Glossy shins and spots of light

Natasha Walter looks behind the fluent, subtle charms of John Updike
THE AFTERLIFE John Updike Hamish Hamilton £14.99

Here comes John Updike again. Less than a year after his last novel, Brazil, was published, a new volume of short stories arrives. At 62, the grand old man of American literature has published 16 novels, as well as numerous volumes of poetry, essays and short stories.

No one can deny that Updike writes sumptuous prose. His writing style is fluent and obtrusively subtle. There are moments even in this patchy set of tales that make your heart beat faster. There's a horse that leaps out at you: "The physical fact of a horse - the pungent, assaultive hugeness of the animal and the sense of a tiny spark, a gleam of skittish and limited intelligence, within its monstrous long skull", or a rush of birds, "the mourning doves thrashing into the air with an abrupt whistle and merged beating of wings", but they are rare, against all the images that strain for the poetic, and collapse: "Headlights floated on the skin of Fanshawe's windshield like cherry blossoms on black water," for instance; or musicians arriving "like dewdrops on a spider's web."

Updike's blithe metaphorical reflex makes one quite wary of jumping into the breach of criticism. Hell, you might seem cloth-eared, the worst sin of contemporary criticism, which much prefers the detail to the whole. Nicholson Baker's tribute to Updike, U and I, has become exemplary in that regard. It elevates Updike's insy little self-conscious phrases ("vast, dying sea" is one of Baker's favourites, "absurdly shook my head" another), into the raison d'etre of the man's huge uvre. But why read a writer only in that way, broken down into such tiny spots of light? Let's not bypass Updike's larger gestures. Even Nicholson Baker allows his hero an occasional cruelty. And I would point to a thoroughgoing misogyny that makes it difficult to read his work without wondering over the narrow artistic vision that so empties and objectifies half his characters.

Because there is only one reason for women to exist in Updike's world: to be fucked, or at least fuckable. His inability to create depth in a female character means his women must collude even in abuse. "She is liking it, being raped," Updike wrote in Rabbit Redux, in a voyeuristic scene where the emotion described might have belonged to the woman, to Rabbit, or to Updike. "As a raped woman might struggle, to intensify the deed," runs a simile in Couples, with a striking ambiguity of intent.

As Baker has said, Updike introduced the range of the "penile sensorium" into literature. And what a narrow range it is. His women do not have characters, or pasts, or conversation worth any careful enunciation. They have pasty thighs, and breasts like sugary buns, and sly vaginas. In fact, Updike provides the artistic foundation for the foul American joke, "What's a woman?" "A life support system for pussy." True to form, except for elderly women in this book, the female characters in The Afterlife tend to be ushered in by precise description of their "glossy shins," or "bustling hindquarters", or "mandolin-shaped bottom", or breasts and genitals: "Germaine's breasts in their bra were bigger than Betsy's, her pubic bush made a shadowy cushion under her underpants as the sisters lazily chattered."

Still, how annoyed can a reader be about all that, now that Updike's heyday is past? Books like Couples and Marry Me, with their bored housewives swapped from one ogling chap to the next, have become dinky Seventies period pieces, pickled in vermouth andsuntan lotion. In The Afterlife, Updike is partly writing a swansong for his old world, and a story like "The Man who became a Soprano" is only a mechanical reworking of the old criss-cross adultery between two sets of couples in a nice middle-class suburb.

Updike knows he is no longer the spokesman of our culture, but his narrow artistic range cannot grasp the world's new possibilities. One protagonist considers his son's girlfriends in bemusement: "None of them apparently excited that romantic wish . . . to claim in the sight of church and state this female body, to enter into formalized intimacy as if into a territory to be conquered, tamed, sown, and harvested. The wife at the kitchen sink . . . the wife docile on one's arm . . ." Does anyone but Updike mourn the passing of such a time?

And so Updike seems far more dated than other writers of his generation or even previous generations. The whining note that has now crept into his depictions of male-female relations, with endless variations on the "My wife doesn't understand me" theme, seems rather pathetic. There is an aging man whose young, difficult wife bullies him into going for a walk in Ireland and then makes him find the way back; there is another whose wife bullies him into doing the gardening; another who refuses to dance with him on holiday. Look at me, Updike keeps trying to say, look what I have to put up with.

Updike's real strength has always lain, not in the depiction of sexual relations, but in the exploration of family ties, especially mother-man and man-daughter relationships. Here, the most moving and extraordinary tales replay those emotions, and various Updikean protagonists are confronted by their dying mothers in the most unforgettable tales of this collection.

But although Updike likes to talk about death and salvation, he tends to use the concepts as upmarket patter rather than part of a true exploration. None of his books or stories has ever managed to take the reader on a journey, to be dangerous or unexpected in its quest. Everything is too wrapped up, too finally ironic, and I think we are always being asked to despise his characters in their most fraught moments. No one can take this protagonist at all seriously in his equation of sex and death: "When had he ceased to fear death - or, so to speak, ceased to grasp it? The moment . . . when he first slept with Erica Andrews . . . He had peeled off her black lace bra - her back arched up from the mattress to give him access to the catches - almost reluctantly, knowing there would be a white flash that would obliterate everything that had existed of his life before". Updike is not Nabokov in any way, but neither is he Lawrence or even Bellow, and he is unable to inject an existential impetus into these overblown sexual adventures.

In the end, perhaps, the tiny phrases are what matter in Updike. And even there he is failing. His stylistic tic of relying on unexpected adverbs "absurdly shook my head", "unswallowably sweet", "dizzyingly tall", has become overdone. Here, some of his most lovely phrases seem to have floated so far from any context that they are quite pointless. One banal tale ends with the hero falling asleep in his son's room; he wakes, and becomes aware that something is "immensely missing." That may add a nice dying fall to an uninspired story, but it means nothing. It reads, in fact, like a poor pastiche of John Updike, as so much of Updike now does.