Facility in art, or the appearance of facility, is nearly always suspect. Trollope lost many readers when he disclosed in an autobiography how easily he wrote his novels. Jack Yeats had to conceal from his clients and critics the speed with which he could dash off a painting. Even Vladimir Nabokov forfeited something of his reputation for literary fastidiousness when in the afterglow of the lavish success of Lolita a series of reissues and new translations of his earlier, Russian, novels—one a year for years, so it seemed—revealed a level of pre-Lolita diligence and productivity that Humbert Humbert would probably have disdained. For some, the ideal is Joyce—ten years on Ulysses, seventeen on Finnegans Wake—or the great but costive Philip Larkin, who in a long poetic career published only four slim volumes of verse.
John Updike may be weary of hearing the size of his literary oeuvre remarked upon, yet he lists in full at the front of every one of his books the immense roll call of its predecessors: twenty novels; seven volumes of poetry, including a Collected Poems; fifteen volumes of short stories, the most recent a loaf-sized collection, The Early Stories, running only to 1975, with a lot more to come; seven substantial volumes of essays and criticism; a play; a memoir; and, lest he should be thought to have neglected any of the literary forms, five books for children. It is true that he has been writing for a long time—he began early, and is seventy-two this year—but all the same, this is a prodigious body of work.
It is hard to know how Updike sees himself as an artist; hard to know, indeed, if he does see himself as an artist, or rather as a sort of literary super-chronicler of his times. The Rabbit series of novels, one for each decade from 1960 to 1990, will be read in afteryears as among the most comprehensive and revealing records of the mores and morals of the second half of the twentieth century—the American twentieth century, that is; Couples is a telling portrait of WASP culture in the 1960s, in all its political conservatism and sexual transgressiveness; A Month of Sundays (1975) and the steely and superb Roger’s Version (1986) explore America’s abiding commitment to the twin faiths of Christianity and technological progress; while practically every piece of fiction he has written, certainly from Couples onward, can be read as an enraptured meditation on sex, mostly clandestine, and on what to him is the mystery of womanhood. As he exclaims in his new novel, Villages—and surely it is Updike himself who is the exclaimant, not his fictional narrator—“How little men deserve the beauty and mercy of women!”
He has declared himself a troubadour in the melancholy poetics of adultery, and certainly marital infidelity has never been celebrated with such sad, piercing beauty as it is in Couples, the book which in 1968 brought him a scandalous notoriety and a large mess of money but which has survived as a key document of the Sixties and one of that low decade’s most exquisite literary achievements, a stylistically bravura performance by a writer working at the top of his talent. Villages, his twenty-first novel, as the jacket blurb boasts, is something of a reprise of Couples, and could have been titled Return to Tarbox, Tarbox being the suggestively and, some might say, deplorably named New England village which is the scene of the earlier novel’s round dance of adulterous couplings.
That jacket blurb, which sounds suspiciously authorial, informs us that the book is a Bildungsroman that follows its hero, the one-time programmer and now computer millionaire Owen Mackenzie, from his birth in the town—not village—of Willow, Pennsylvania, through married life and business success in Middle Falls, Connecticut, to his retirement in the “rather geriatric” community of Haskells Crossing, Massachusetts. “Owen’s education (Bildung) is not merely technical but liberal, as the humanity of his three villages, especially that of their female citizens, works to disengage him from his youthful innocence,” the blurb writer tells us. Those citizens, more often recumbent than upstanding, certainly do work hard on Owen’s Bildung. First there is his austere and intellectually daunting wife Phyllis, “the beautiful math major,” and later Julia, the woman he steals from Middle Falls’s Episcopalian minister, the oddly and even improbably complaisant “Reverend Mister Arthur Larson.” The process by which Owen pries Reverend Larson’s wife away from him is not described, which is as regrettable as it is surprising, for surely Updike could have wrung some wonderful, bittersweet pages from this nexus of adultery and religion.
