Villages by John Updike

From youth to adultery
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John Updike is literature's equivalent of Bob Dylan: in place of the never-ending tour we have the never-ending publication schedule. Villages, his latest novel, is his 21st. The book ends with a three-sentence quote from a "celibate villager". This unidentified villager is Thoreau, and the next sentence might be taken as a manifesto for Updike's unceasing art: "There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dullness."

That is the challenge of reading Updike: not to take the incessant outflux of novelty for granted, not to be dulled by the sheer quantity of books (not all of them as good as this one). Taken as a whole, Updike's work adds up to a huge, constantly changing compendium of what it feels - and smells and tastes - like to be alive (or man alive, at any rate). He has the advantage over his nearest, and unlikeliest rival, D H Lawrence, for the simple reason that Lawrence did not have the chance to experience what it was like to grow old.

As a young man, the protagonist of Villages is told by his first wife, "You're very tied to your senses, Owen." As an old man of 70 - the same age as Updike writing the book - Owen's senses are decaying. Needless to say, Updike conveys this dulling with pinprick precision, particularly the way that memory (itself growing spotty, "as if," he has written elsewhere, "the film was sprinkled with developer instead of being immersed in it") struggles to fix what was transitory, fleeting.

As the book opens, Owen is lying in bed, his "hand gripping his drowsy prick", remembering some of the women he slept with in the Sixties and Seventies. Owen was a computer whiz then, a proto-nerd, but he could be an ageing Piet Hanema looking back in Updike's Couples (1968). The overlap of period and setting is pretty explicit.

When Couples begins, Piet is already in the midst of his comfortable life of serial adultery. In Villages, we go back to Owen's boyhood when he sees, crudely chiselled on a shed, "what looked like a swollen letter M, but, on examination, was a naked woman, legs bent at the knee". A little later, walking with his parents, Owen spots "a milky-white thing like a collapsed balloon" lying in the grit. His mum yells at him not to touch the condom but these twinned discoveries exert a hold on him that is never relinquished.

From adolescent gropings in a car, Owen progresses to MIT, where he meets, falls in love with, marries and - at last, on their wedding night - beds Phyllis. They have kids, move to a small town. A few years later Owen is tempted into his first affair. As in Couples, the marriage limps on after the wife - weary from raising children, plans for a doctorate long abandoned - learns about what has been going on.

Moving beyond the time-frame of the earlier novel, Owen and Phyllis get their first "whiffs of the counterculture" courtesy of the young wife of Owen's business partner. She introduces them to marijuana and, while no one is looking, offers to blow Owen. Stoned, he rejects her advances. Rueing this missed opportunity and conscious of the way it repeats an earlier youthful failure of nerve, he resolves not to make the same mistake again.

Like Piet in Couples, he soon discovers that all you need to achieve what had once seemed so difficult - get laid - is to want to. After a point, you don't even have to do it. Act like you want to; you acquire an air.

The question, hovering constantly on the fringes of the narrative, is the extent to which this air is tainted. It is a vexed question because, in this modern Faustian pact, the soul claimed by the devil might turn out to be not Owen's, but his wife's. The slide into infidelity is, in these terms, like a secular version of the loss of religious faith lamented by Matthew Arnold in the poem from which the book draws its epigraph.

As in Couples the reasons - Updike avoids blame - for the husband's straying lie partly with the wife's relative sexual reserve. It is also a question of history. This has always been one of Updike's skills: freighting his characters intimate lives with what is going on in society at large. There are a few moments, here, when this coupling is done in the style of documentaries trying to give a bit of lazy context to hit singles: "It was 1967... Lunar Orbiter V was launched to obtain a complete mapping of the moon's surface, including the dark side. Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali announced, 'I don't have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs.'"

For most of the time, Updike's verbal gaze is as sharp as ever: "If light was behind her, Owen would see her pubic triangle dripping from a point like a wet goatee between her skinny thighs." The whole purpose of the book is, in this sense, a kind of dual telescoping: to give a more accurate rendering of the scrawled M that mesmerised Owen in his early life, and to bring the blurring memories of his sexual past precisely into focus.

To claim that this is misogynistic is to miss the point. Updike invites the accusation by what happens, eventually, to Phyllis, but by doing so he complicates his novel and enhances its value as a work of art.

Geoff Dyer's 'The Ongoing Moment' will be published by Little, Brown in May

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