Minds have been made up about John Updike. A typical review will begin by grudgingly acknowledging the brilliance of his ‘style’ – as if Updike’s style were a set of dainty curlicues, and not his manner of thought – before complaining about his misogyny, his conservatism, his theological bad faith, the gratuitousness of his language. To Harold Bloom, Updike is ‘a minor writer with a major style’. Gore Vidal thinks that Updike ‘describes to no purpose’. James Wood complains that Updike fills his characters’ thoughts with showy phrases that don’t suit them or their situations; and that the ‘very pretty ribbons’ of Updike’s style are a kind of kitsch, which expresses a complacent confidence in the plenitude and continuity and meaningfulness of the world, but can’t picture absence or doubt.
If Updike has been taken for granted, he can thank his awesome productivity, which he compares in his autobiography, Self-Consciousness (1989), to his psoriatic over-production of skin, and the sheer availability of his personal life and voice in novels, articles, television appearances and interviews. Though he is an intensely intellectual writer – his early novels undertake a dialogue with Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics – Updike has nonetheless managed to give the impression to many readers of having nothing to say: of creating, as he has said of Cézanne, ‘blank uncaused beauty that signified only itself’. This blankness is in part an effect of his subject-matter. Updike is close, some would say too close, to the familiar domestic scenes of middle America, its suburban marriages and infidelities, its big cars, high-school reunions, parades, arguments about drugs and race and Vietnam, images so immediately recognisable that they tend to be passed over.
Updike wants to ‘sing America’, and he takes it as his job to make everything and everyone fit into place – the traditional role of the epic writer. His alter ego Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom thinks about this while driving home in Rabbit, Run (1960): ‘He thinks, My Valley, my home … Every corner locks against a remembered corner in his mind; every crevice, every irregularity in the paint clicks against a nick already in his brain.’ Things in Updike’s prose tend to slot – one of his favourite words – into their categories. His first job after leaving college was writing ‘Talk of the Town’ pieces for the New Yorker, where ‘the problem was to perpetuate a cosy tone about a city that had ceased to be cosy,’ and he has spoken since of being able to ‘pull a kind of friendly village … out of New York’s ghastly plenitude’. His new novel, Villages, takes his interest in the banal to its limit.
The best statement of Updike’s aesthetic comes in his early memoir, ‘The Dogwood Tree’ (1962):
I reasoned thus: just as the paper is the basis for the marks upon it, might not events be contingent upon a never expressed (because featureless) ground? Is the true marvel of Sunday skaters the pattern of their pirouettes or the fact that they are silently upheld? Blankness is not emptiness; we may skate upon an intense radiance we do not see because we see nothing else. And in fact there is a colour, a quiet but tireless goodness that things at rest, like a brick wall or a small stone, seem to affirm.
He goes on to set out his ambition ‘to transcribe middleness with all its grits, bumps and anonymities, in its fullness of satisfaction and mystery’.
To see what this might mean, let’s take one of James Wood’s examples, a sentence from the story ‘Natural Colour’ (1998). ‘Driving back from taking the babysitter home, Frank would pass darkened houses where husbands he knew were lying in bed, head to murmuring head, with wives he coveted.’ Wood comments: ‘One relishes the kitschy way that adjective “murmuring” strives to raise the sentence’s tone, plump its cushion a bit.’ But is ‘murmuring’ gratuitous? Like Updike, Frank is alert while other people are dead to the world. His image of the couple ‘head to murmuring head’, like an effigy of lovers on a tomb, sees the ‘quiet but tireless goodness that things at rest … seem to affirm’. Things at rest, though they seem colourless, emit a natural colour, a murmur. The night is full of noises, and the couple, though their heads seem to be at funereal rest, still ‘murmur’ sounds that the writer can catch, like a radio picking up faint frequencies. Just because Updike sees the mind, at this pitch of attentiveness, as eros rampant (the title of another story), is the tone really as low as Wood implies? And is Updike’s prose style more, or less, purposeless and unmotivated than Wood’s, with its pointless cushion stolen from Updike’s married couple and its evasive use of the pronoun ‘one’?