Although Owen is allowed to wonder if perhaps his veneration for the eternal female might spring from “a childish overestimation of the distance between women and men,” there is never a doubt expressed about the preciousness of sex, especially the stolen kind:
A piece of village wisdom he was slow to grasp is that sex is a holiday, an activity remarkably brief in our body’s budget compared with sleeping or food-gathering or constructing battlements for self-defense, such as the Great Wall of China. The unfaithful man and woman meet for a plain purpose, dangerous and scandalous, with the blood pressure up and the pupils enlarged and the love-flush already reddening the skin: is there not a praiseworthy economy in this, as opposed to sex spread thin through the interminable mutual exposure of marriage?
From the outset, sex rears up in Owen’s life in the same awkward way that the Great Wall of China erects itself suddenly out of the largely featureless plain of the above passage. What for most boys, and most narrators of boys’ own stories, is merely trouble with girls—getting them, getting around them—is for young Owen an almost sacred quest into the throbbing heart of the great mystery, life’s magnum miraculum. As a student starting at high school he is drawn as if by a spell to the windows of the girls’ locker room, which
gathered such a thick patina of rumored glimpse and determined spying that Owen emerged into adult life with a memory, as luminous as an Ingres seraglio [a reproduction of Ingres’s The Turkish Bath adorns the book’s cover], of naked girls seen at an angle, past foregrounded asbestos-coated pipes and the dusty green tops of metal lockers—girls with shining shoulders and shower-wet flanks, Barbara Emerich and Alice Stottlemeyer and Babs Dolinski and Grace Bickta…, girls he had grown up with, moving slowly in their budding nudity, oblivious, as if underwater.
Besides girls, Owen’s other engrossing interest is the newly emerging technology of computer data processing. In the army after the Korean War he finds himself
enjoying the company of the rapidly obsolescing giant computers devoted, with their skimpy memories and miles of telephone-circuitry wiring, to the calculation of missile trajectories and, linked up with radar, the primitive beginnings of air-traffic control.
This playful work leads smoothly into a job with IBM, helping to set up “what came to be called SABRE, the nationwide computerized reservation system being developed with American Airlines.” From IBM Owen ventures, not without misgivings—“Don’t think like your father and stick to the safe thing,” his impatient wife Phyllis urges—into a partnership with a colleague, Ed Mervine, to set up a contract programming firm, E-O Data, housed in a former gun-making factory in Middle Falls, a village on the Chunkaunkabaug River in the “Connecticut sticks.”
One has the impression that when Updike is not writing, he is reading. He seems to take a small boy’s delight in mugging up on technology and technological terms. The pages describing Owen’s computer work bristle with acronyms—SABRE, FORTRAN, COBOL, SAGE, CRT—and are stocked with a plethora of mind-numbing facts and figures: SABRE, we are informed,
involved a million lines of program code, two hundred technicians, ten thousand miles of leased telecommunication lines, and a thousand agents using desktop terminals connected to two IBM 7090 mainframes….
Gee whiz! And this is still only the early days of computers, with the dizzy world of PCs still decades off. However, for all the author’s diligence in filling in the background, this aspect of the book does not quite convince. Somehow, Owen is too dreamy, too unfocused, to be believable as a technological wizard and canny businessman; Updike seems to sense this, and gives him as his main invention a vaguely arty piece of software called DigitEyes, “a method of drawing with a light pen on a computer screen.”
When the book opens—the first chapter is titled “Dream On, Dear Owen”—our hero is living in comfortable and uxorious retirement with his second wife, Julia, in Haskells Crossing, Massachusetts. The couple are still in love, if somewhat tetchily so, but are aware of “another presence in the house, their approaching deaths.” The early pages are a wonderfully warm but always acutely observed depiction of domestic life on the threshold of old age and dissolution, as Owen and Julia wake to another New England morning. Owen is as helplessly in thrall to the ewig Weibliche as ever he was in his youthful prime, and dotes on his beloved mate:
her being five years younger has always been for him a source of pride and sexual stimulus, like the sight of her toes at the front of her blue flip-flops. He also likes to see, below her bathrobe, her pink heels as they retreat, the vertical strokes of her Achilles tendons alternating, one quick firm step after the other, her feet splayed outward in the female way.
