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 who are simultaneously asleep and awake, eyes shut and yet conscious, introduce this theme. It is his first wife’s ‘air of absence’ that initially turns Owen on. Later she laughs with other housewives at their absent-minded husbands or talks about Owen as if he were not in the room so that he feels like ‘Exhibit A’. Owen’s children occasionally ‘materialized to him through his mists of being mentally elsewhere’ during the period of his first affair, and when subsequently trying to rededicate himself to his four offspring, he is guiltily aware that although he gives them all the time and treats they need, he is not living through them as his parents had once lived through him. Even the sex to which he escapes with a succession of lovers is not an experience during which Owen can be fully present; it is described as ‘being lowered like a bucket into the black well of biology while knowing that the rope was still attached…’
It is difficult to know how many of the emotional voids in the novel are intentional. To give Updike the benefit of the doubt, Villages can be read as a candid portrait of a self-centred yet fundamentally naïve male predator. It is also a portrait of the type of marriage in which two individuals support one male ego – ‘two single beds yoked together to make a king-size’. The effect when something breaks through Owen’s narration can be powerful: for example, the serenely sarcastic reply of his wife, a brilliant mathematician before she married, when he blithely suggests that she might want to go back and take a refresher course. But overall such glimpses into ‘the realm of irrevocable real harm’ are rare. The chapter about the couple’s divorce is called ‘You Don’t Want to Know’ and, with the exception of one harrowing scene in which we finally hear his wife speak at some length, the painful core of Owen’s story is elided.
Throughout the Vietnam War, Owen’s attention is AWOL in the land of libido; and, with similar evasion, Updike uses brief lists of political events only to signpost chronology throughout the book, nothing more. Only two revolutions in Owen’s lifetime are traced: the sexual revolution and, because Owen is supposedly a software programmer, the computer revolution. There are long acronym-laced passages of technological history that alternate weirdly with the sex scenes. In both, the excitement of initial exploration becomes dulled by unlimited expansion; the revolutionary gradually becomes obsolete. Owen, unfortunately, is not a very convincing computer geek, probably a result of spending too much time with that literary-author alter ego of his. The sex is better.
In his essay on ‘Fictional Houses’, Updike confessed his childhood love of mapping the villages in whodunit novels, and also described his interest in settings as expressions of character. Despite its title, however, this novel has a remarkably thin sense of place. It could, in fact, have been set in a city, since many of us could as easily pull Updike’s definition of a village community – that is, an accumulated web of former relationships – out of a city. It is only perhaps the restorative conformity of village life that does not translate: for Updike, sex is dislocating and ‘the village’ is that force which heals what is dislocated. While the author finds a soothing sanity in this process, the reader might consider Owen’s last vacant decades among the golfers of Haskells Crossing to be a terrible kind of poetic justice.