For a twenty-first novel – and one that includes yet more variations on John Updike’s favourite themes – Villages is not a lazy book. If someone who had never read Updike were picking it up, one might suggest they try Couples (1968) instead; however, if this same Updike virgin were to go ahead without such advice, they would not actually find any of the staleness or sloppiness in Villages that backlist-burdened critics assume to be there. Updike’s work may be at a near standstill relative to, say, that of Philip Roth, but taken in isolation, page by enjoyable page, his writing is as strong as ever.
Three villages feature in the life of the hero, Owen Mackenzie: Haskells Crossing, Massachusetts (his point of embarkation for the afterlife); Middle Falls, Connecticut (the scene of his moral descent through his middle years); and Willow, Pennsylvania (his birthplace, and ‘a child’s virtual eternity’). Events in the latter two, and especially the second, become masturbatory fodder for a life now barely lived in the first. Seventy-year-old Owen remembers his sexual history from start to near-finish, and through him Updike writes an elegy for an adulterous age.
This is, above all, a story of chronic absenteeism. People