Owen, in the male way, considers his aging self with regretful, wry amusement. His face in the shaving mirror—“too much nose, not enough chin”—presents an unavoidable testament: “Lately, creases drag at the corners of his mouth, and the eyelids are wrinkled like a desert reptile’s, so that their folds snag and weigh on his lashes in the morning.” Updike has a marvelous gift for communicating the feel of each of the ages of man, from boyhood to, in recent books, the very edge of senescence. As Owen potters through his matutinal rituals we are allowed to see, as through a receding series of windows, each one more brightly illumined than its predecessor, the stages of his life all the way back to childhood in “a village idyllically becalmed by hard times, in a nation steadfastly abjuring the quick fixes of fascism and communism.” Updike is unusual among novelists today in being both unfashionably patriotic and unapologetically religious. His portrait here of middle America in the 1940s and 1950s is loving yet unclouded by sentimentality. As always, he is superb at describing sex, especially in its first clumsy but ecstatic phases:
As their embrace gained ardor and flexibility her crotch came into his hand as if rising to it. She lifted her hips on the car seat so he could slide her shorts down; through his clumsiness her white underpants came off with them and Elsie did not try to grab them back. She seemed to stretch, elongating her belly. Even in this darkness he saw wet gleams upon her eyeballs like faraway fireflies and the pallor of her long belly descending to a small soft shadow.
The Elsie here is Elsie Seidel, his high school girlfriend, the daughter of a country feed-and-hardware merchant. Although she is eager and generous, Elsie will not permit Owen to “go all the way,” and in fact Owen himself does not expect or even want such license. It is one of the subtleties of the book that Owen, who “even for the innocent ‘fifties…was an innocent,” and even as a computer millionaire remains at heart something of a Pennsylvania hayseed, in his life wins the favors of more women than most men get to shake hands with. Oddly, though, the woman who lies, or stands, rather, at the center of the book, his first wife, Phyllis Goodhue, is the one who is the least vividly realized, although her haughty remoteness may be an intentional effect on the author’s part.
Owen meets her when they are both students at MIT, and we are given to understand that of the two of them she possesses the finer intellect, although in the way of things in those days it is she who forfeits a potentially brilliant career in mathematics for the sake of her husband and children. Yet Owen remains faintly in awe of her, and when, years later, after the break-up of their marriage and on the edge of what is likely to be a messy and painful divorce, she is conveniently killed in a car crash, Owen, who “led, he was early convinced, a life charmed from above,” thinks with blasphemous complacency that “God killed Phyllis, as a favor to him….”
Phyllis is one in a long line of wronged wives in Updike’s fiction. After his initial youthful falterings Owen takes enthusiastic advantage of the new permissiveness of the 1960s and is soon a busy serial adulterer. In Villages every other chapter, six of them in all, are devoted to “Village Sex,” of which there is plenty—perhaps, indeed, an overabundance. The dazed reader, and even the diligent reviewer, will lose track of Owen’s conquests—although conquest is not quite the word, since for the most part it is he who is the conquered one, albeit willingly so. We see him repeatedly being approached at parties, over dinner, even in the street, by cheerfully predatory wives who seem, the very many of them, to find him irresistible. Although Villages lacks the fresh-minted sense of wonderment and delight at what in Couples was suddenly, lavishly available in the Sixties to men and women who had grown up in the inexpectant Fifties—this is lust recollected in tranquillity, after all—still Updike conjures something of the old magic out of his descriptions of Owen’s fevered concumbences with all these Fayes and Karens and Vanessas and Antoinettes, these “shining moon-creatures” before whom this poor earthbound hero may only kneel in helpless homage.
