- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 6, 2004


By John Updike

Knopf, $25, 321 pages


Having reached his early seventies and written a score of novels, John Updike still retains his boyish charm, in his appearance as well as his prose. That said, a melancholy suffuses his latest book, “Villages,” a kind of memoir in which the narrator, Owen Mackenzie, similar in age and background to the author, reflects on his past.

Owen sorts his memories according to the places he’s lived, beginning with his boyhood in Pennsylvania, on to his college years in Boston, then through two marriages in suburban Massachusetts — swards of time that serve as the book’s controlling metaphor.

The village of Willow that Owen recollects in the opening chapters of the novel turns out to be very much like the village of Shillington where Mr. Updike was raised. This small town and its adjacent city, Reading, have been the setting, in one guise or another, for many of Mr. Updike’s stories, including “Rabbit Run,” making it one of the more famous patches on the American literary map. Mr. Updike can be forgiven if, returning to his boyhood home once again, more than a half century later, he sees it through sepia-tinted glasses, as when Owen recollects his sledding days.

“The sparks, the packed snow, the Christmas trees in the front parlors all along the walk to school — these lasted for only a few days, spotted through a drab, damp winter, but made memories that lasted all year and tugged time forward in a child’s virtual eternity.”

This innocent, protected world is soon sullied as Owen recalls the suicide of a neighbor and his own awakening desires aroused by classmates like Ginger Bitting, who would dangle from the jungle gym, “hanging on with only her bent legs while her arms, thin and freckled and with a whitish fuzz, reached down toward the dust.” Death and sex will be the themes explored in “Villages,” no surprise to readers familiar with Mr. Updike, for whom carnality is a cri de coeur against life’s limitations.

In fact, “Villages” will be recognizable to anyone who’s gotten through one or another of Mr. Updike’s novels of adultery, with their self-involved couples engaged in endless coupling, although Mr. Updike now writes far more explicitly. He never shied from sex scenes, to be sure, but “Villages” has more than its fair share of four-letter fornication, so that Owen at times seems prurient, even cheesy.

“Admitted for the first time, Karen was startled by the near-domestic coziness he had created within the small space,” writes Mr. Updike about Owen’s office, where he entertains his paramours on a Naugahyde sofa when not overseeing his profitable software company. Karen, a young employee, can smell the sex, her eyes glisten — Mr.Updike uses these phrases — growing so aroused she returns with her underwear tucked in among the business papers she presents to her boss. “Karen stood there with swarming eyes and lifted up her skirt, showing that her pants were in his hand and not on her.”

The incident is not unique in the narrative. Exempting his chaste descriptions of Owen’s encounters with his wives, Mr. Updike belabors the boffing, providing us with too intimate details, conversations, predilections, some of them slyly mocking his protagonist’s shortcomings as a lover (pun intended), some of them applauding his boyish (that word again) charisma. Sex turns out to be an insidious palliative, inviting tragedy as it staves off angst, but the overarching effect of eros here is tedium rather than titillation, an anomie that pervades the book and alienates readers.

It’s hard to like Owen, whatever his charms, for he can’t connect, he is never content, although he claims to love his current wife — a woman he alternatively adores and criticizes.

A man racked by remorse and regret, Owen is compelled to criticize. He is a complainer, a curmudgeon, a malcontent, albeit one with wry humor. If he idealizes the ever-receding past, its because the present seems insipid, lacking consequence.

“Their problems — the constant crisis state of their golf games,” writes Mr. Updike, “the huge new house some nouveau riche from out of state was putting up right in their ocean view, the impossibility of finding dependable help in the house and garden (even the Brazilians and Albanians are overcharging and learning how to loaf), the unshakable slump in the stock market, the rising real-estate taxes, the adult children who are getting divorces and having disappointing, quixotic careers in the arts or bleeding-heart social work — strike Owen as trivial, compared with the do-or-die problems that afflicted his childhood household and from which he had been sheltered.”

Work offers Owen even less satisfaction than his affairs, despite that Mr. Updike puts much effort into making the arcane business of computer programming accessible to his readers. “Villages” may be the not-so-sentimental education of Owen Mackenzie — by his mother, his wives, his lovers — but his business partner, Ed Mervine, plays a significant role in his mentoring. For a man who places so much emphasis on his orgasms, the quotidian aspects of Owen’s life —his boyhood memories, his adult prejudices, his technical and entrepreneurial efforts—prove more interesting.

“Sex is a programmed delirium that rolls back death with death’s own substance,”

Owen concludes oraclely, then adds, “People must be romantic or fail to lift themselves above the deadpan copulation of sheep and squirrels.” Forget that he contradicts himself; Owen seems to have missed the moral of his own story, which the author underscores with an epigraph lifted from Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.”

“Ah, love, let us be true to one another!” wrote Arnold in one of the grandest poems ever composed, which Owen would have studied in school. “For the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new, hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”

Students no longer read “Dover Beach,” partly because Owen and his fellow precocious programmers assured the triumph of cyberspace —”an alien future,” writes Mr. Updike, “a world of computers as mass-marketable as typewriters, all their elegant mathematics, once the remote province of electrical engineers and Boolean logicians, now buried beneath a cartoon surface as vulgar as a comic book.” It is difficult to be true to anyone, or anything, in digital reality “so various, so beautiful, so new.”

Mr. Updike, the most bittersweet of writers, has always been good at conveying such ironies and paradoxes. Unfortunately, irony is no salve for life’s wounds, “nor help for pain,” a disappointment Mr. Updike can’t disguise in his characters, or from his readers.

Rex Roberts is a writer, editor and graphic designer living in New York City.

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