Johnny One-Note

Long ago, in the days of Athena, not Viagra, literary legend has it that Sophocles was approached in his crepuscular years by a taunting young man, who asked the famous playwright how it felt to be too old to have sex. “You want to know the truth?” Sophocles replied (this is a loose translation). “It’s a relief.”

Not for John Updike it isn’t. Not Updike the novelist, anyway. Now in his early seventies, Updike writes about sex as avidly and microscopically as he did when he was in his early twenties. But the younger Updike lustrously evoked mortal coils coiling as though he were an awe-filled acolyte administering the mysteries at Mass. In Villages, Updike’s 21st novel, mystery often devolves into professional turf. That’s what happens when a transcendent obsession threatens to become a patented field of operations.

Not that there aren’t moments of poetic transcendence in this story (a bildungsroman, as its publisher bravely calls it), which describes the life of moderately wealthy software pioneer Owen Mackenzie as it unfolds from his small-town childhood through student days at MIT, marriage, children, divorce, second marriage, and retirement, each stage of life spent in a different “village,” from Pennsylvania to eastern Massachusetts. Updike is as ever a beautiful and intuitive writer, and Villages glitters with superfine phrases and perceptions, like the author’s description of “that lost purity, that flat enumerative wonder, of childhood illness.”

But you also stumble across these monstrosities: “The grip of her vagina had something infantile about it, something heartbreaking, like a child’s shy, hopeful question.” Villages is about the necessity of accepting the tragicomic fact of another person’s unique reality, about the importance of coming to understand, as the young Owen ruefully supposes, that “each person probably thought of herself … as the center of the universe, just as Owen did.” Like so many of Updike’s men, he believes that he is leading a charmed, sympathetic life when he is blindly living a selfish and degraded one; he is an empty “O,” as his best friend nicknames him. Yet Updike never completes the ironic premise; he never separates Owen the narcissistic character from Owen the novel’s central consciousness. Naturally you wonder whether such repelled and repellent passages about sex are the result of Owen’s walled-off ego, or the author’s.

Instead of working Owen more completely into the novel, Updike gives us one badly rendered fornication after another. A bildungsroman is a novel of education, and Owen’s education consists of learning from a “string of instructresses” lessons about life. But these lessons are only about sex, and the women who dispense them are mostly adulterous flings conducted during Owen’s first marriage. Because carnal life has always been for Updike—as Spinoza said about money—“an abstract of everything,” he seems to think it sufficient, in this novel anyway, to couch life’s complexity exclusively in sexual terms.

Like all of Updike’s fiction, Villages is haunted by God’s absence, and also by the world’s sensuous hints of divine presence. But it is also haunted by much greater achievements like The Centaur, and Couples, and Roger’s Version, and the Rabbit quartet, and those glorious, immortal short stories. Unfair as such comparisons might be, in Updike’s amazingly prolific case you can’t help making them. With its suburban “types,” and its glib connections between science and soul—Owen’s life “curves” in an arc from childhood to old age, his women have “curves,” experience “curves” into memory through the space-time continuum—Villages is a disjointed caricature of the earlier work. The most obtrusive loose end is Owen’s second wife, Julia, whom we barely see. We get no sense of why Owen leaves Phyllis and his four children for her, other than that he’s helplessly enacting an Updikean trope: Julia—his minister’s ex—is a harridan who orders him around like a deity in a godless world. And though by the time he meets her, we’ve read countless descriptions of Owen’s humping and pumping his way through America, we never see him even pecking Julia on the cheek. Their sex is either too good to be described, or their relationship too unfathomably deep for sex.

Or they are the product of their creator’s indifference. Longevity has tenured Updike; nowadays he seems to compose with editorial impunity. In the novel’s hurried, slapdash final pages, Owen is compared to America, and America is “haunted” by the ghost of “President Reagan … this handsome snake-oil salesman.” The entire country becomes a “national village” shrouded in denial, in the way that Owen’s nurturing, protective villages also nurtured and protected his lies and betrayals. The Big Themes descend suddenly, out of nowhere, as if both to meet Swedish requirements for Major Statements, and to cover up the novel’s essential purposelessness. Tolstoy late in his life compressed his creativity into small, potent parables. How one wishes that Updike, this great American writer, would attempt a similar sublimation. It would be, as Sophocles might have said, a relief.

Johnny One-Note