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Body Heat

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I should probably admit that I'm too young to worry about Eisenhower voters, and whatever it is they snuck away from the party to do; after all, Updike opened and emptied this can of worms a long time ago. When he was himself a young man, Updike wrote that J.D. Salinger indulged in too much "vehement editorializing on the obvious." Nowadays, this same charge, slightly modified, can be leveled against Updike: In Villages, as in so much of his later work, there is altogether too much vehement poeticizing of the obvious. Maybe that's the byproduct of the high-gloss nostalgia with which Owen and other Updike heroes look back upon their lives. Maybe it's because Updike, without anything new to say, is scrambling to find new-ish expressions for all his usual ideas about sex and suburbia, men and women, life and death. But he seems to vet his language only for its technically proficient beauty rather than its capacity to reveal subjects accurately or meaningfully; so characters are covered over by a patina of things they wouldn't think and words they wouldn't say; everything else, from hair styles to swimming pools to programming code to telephones, is made to seem equally luminous, equally lovely.

About the Author

Mark Lotto
Mark Lotto, a former Nation intern, is a writer for the New York Observer.

Also by the Author

Critics have been trumpeting Benjamin Kunkel as the
voice of his generation. But his first novel, Indecision, about
a 28-year-old empty vessel, is little more than an empty vessel itself.

Here, for instance, is a preposterously fine trip to the kitchen for a snack: "To bring them, after a while, something to eat or drink, she would wander naked through the winter-bright rooms, like a deer at home in the camouflaging forest." Of course, for some readers that passage will only provide further proof that Updike is a stylist without rival, that every line has its perfect and precise architecture, and that every two words he puts side by side make a little poem; the way people carry on about him, you would think Updike was the first American since Whitman to write a pretty sentence.

By the end of the novel, Updike will claim to have shown us the ways that villages "moderate" the madness of living, and "protect us from the darkness without and the darkness within." But his sense of what's secret, and why, is nowadays too small to unsettle or even surprise us. It's always the same with him, and always too convenient: Everywhere he looks, behind every door he opens and every window he puritanically peeps in, he finds yet another consensually coital couple. After a while, Updike just starts to seem like a dirty cop who plants the evidence and then heads right to where he knows he will find it.

Besides, after decades of fucking and wondering about fucking, all he comes up with is this:

Sex is a programmed delirium that rolls back death with death's own substance; it is the black space between the stars given sweet substance in our veins and crevices. The parts of ourselves conventional decency calls shameful are exalted. We are told that we shine, that we are splendid, and the naked bodies we were given in the bloody moment of birth hold all the answers that another, the other, desires, now and forever.

There is less here than you might think, which becomes apparent if you look past a prose as professional and rich as the frosting on a wedding cake. Indeed, annihilative, blissful sex may be our best consolation against, and distraction from, our personal insecurities, our religious beliefs and, most important, our own impending deaths. But it's hardly the bold summation that befits an admirable career and lifelong obsession, and it is certainly not, by any stretch of the imagination, an original or particularly profound insight.

It's funny, then, that Owen's first father-in-law, the professor of the English Renaissance with the "shy slouch" and chuckle like "the snap of dried glue in an old binding," mentions Shakespeare and Bacon but suspiciously says not one word about Andrew Marvell. And yet we suspect that before some seduction Updike once read aloud or had read to him Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," which imagines our graves, where "none, I think, do there embrace." The poem's a pickup line, but funny, horrible. It's also Villages, but shorter, better. So:

Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapt power.

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