Like all Updike’s men, even the sinister Roger of Roger’s Version, Owen Mackenzie has an ineradicable streak of childishness at his core. It is not exactly the maternal care of these village women that he seeks, yet an important part of their attraction for him is the very fact of their being so firmly situated in their lives as mothers, wives, domestic goddesses. Critics have remarked that Updike the novelist’s well-nigh obsessive fascination with women seems almost to indicate the desire to be a woman himself; not to be a transsexual, that is, for not one of his male characters would give up his maleness for all the sex in America, but to be able to know, from within, if only for a single glorious moment, the intimate secrets of female being.
There are passages in all his fiction in which his interest in womanhood verges on the gynecological. Owen on his wedding night with Phyllis “knelt between her legs and combed her luxuriant pussy, now his, as if preparing a fleecy lamb for sacrifice”; at such moments Updike sounds as creepy as his sometime literary stalker, Nicholson Baker, and few will be the readers who will not sympathize with Phyllis when “she irritably took the comb from his hand and tossed it away from the bed.”
Yet Updike would be right if he claimed to have cornered the market in the matter of adultery and its sad subterfuges. He is particularly a master in setting the scenery for his lovers to meet and mingle in. The reader can almost smell the musky interiors of those big automobiles parked under trees in the soft New England night and wallowing rhythmically on their squashy suspension; can almost hear the lazy sounds of afternoon coming in around the drawn shades of those bedrooms where the absent husband’s smell clings to the sheets and the errant wife puts a hand over her own mouth to stifle her climactic cries. He has a wonderful skill too for depicting the social gatherings, the dinner parties, the church fund drives, the afternoon ball games, where the air itself crackles with adulterous possibility, and big friendly slow-smiling husbands and even watchful wives fail to see what is happening under their very noses. In Villages there is a wickedly accurate description of a Sunday-night marijuana get-together:
This was bliss: the slick texture of teak under his fingertips; the black and red and clay and cactus-green Navajo zigzags of thick wool under his eyes; the very grain of wood in the broad bleached floorboards, testifying to cycles of growth within a distant spruce forest; the clean white plane of the ceiling meeting the white-painted bricks of the Mervines’ exposed chimney; the horsey scent of Stacey’s damp hair, not far from where he was sitting; the soft, pecking sounds of adult conversation; the very feel of his awareness along the length of his body, as if consciousness were a silken robe tapping his skin wherever he chose to direct his attention….
Despite the characteristic tactile immediacy of such passages, overall the old Updike opulence has diminished with the years. In the early 1990s, and in particular in Rabbit at Rest, he developed a new, slightly rougher style, which might be called lyrical demotic, a keen and pliant instrument with which to shape a portrait of the new, post–cold war America of lax politics and corporate greed, of overconsumption and cheap Japanese cars, of foreign wars and domestic anomie. But fiction flirts at its peril with the busy doings of public life, and here and there in Villages there is detectable a new portentousness—“The world tends to give us what we want, but what we receive will partake of the world’s imperfection”—which makes a hollow ring within the luscious intimacy of a prose style which at its best is unmatched by any of Updike’s peers. Yet if Villages—which, by intention, has no climactic revelations to make, and might be called The Sentimental Education of Owen Mackenzie—falls somewhat short of Updike’s best work, it is still, page for page, voluptuously pleas- urable to read. Here is Owen, the troubled but enraptured adulterer, in bed with his wife and thinking of his lover:
When he lay down beside Phyllis to sleep, his head churned with bits of this other woman—the inner curves of the two shy, shallow breasts that a certain low-cut dress revealed; the glazed bold stare of her muddy-green irises when she’d had one drink too many; the nervous dampness of her hand when it touched his; the look her face acquired when excited and amused, of being all eyes and mouth, and then the wry crimp of the lips, clipping shut a smile.
Facility? No one else I know of, simply no one, writes this well.
December 16, 2004