In presenting a retrospective of one man’s life from his current old age back to his naïve youth in the 1940s, John Updike is trying to say important things about America and about humanity, that ‘wise village’. Unfortunately he doesn’t say them very well.
The novel begins in the 1940s when Owen Mackenzie is a child and life progresses calmly in Willow, the first of a series of villages which form the backdrop of the narrative. It is a time when family quarrels on hot summer evenings might result in shouts and door-slamming, but divorce remains unthinkable outside of New York or Hollywood. It is a naïve time and Owen is a naïve child, but there are portents. The country is at war because ‘the world was full of destruction and evil, and only the United States, it seemed, could put it right.’ Against this background Owen, a timid boy, has a typical small-town childhood, complete with stereotypically fluffed first sexual encounter, and eventually meets up with his future wife, Phyllis, at MIT.
The novel progresses into the sixties, and the times begin to change. Away from the small villages (such as Middle Falls) and enclosed communities (MIT) that Phyllis and Owen inhabit, there is a counterculture emerging which they, straight-laced and provincial, appear to be on the edge of, on the outside, looking in. Still, one feels there is a connection. Describing the person-type to which she thinks she belongs, Phyllis suggests they are ‘accepting. They’re non-disruptive. They don’t hurt anybody’. People, that is, rather like those innocents from the early days of flower-power who revelled in their freedom, who spoke honestly, who used words like ‘fucking’ without embarrassment.
Gradually, then, the counterculture and its new order pervades the world of Phyllis and Owen. Stacey, the wife of Owen’s business partner, introduces them to the delights of pot. Within ten pages, and apropos nothing at all, she then introduces Owen’s cock to her mouth and despite Owen declining this unexpected gift, he undergoes a kind of epiphany:
Polymorphous life beckoned. The dark gods were in fashion. Everyone was sinning, including the government. He resolved in his heart to become a seducer. He would never treat his poor prick that cruel way again.
Epiphany is not too strong a word because, in Updike’s world, sex becomes transcendent, it is part of the stuff of life, it is something to be pursued and relished and nurtured, to the exclusion of feeling or empathy or natural emotion. It is a ‘programmed delirium that rolls back death with death’s own substance; it is the black space between the stars given sweet substance in our veins and crevices.’ There is ‘no mystery’ about it: sex is what we are programmed to do. And Owen, once he develops his taste for it, cannot refuse it. He becomes a serial adulterer and the novel descends into a catalogue of his lovers (Faye, Alissa, Vanessa, Jacqueline, Antoinette, Mirabella, Karen and Julia) and their pecadilloes (oral, anal, you name it, only three-in-a-bed eludes him).
In all of this, Updike is seeking to say something about the nature of the modern world and the way America has progressed from the sixties onwards. This would be fine. Updike has always, from The Poorhouse Fair onwards, sought to understand the global through the personal, to see life through the prism of individual experience. And so we see the idealism of the sixties gradually hardening. ‘Everyone’s becoming strident,’ Owen says at one point. 1969 is summed up thus:
The last summer of the ‘sixties brought more news than comfort: Nixon and Kissinger trying to bomb their way to an acceptable surrender in Vietnam, Ted Kennedy drowning a starry-eyed young campaign worker at Chappaquiddick, the first man on the moon looking like a Puppetoon. Judy Garland dead, Bishop Pike gone missing, a pregnant Sharon Tate stabbed to death in Los Angeles, everywhere in the United States defiance and hatred of the government.
So far so good. But the next sentence following this description reads: ‘But in Owen’s vicinity the news was Alissa Morrisey’s pregnancy.’ And herein lies both the underlying theme and the overriding fault of this novel. The world progresses, Updike is telling us, and it carries us all with it, but only to the extent that we poor mortals can do nothing to stall the march of time. Through it all, what really concerns us is sex and ourselves and the ceaseless conjunction of cocks and cunts. The world is becoming a nastier place: America ‘wind[s] up dropping napalm on a lot of Indochinese peasants and children’. The young are rebelling in order to ‘break the shell of everybody’s stupidity’. Smoking pot leads to snorting cocaine. The rise of technology means that ‘everything that made us human is going by the boards’. But for Owen – and, by extension, Updike and everyman – all of this is relegated beneath the need to fuck.
This could be significant. It could be an indictment of our narcissistic society, the way we have come to fetishise our own need for gratification. And yet I’m not clear that this is actually Updike’s message. On the contrary, the ending of the novel is a piece of typical optimistic Updikean humanism:
Such a surface order makes possible human combinations and moments of tender regard. It is a mad thing, to be alive. Villages exist to moderate this madness – to hide it from children, to bottle it for private use, to smooth its imperatives into habits, to protect us from the darkness without and the darkness within.
As ever, there are no easy answers with Updike, and it is not easy to see exactly what message he is trying to relay in this novel. There is much in Owen’s worldview that is repellent and yet there is also an inevitability about it. And Updike’s view of ‘villages’, those communities we establish to accommodate our human family, is ultimately a thing of beauty, possessing a wisdom and a moderating force that permits something as alluring as ‘tender regard’. This has been the stuff of Updike’s fiction for forty years: humanity in all its fallible foibles. It should, then, offer us insight. But does it?
This is where we return to that overriding weakness in the novel. The focus on sex is unrelenting and unedifying. It is – and this is something that should not be said of Updike’s work – shallow. His usual ability to define the universal through the individual appears to have deserted him on this occasion. Instead, we have a series of sexual interludes with reflections on society grafted on. Take this passage, for example:
Until Vietnam ended and Nixon resigned, the ‘seventies were an extension of the ‘sixties, of the rebellious fever inflicted by irritation from above. But the new decade was more shopworn and hard-eyed. Female bodies were hardening, as exercise and diet became a mode of feminist assertion. Drugs and promiscuity had catered to spiritual health; now physical condition’s turn had come. Owen could not help admiring, as he kneeled on the San Jose hotel’s shag carpet to pull down Jacqueline’s pantyhose, the flat tendony knit behind her knee, the calf-bulge modulating upward into the biceps femoris and the gluteus maximus, so firm to his touch; he had to pause to kiss the dear adductor longus on the inside of her thigh, and she, halfway out of her pantyhose, had to cluth the hair on his head to steady herself.
It’s a kind of bathos, the ludicrous shift in the space of five sentences from Vietnam and Nixon to Jacqueline’s firm gluteus maximus. Updike is trying to tell us about humanity but cannot in the end raise his gaze from a nice piece of ass. It is hard to recognise from this froth the man who, in 1959, debated destiny and mortality with a range of beautifully drawn characters in The Poorhouse Fair, each with their own sets of beliefs, each prepared to listen and accommodate and change. In the intervening years Updike has returned again and again to his familiar themes of loneliness and fear and the lure of the past but, increasingly, his powerful vision has been watered down by his obsession with sex. In Villages that obsession reaches its nadir. It is interposed between the writer’s vision and the reader’s understanding. Updike has tried to use sex to shine a light on human nature. Instead, he has merely obscured it further.