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.

i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Robbie Savage will not face a driving ban
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Life and Style
Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries were putting themselves at risk of tinnitus and, in extreme cases, irreversible hearing loss
health Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries are at risk of tinnitus
It was only when he left his post Tony Blair's director of communications that Alastair Campbell has published books
people The most notorious spin doctor in UK politics has reinvented himself
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in ‘I Am Michael’
filmJustin Kelly's latest film tells the story of a man who 'healed' his homosexuality and turned to God
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

    salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

    Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

    Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

    Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

    Day In a Page

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower