It Takes a Village, or Three: Updike Goes Home Again—Again

Villages, by John Updike. Alfred A. Knopf, 321 pages, $25.

Villages, by sad coincidence, is John Updike’s 21st novel. Comparing it with Philip Roth’s newly published novel, The Plot Against America —also his 21st—is distressing if you’re a dedicated Updike fan. Whatever you think of the aesthetic merits of the Roth (and I happen to deplore the late, incredible twists of The Plot ’s plot), you have to admire the exuberance of the imagination at work, the risks boldly taken, the fierce conviction of the prose. Villages, by contrast, is tired, timid, shaky.

The somewhat kinder comparison is with other Updike: Villages slots easily—too easily—into the long shelf of his collected works. It’s Rabbit Redux all over again, or, more precisely, Couples recoupled (and resundered). Nothing happens that hasn’t happened elsewhere in the vast oeuvre; no new kind of character is introduced, no new landscape limned. We’re back in Olinger and Tarbox. Villages is a novel about a world we gladly recognize from having read heaps of Updike. It’s nice to meet up with old friends in familiar places and discover that they’re up to their usual extramarital tricks, but it doesn’t exactly broaden our horizon.

Remember Couples? Rich and daring, sad and funny, it was bursting with energy (much of it sexual). Here, for example, is an unforgettable adulterous grope in a laundry room:

“Janet’s chest and hips, pillows sodden with grief, pressed him against the enameled edge of the dryer; he was trapped at the confluence of cold tears and hot breath. He kissed her gaping mouth, the rutted powder of her cheeks, the shying trembling bulges of her shut eyes. Her body his height, they dragged each other down, into a heap of unwashed clothes, fluffy ends of shirtsleeves and pajama pants, the hard floor underneath them like a dank bone. Sobbing, she pulled up her sweater and orange-striped jersey and, in a moment of angry straining, uncoupled her bra, so her blue-white breasts came tumbling of their own loose weight, too big to hold, tumbled like laundry from the uplifted basket of herself, nipples buttons, veins seaweed green. He went under. Her cold nails contemplated the tensed sides of his sucking mouth, and sometimes a finger curiously searched out his tongue. Harold opened his eyes to see that the great window giving on the lawn was solidly golden; no child’s watching shadow cleft it …. His face was half-pillowed in dirty clothes smelling mildly of his family, of Jonathan and Julia and Henrietta and Marcia. He was lying on ghosts that had innocently sweated. Janet’s touch fumbled at his fly and he found the insect teeth of the zipper snug along her side. Tszzc: he tugged and the small neat startled sound awoke them. ‘No,’ she said. ‘We can’t. Not here.’”

Couples was by no means a perfect novel (overeager, somehow, and overstuffed, it was too blatantly seductive an entertainment), but it has weathered well in the 36 years since it first appeared, when the shock and delight of its luscious prurience landed the author on the cover of Time.

If Couples was too thick, Villages is too thin. It gives us, in its 300-odd pages, a life-and-times of Owen Mackenzie, an amiable solipsist who has migrated, over the course of the last seven decades, from a Pennsylvania village not unlike Shillington, where Mr. Updike was born, to Haskells Crossing, a seaside village in Massachusetts not unlike the seaside village north of Boston where Mr. Updike now lives. Though he leaves behind Pennsylvania for M.I.T., not Harvard, and becomes a successful computer-industry entrepreneur, not a celebrated novelist, the rough outline of Owen’s life story matches Mr. Updike’s.

Owen progresses from village to village and from woman to woman. “Two kinds of women existed in the world, Owen perceived: those with whom you have slept and those, a cruelly disproportionate but reducible number, with whom you haven’t.”

The litany of his loves begins at the playground in Willow, Penn., where little Owen admires Ginger Batting, who “would hang upside down from the jungle gym, hanging on with only her bent legs while her arms, thin and freckled and with a whitish fuzz, reached down towards the dust, and her long hair, clay-red and fine like the dust, hung down between her arms.” (Yes, John Updike still likes to spin out gorgeous sentences.)

Then there are girlfriends in high school (“she had dear little nipples like rabbit noses”), and in college he finds himself a wife, Phyllis (who exudes, like Owen’s mother, “a little scent of dissatisfaction”). Next come the affairs: Faye, Alissa, Vanessa (“Seduced and seducing, Owen now bore upon him the scent of love”). And the casual flings: Karen, Jacqueline, Antoinette, Mirabella (“Back … in the ’seventies, the devious path to illicit sex had grown shorter; the skids were greased”).

Oh—and Owen and Phyllis have four children, but they hardly figure in the story.

A second wife, Julia, somehow—and somewhat incredibly—puts an end to the hanky-panky: Though he still lusts in his heart, Owen’s adulterous days are over. We meet Julia fleetingly when she’s 40, and then again when she’s 65, but the intervening 25 years are glossed over, so we never learn the secret: How did she succeed in keeping her formerly philandering husband on so short a leash? To me, she seems like a narrow, crabby woman who gives Owen a tough time. Mr. Updike plays it for laughs, but the ending is still bittersweet: Owen thought he was living a “charmed life,” but when he looks back from the vantage of Haskells Crossing (a pinnacle of “bourgeois repose”), he’s disappointed to discover “a long torment of fear, desire, ambition, and guilt.”

The real sadness is Owen’s unshakable egotism. An only child cosseted by his mother, he grows up “helplessly self-centered”—or rather never grows up, period. At every age, in each of his villages, it’s always all about Owen: “Late in the preceding year, President Kennedy had been shot and Phyllis had produced a fourth child … both events left Owen a little shaky, feeling his mortality.” When domestic tragedy strikes (as it’s the only surprise in the novel, I won’t spoil it), it turns out to be Owen’s good luck.

Villages feels thin because everything in the novel is “vectored back to the ego”—Owen swallows the world.

Women, villages and an entire nation dedicated to the principle of consumer satisfaction conspire to protect the bubble of his self-love. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It’s merely the case. (I lean on Wittgenstein because Owen, alarmingly, at one point does so too.) Mr. Updike comes closest to pinning a moral on the story with this equivocal pronouncement: “[L]ife itself is incomplete, a hasty approximation. It is a rough rehearsal, not a finished production.” Perhaps we’ll drop the solipsism on opening night.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.