by John Updike

Published by Knopf

321 pages, 2004

Buy it online



Updike on Empty

Reviewed by John Keenan


For John Updike, carnal knowledge and spiritual enquiry have always been inseparable pursuits. His insistence on coupling the sacred and erotic made itself known right at the start of his career in Rabbit Run when Harry Angstrom rises from the bed of the local hooker, for whom he has abandoned his pregnant wife and their young son, and looks out of the window:

There is only the church across the way, grey, grave, confident. Lights behind its rose window are left burning, and this circle of red and purple and gold seems in the city night a hole punched in reality to show the abstract brilliance burning beneath. He feels gratitude to the builders of this ornament, and lowers the shade on it guiltily.

Harry is a beast but he is not oblivious to the motions of grace. Another of Updike's satyr-seers, Piet Hanemas in Couples, is drawn from higher up the social strata than blue-collar Harry, but the two men are brothers in bleakness, separated from their contemporaries by their understanding that we live in a lapsidarian world where our only hope of transfiguration lies in the fleeting moment of orgasmic release -- "an empyrean as absolute as the first boyish orgasms, when his hand would make his soul pass through a bliss a dense as an ingot of gold" -- as the character in a short story called "Transaction" puts it. It is a perception that would receive the icy endorsement of Roger Lambert, the narrator of Roger's Version, who takes time from probing the abstruse philosophy of Aquinas to fuck his young niece. Sex is character, Updike says.

In Villages, his 21st novel, Updike examines how the sexual resume of one man encapsulates his entire life. Through the filter of his memory, we follow Owen Mackenzie from his first furtive fumblings to the fragile climax of old age as he struggles to comprehend the mysteries of female love and desire. Mackenzie's recollection of his post World War II childhood in Willow, Pennsylvania, forms a fervent song of joy to the innocent girls in seventh grade. Innocence is not Owen's habit, however. He ignores his mother's entreaty to appreciate the custard yellow brickwork and shining river of his hometown, but a crack in the paintwork of the schoolgirls' locker room excites his interest.

Through there... Owen emerged into adult life with a memory, as luminous as an Ingres seraglio, of naked girls seen at an angle... girls with shining shoulders and wet flanks... girls he had grown up with, moving slowly in their budding nudity, oblivious, as if underwater.

Happily, Peeping Owen does not allow such sights to fully distract him from a more formal education and he progresses to MIT in time to get in on the ground floor of a computer revolution that will carry him through a successful career into comfortable retirement. Phyllis, the young woman he courts and marries, will not make the whole journey with him. At a party at his business partner's house in 1967 he is left alone with his hostess who, in the spirit of the age, immediately unzips his fly and pops his penis into her mouth. Owen, taken aback, rejects the advance and at once regrets it. "He had uxoriously extricated himself from his partner's wife's mouth, but her aggression had reopened him to possibilities. ... He would never treat his poor prick in that way again."

Owen has embarked upon the road most taken. Ahead lie Alissa "the rapt fellatrice," "smiling light-loined Faye," a painful divorce and a lenitive second marriage.

What conclusion does Owen draw from his lifelong pursuit of transitory joy? "Sex is a programmed delirium that rolls back death with death's own substance; it is the black space between the stars given sweet substance in our veins and crevices."

It is a supposition dragged from the wreckage of failed relationships at a cost of much heartbreak. One wonders if it was worth the price. This reader's hesitant response to Owen's view of the world and women is not helped by the feeling that, at long last, Updike is running on empty. There is low-wattage aspect to his prose in this novel. The customary brilliance has been replaced with a proficiency which drains emotion from his narrative. When all passion is spent, verisimilitude is no substitute.

But is it reasonable to expect fireworks from moribund volcanoes? Updike and his contemporaries -- Bellow, Roth, Mailer, Cheever -- have delivered superlative chronicles of the American century. The regret is not that these great writers are now at the close of their day; it is that American writers in their prime, oscillating between the poles of celebrity and therapy, are too self-absorbed to bring us news of what is feels like to live in a country and a time so rich, strange and uncertain. | February 2005


John Keenan is a journalist, living in Brighton, England. He is editor of the business travel magazine Meetings and Incentive Travel. His work has been published in The Guardian, New Statesman, Times Literary Supplement and Literary Review, and other publications.