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Book Recommendations

John Updike in 2004: New Novel Seethes With Sex [by David Lehman]

John Updikee

2004‑11‑01 00:06 (New York)

Books: Updike's Novel Seethes With Sex; Philosophy Made Simple

     (Review. David Lehman is a critic for Bloomberg News. The
opinions expressed are his own.)

By David Lehman.

     Nov. 1 (Bloomberg) ‑‑ No one is better than John Updike at capturing the bedroom habits and customs of solid, middle‑class Americans ‑‑ especially the generation that came of age in the tranquil 1950s, experimented in the liberated 1960s, and changed partners in the narcissistic 1970s.

     Updike always gives you your money's worth of fine prose at the service of amorous complexity and erotic intensity, and ``Villages,'' his new novel, doesn't disappoint. Our hero is a randy computer programmer named Owen Mackenzie, a pioneer in the field, who meets his first wife, Phyllis, at MIT. So far, so unlike Updike himself ‑‑ who went to Harvard and needed tutoring to work up the parts of the novel dealing with software and IBM, where Owen gets his first job.

     Yet in all the critical ways, Mackenzie seems the author's alter ego: college in Cambridge, first job in New York City (at ``The New Yorker'' in Updike's case), then going independent in a little town in Massachusetts. In ``Villages,'' the town has the generic name of Middle Falls and is the site of Owen's lifelong education in conjugal pairings, female sexuality, heterosexual relationships ‑‑ all the things Updike writes about supremely well.

                           Village Sex

     Two other villages figure in the story. The deep past takes place in Willow, Pennsylvania, where Owen grows up and has his first dose of carnal knowledge. The present‑tense portion of the book is centered in Haskells Crossing, Massachusetts, where Owen and wife number two, Julia, have gone to grow old together.

     How Owen moves from Phyllis to Julia, with what consequences and what grief, is the heart of the narrative. The decisive events in Owen's life are his marriage to Phyllis and his departure from the IBM cocoon to set up shop with Ed, his partner from the Bronx. His marriage and his business make it possible for him to live life to the fullest. The question Updike doesn't ask but hopes that we will is whether Owen must sacrifice these relationships, as if the pursuit of happiness required no less.

     I won't give away the novel's turning point except to say that ever since Scott Fitzgerald in ``The Great Gatsby'' and Vladimir Nabokov in ``Lolita,'' a car crash has always been an expedient way to eliminate a character whose time has come.

        Updike's Women

     Updike on the subject of women is a bit like a brainier Henry Miller with a subtler sort of misogyny. The story of Owen's marriages, affairs and one‑night stands resembles an unabated love song spiced by surprising details and speculations. Having sex with the self‑involved Alissa, for example, Owen ``felt like a translator who had to be present so that Alissa could communicate with herself.''

     The novel's true climax occurs in the space between two exclamations in Owen's mind as he watches Julia in her sleep. ``How lovely she is, naked in the dark! How little men deserve the beauty and mercy of women!''

     It's not the story but the fineness of perception and thought that carries you through ``Villages.'' Updike takes us from the era of repression through the era of the pill and of plentiful ``safe sex'' ‑‑ incredible in retrospect.

     There are wonderful nuggets of insight throughout. Owen, the affluent husband who, inside, is still a poor child of the Great Depression, can never feel fully at ease among the affluent.

                            No Socks

     Updike tells us in a wicked sentence that ``Owen especially admires two peculiar traits of the male rich: their ability to grow more and more polite as the object of their courtesy becomes more and more annoying, and the ability to wear shoes, not just moccasins but loafers of fine leather, without socks.''

     Though there are a couple of false notes, these don't get in the way. A yammering character who won't shut up even during the sex act seems a lift from Faye Dunaway's performance in the 1976 movie ``Network.''  And when Owen's business partner orders a cappuccino in a New England restaurant in the 1960s, you wonder whether Updike forgot how unusual a menu item espresso coffee wasuntil the 1990s.

     ``Villages'' gives us a man's life depicted as a series of infidelities and revelations. Look at the work ``prioritized'' does in this sentence about a computer geek's conception of sex: ``Copulation ... is so powerful and highly prioritized an event that we take pleasure not only in our own but in that of others, even of a daughter or wife as she draws away from us into the sexual seethe.''

     Agree or disagree, you have to admit this is provocative stuff. ``Villages'' may not have the sheer dazzling brilliance of Updike's ``Rabbit'' novels or ``Bech'' stories. But minor Updike is still a major treat.

       John Updike's ``Villages'' is published by Knopf (321 pages, $25).  

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"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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