable! Her son Clark perishes amid the cult fanatics after having murdered the guru. None of this rings true.
Mr. Updike's theme is that with the loss of faith, our inability to believe in God, we are headed for dissipation, moral chaos, anomie and certain ruin. His dismay trembles beneath the surface of the narrative, as if he were a 19th-century preacher rather than one of our gifted novelists. He cannot summon the purpose to set his characters free on their own particular spontaneous voyage.
Mr. Updike has no equal in producing the graceful sentence; language succumbs to the fluid magic of his perceptions. "Oblivion became a singular comforter," he writes of the Reverence Clarence Arthur Wilmot. "All fleshly acts became ... the blood-soaked selfishness of a cosmic mayhem." Books are "boxes of flesh-eating worms, crawling sentences that had eaten the universe hollow." Clarence's life is "gutted by God's withdrawal." Language yields textures, Mr. Updike's famous brand names ("Terra Derma laxatives"). It's not enough.
The only character with sense is Essie's brother Danny, a CIA agent whose zealousness flourishes unimpeded by the author's irony. "I love this crazy, wasteful, self-hating country in spite of itself," Danny says. A minor character scarcely on stage, he remains fresh and interesting because he's one of the few who refuses to suffer the absence of Mr. Updike's one true God.
Not so, alas, the author for whom godlessness has led inexorably and tediously to the moral confusion dooming us at our millennium. This idea and "In the Beauty of the Lilies" itself arrive, alas, a century late.
Joan Mellen's "Hellman and Hammett" will be published in May by HarperCollins. She is the author of 12 books and teaches in the creative writing program at Temple University in Philadelphia.