After the Kinsey Report but before the first Penthouse Forum, John Updike wrote, “He kneels in a kind of sickness between her spread legs. With her help their blind loins fit.” That’s Rabbit, while running; after a pickup game of hoops, he will pick up a girl, to diddle and almost destroy. Anyway, Rabbit hops on, and off, or rather: “they make love, in morning light with cloudy mouths.” In the four decades since Rabbit, Run, Updike has labored, like Professor Murray on the Oxford English, to assemble the definitive thesaurus of all things carnal and knowledgeable. It would be impolite to inquire too much about his field research and working methods, but you can be sure he’s paid equal attention to the graffiti in bathroom stalls, Byron’s Don Juan and the wild, precise nonsense people sigh mid-screw. To “cloudy mouths” and mythological “loins,” Updike adds, in Villages, “heavenly invasion,” “nipples like rabbit noses” and “whimpering, finger-sucking dissolution,” not to mention what Owen, our hero, thinks looking down at his lover from behind: “This is the neck the executioner sees.”
Updike cranks out a lot of books. Villages is his twenty-first novel, which is impressive even if you don’t count the many short stories and essays in The New Yorker, the children’s books and poetry collections, the writings on golf and the play where President Buchanan splits hairs, falls short and dies. Elizabeth Hardwick once called Updike “as productive of print as a Victorian” and his body of work “a promiscuous, astonishing span.” Among the various novels, there is one in which Updike founds and then overthrows his own African nation; in another he conjures up weird witchy sisters and they conjure up thunderstorms, love charms and cancer. Then, once a decade, Updike runs back to Rabbit, like a movie star returning to a surefire franchise.
Between Rabbits, Updike mostly putters around small-town New England. For him, it still provides the very best laboratory conditions for testing what erects penises and topples families. After all, in Updike’s villages, dentists and homemakers, wine-light and lousy, believe they’re bantering as wittily as Benedick and Beatrice, or Hudson and Day; post-Pill, every potluck threatens to turn into an orgy. So with the special care of a model train enthusiast, Updike will lay down in well-tended sentences his miniature scenery of quaintly crumbling barns and white-steepled churches, fixer-upper farmhouses and newsstands that reliably stock the Sunday Times. And then he’ll install parks with secret picnic spots, houses with always-empty guest rooms and inconspicuous motels at the edge of town. Plenty of hiding places for neighbors (not married to one another), insufficiently alibi’d, pants down, skirts up, as they–well, I’ll leave the specifics to him.
Villages, Updike’s latest, is a Bildungsroman chronicling the life and times of Owen Mackenzie, as he grows from his making-ends-meet childhood during the Depression to the comfortable retirement of a software designer who bought and sold Apple stock at exactly the right time. Throughout the novel, his sentimental education is supervised by a hands-on faculty of tomboys, crushes, mistresses, one-night stands and, of course, his two wives: first, insulated, always unattainable Phyllis, that “beautiful math major”; then, “small, dense-bodied” Julia, whom he wins away from the local Episcopalian minister, a woman who finally teaches him uxoriousness and the pleasures of keeping it in his pants, whom he grows old with and will be buried beside.
Nothing much happens in Villages. Seventy-year-old Owen awakens one morning from a dream of either necrophilia or creepy, naked CPR, only to find his wife Julia not dead but already downstairs, putting on a pot of coffee. As he ambles barefoot to the bathroom, hollering pleasantries in the general direction of the kitchen, he remembers a lifetime of things we’ve already read about in some other, better Updike novel, or Updike’s memoirs, or his author’s blurb. Yet again an only child is born, like Updike, to practical parents in rural Pennsylvania. Yet again he goes off to school in Boston, marries young, moves to New York, leaves New York for New England, has four kids, fucks his wife, fucks his wife’s friends and all his friends’ wives, golfs, leaves the wife, marries again, moves again. Villages sometimes feels as depleted as an overdrawn bank account.
To be fair, Owen goes off to MIT, not Harvard like Updike, and spends his days writing binary code instead of astonishingly good and sometimes just astonishingly well-received novels. This gives Updike the opportunity to show off his knowledge of Riemann surfaces and set theory, programming code and primitive light-pen plotting, the history of the computer mouse and the number of vacuum tubes (49,000) in an IBM as big as a blue whale. Updike makes acronyms like SABRE and COBOL buzz as musically as bees, but he never gets the microprocessor or the web browser to reveal anything particularly meaningful about, say, the faulty wiring of the twentieth century. Nor does a punch line that finishes “in a world full of plugs, nature must provide sockets” tell us anything new about our bodies or our circuitry or even about left-brained Owen, who cracks the joke. In the end, all the minutiae about computers and mathematics feels as if it were imposed on Owen, like the display jewelry hanging off a mannequin–accessorized instead of fully imagined.
But really all anybody wants to hear about is the sex: what sort and with whom. Now, for those people in the bookstore aisles flipping through Villages looking for the good stuff, Updike has helpfully confined most of the Sixth Commandment-breaking to a series of chapters titled “Village Sex.” Bookstore skimmers will, however, be disappointed to discover that the dirty parts aren’t that dirty. Yes, when at the end of Owen’s life he remembers his lovers, he remembers them only abstracted into their orgasms. Vanessa: “something brisk, even dismissive, in her way of seizing it.” Faye: “an infectious, innocent gaiety that made her easy to love.” Karen: “no big deal, like a coffee break or a spasm of exertion after sitting too long on an airplane.” But to get them off, there’s no too-literal animal husbandry, no ménages of more than two, and nobody needs to get on the phone to report something new to the people at the Kama Sutra. Wives aren’t even swapped; they are just coveted, borrowed or stolen away. How old-fashioned.
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.
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.