His dreadful play of some years back, Buchanan Dying, must have left Updike with a raft of research material that he seems now to have taken and thrust into the fictional hands of a New Hampshire girls'-college historian, Alf Clayton, who's writing a sympathetic book about Buchanan, the president that had the misfortune to usher in the Civil War. Clayton also is writing a personal recollection of his chaotic sexual and family situation during the Gerald Ford administration--this makes up the narration here--and thus Updike can move freely inside two ideas: that the past is no more knowable than the confusing present, and that things--even if they do it at wrenching cost--"bump on," work out. Clayton has left his wife and family of three to live alone yet sleep with Genevieve. Genevieve's "The Perfect Wife" of a creepy deconstructionist--who finally sabotages the affair with a bit of deconstruction of his own devising. Alf sees sex, during the 70's, mostly as pathos, determined taboo-breaking that yields little more than manners; this is contrasted with the historical judgment of Buchanan, whose good instincts have been forgotten in favor of his ill-stars ("the erratic haft-steps whereby a people effects moral change and whereby well-intentioned men of substance seek amid agitation and the long stasis of contending equal interests the path of least general harm"). It's a novel about failure--and that paradoxical spinoff of failure, optimism. The Buchanan stuff, though, is gluey, boring; and Alf's Gongoristic high-style, stuffed with tropes and excruciated vocabulary, is rarely more palatable. It's the sex, as so often with Updike, that you come to the table for and is the most filling thing here--the grace notes of man/woman perceptiveness for which Updike is rightly renowned. The idea of macro- and micro-history clearly is something Updike wanted to chew over (as he did the ramifications of computers in Roger's Version) but it's the grounded experience of wanting and losing that grows the grass.