BOOKS: FICTION: Get 'em off, love! It's all in the name of art

At 70, Updike is brave to be still exploring lust, but Justin Cartwright feels that his new novel has rather too many descriptions of genitals; Villages By John Updike HAMISH HAMILTON pounds 17.99 pounds 16.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

This is John Updike's 21st novel. In itself, this is an extraordinary feat. It is the story of Owen Mackenzie, computer whiz, now elderly and living in a village near Boston with his second wife of 25 years, Julia. As he potters about his daily, retired, life, he contemplates his sexual adventures of the past 50 years.

Updike lovers will soon see that they are on familiar territory, for this is essentially a re-run of many Updike themes. In his recent collection of early short stories, Updike demonstrated his attachment to place by grouping the stories according to their fictional locations, which corresponded very closely to his own migrations from Pennsylvania to New England, via New York. Owen Mackenzie has made the same journey. Although he has been endowed with many of the Updike qualities - only child, dominant mother, failed father, sensitivity to light and texture, sexual avidity, love of womanly qualities, developed sense of place, nostalgia for lost American values and landscapes - he is in fact a man of our times, having been in computer graphics from the first. Updike has burned the midnight oil learning about computer programming and the workings of MIT, where Owen trained. These details, copious though they are, do not really convince us that Owen is not another Updike.

The true story is a shockingly stark meditation on his sexual and inner lives. Not since Couples, which made Updike $1m in the 1970s, has he been so frank, indeed gynaecological, about sex. There is a phrase describing one of Owen's mistresses, that the feeling of her was "less of a sauce, more of a glaze". In another passage he describes looking down on someone fellating him as being like one of those nodding birds you attach to a glass. And there are many, perhaps too many, descriptions of sex organs and bodily hair and breasts and the smell of sex.

The sexual encounters in the three villages which link the novel begin with high-school making out in cars, lovingly described, and progress through a move to Connecticut as a young married where Owen resolves to become a seducer, an ambition he succeeds at triumphantly, and then on to his final resting place in Massachusetts, with his new wife, who was once the wife of the Episcopalian minister. There is an extraordinary tenderness in these scenes, which springs from Updike's belief that sex is sacramental, even sublime in Burke's sense of the word. He has always been a wonderful describer of women, and in this book he gives his descriptive and sensual powers free rein. He is a man obsessed with the texture of things and of bodies and landscapes.

What Updike has attempted to do, extraordinarily boldly, is to explore the meaning of sex, and the remembrance of sex, to a man of 70; it is wholly typical that he has not shirked the obvious risks in such an undertaking. At the same time this is a meditation on old age. Updike seems to have come to the conclusion that sex represents a glimpse of the spiritual and as such should be closely guarded.

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