Review

Villages

by John Updike



Owen Mackenzie, the protagonist of John Updike's latest novel,
VILLAGES, is yet another in a long line of virile American men
whose author --- whether Updike, Norman Mailer, or even Philip Roth
--- defines him as the sum of his sexual experience and identifies
with him so strongly that the character's masculinity reflects upon
the author himself. This type of self-aggrandizing authorial
projection seems mostly to have gone out of style as authors have
either turned toward weightier matters (Roth) or simply grown very
old (Mailer), but Updike still clings to this vicarious virility.
As a result, VILLAGES, despite its contemporary setting and
retrospective view of the twentieth century, feels woefully dated,
a relic of the author's long-past heyday.

So, reading VILLAGES, we almost immediately lower our expectations
and prepare ourselves for a slog through a literary vanity project.
As with recent novels like IN THE BEAUTY OF THE LILIES and SEEK MY
FACE, it hinges on a tidy organizing concept: whereas those two
novels traced the history of the twentieth century through
religious fanaticism and post-war art, respectively, VILLAGES,
which is presented as Owen's late-in-life reminiscences, chronicles
the previous century through computer technology and extramarital
sex.

Owen is a computer programmer riding the very first waves of the
technology: during the 1950s he attends MIT, where he meets his
first wife, Phyllis; during the '60s he develops a minor software
package called DigitEyes and launches a new company, all while
sleeping with a progression of housewives in the village of Middle
Falls, Connecticut; and during the 1970s, he sells his share of the
company to a small California-based company called Apple and leaves
Phyllis for another woman. Updike explains contemporary trends in
computer science every fifty pages or so, enough to show that he
has done his research, but not enough to make it integral to the
story. Instead, this aspect of VILLAGES seems like merely an
overextended metaphor --- not quite enough for a novel --- although
the similarities between Owen's upstart computer company and the
dotcoms of the 1990s suggests this is fertile storytelling
material.

Updike is much more interested in his main character's sexual
experiences. Owen's entire life is one long midlife crisis, and he
finally understands that he can quell his doubts and insecurities
through illicit sex. But infidelity is no longer as scandalous as
it was in 1960, when Updike published his famous novel on the
subject, RABBIT RUN. The author's attempts at salacity read like
re-walking old territory, especially since Owen bears more than a
passing resemblance to Rabbit Angstrom.

Owen certainly has the ingrained misogynies of the era down: he
speaks of marriage as taking "legal possession" and scorns women's
desires as even needier and baser than his own. Perhaps Updike is
merely trying to recreate the tenor of the times, evoking a
timorous sexism as historical verisimilitude. However, especially
during the novel's final 100 pages and specifically at its
conclusion, it becomes alarmingly difficult to divine the
characters' views from Updike's own, to keep from contemplating his
involvement and his distance from these bizarrely antiquated ideas
about women and sex.

The novel's deficiencies seem all the more glaring given Updike's
fluid prose and occasionally beautiful imagery, which is all the
more striking for being wholly unexpected. His sentences wander
through time, beginning in the present when Owen is in his 70s,
ricocheting off an errant memory and traveling backwards across the
decades. If nothing else, Updike has become a poet of old-age
retrospection, as if his characters can only gain an enlightening
perspective on their lives when they are near death.

He is also capable of evoking striking imagery, none more haunting
than that of a late-night, car-bound tryst between high school-age
Owen and his girlfriend. "One night, parked this time up by the
Victory Garden wasteland, where the streetlight was closer than on
Cedar Top, he watched raindrops on the windshield make shadows on
her chest, thin trails that hesitated and fell as his fingertips
traced and tried to stop them, there, and there." Such passages
possess a generous tenderness conspicuously missing from subsequent
rendezvous, but are unable to redeem this disappointing novel from
which we expect so much more.

Reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner on January 24, 2011

Villages
by John Updike

  • Publication Date: October 19, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 1400042909
  • ISBN-13: 9781400042906