The involuntary human murmur has always been important for Updike, who has always sensed civilisation as a vast web of gossip. The last pages of his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair (1959), consist of the stream of idle talk at an old people’s home, and to Updike these voices are an expression of ‘the joy of persistent existence’. Especially in the Rabbit books, which are full of pop songs, Updike’s writing picks up one voice, joins its cadence, and moves on to another, like Rabbit himself, driving south through radio zones on his flight away from his wife and child. Rabbit Redux (1971) opens with Rabbit in a bar listening to the jukebox:
Harry is beginning, here in this cold bar with cactuses in plastic pots on the shelves beneath the mirrors and the little Schlitz spinner doing its polychrome parabola over and over, to feel the world turn. A hopeful coldness inside him grows, grips his wrists inside his cuffs. The news isn’t all in, a new combination might break it open, this stale peace.
Rabbit anxiously seizes on the song on the jukebox – ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ by the Byrds, presumably. His mind turns. As so often in Updike, the perception quickens into a reality. The mind at rest is stirred just enough to makes its grits and bumps visible.
Would Harry Angstrom think like this? Well, no. As he tells us himself, ‘I don’t think enough to know what I think.’ The interior monologues of the Rabbit books superficially resemble those of Joyce’s Ulysses, giving the stream of chatter the mind offers itself at every moment, but Updike, whose theological convictions mean he is opposed to ‘humanism’, does not locate the truth about a person in their private thoughts. As he wrote in his long poem Midpoint, quoting Barth, ‘a drowning man cannot pull/ Himself out by his own hair’. The wealth of Rabbit’s mind is Updike’s gift to his hero, a very ordinary man on the surface. Rabbit’s nickname comes to suggest his furtiveness and his tendency to bolt at any sign of danger, but it was given to him when he was a basketball star at high school, and the sentences of the first two Rabbit books mimic the quickness, sudden turns, spurts of speed and improvisations of basketball. Rabbit, everyone keeps saying, has something special, a gift for life. This would not stand out so sharply, though, if Updike’s early writing were not also obsessed with death. When Harry goes to see his elderly mother in Rabbit Redux, ‘it is not so much the strange tremulous attempt of her lips to close upon a thought as the accompanying stare, an unblinking ungathering gaze into space that lifts her eyes out of any flow and frightens Rabbit with a sense of ultimate blindness, of a blackboard from which they will all be wiped clean.’ This last wonderful image, which comes from Whitman, suggests that Updike’s words are ghosted by death, and that it is only from that perspective that life seems so full and rich.
Updike’s sentences at their frequent best are not a complacent expression of faith. Rather, like Proust’s sentences in Updike’s description, they ‘seek out an essence so fine the search itself is an act of faith’. Updike aspires to ‘this sense of self-qualification, the kind of timid reverence towards what exists that Cézanne shows when he grapples for the shape and shade of a fruit through a mist of delicate stabs’. Their hesitancy and self-qualification arise as they meet obstacles, readjust and pass on. If life is bountiful in New England, it is also evasive and easily missed. In the stories Updike tells, marriages and homes are made only to be broken. His descriptiveness embodies a promiscuous love for everything in the world. But love is precarious, Updike is always saying, since it thrives on obstructions and makes them if it cannot find them. He took this, his ‘overriding thesis’, from the Swiss writer Denis de Rougemont, the author of Love in the Western World (1939), and found it ‘corroborated’ everywhere. In loving the goodness of things at rest, Updike, like Frank in ‘Natural Colour’, also wants to disturb them.
It is usually morbid to speculate on the relation between a writer’s life and style, but in Updike’s case it is also irresistible, since his novels track lives that correspond so closely to what we know about his own. The protagonist of Villages, a retired computer programmer called Owen Mackenzie, is, like Updike, in his early seventies, and well into a second marriage which brought to an end the infidelities that had destroyed his first. Villages skips back and forth between scenes of pottering retirement and memories of Owen’s prolonged sexual education, a task seen to by a number of women and villages, but mainly by the women of Middle Falls, Connecticut, where Owen’s first marriage to Phyllis is superseded by affairs with Faye, Stacey, Alissa, Antoinette, Vanessa. This takes place, roughly, in the period between 1958 and 1974, traced in Couples and in the recently collected Early Stories,when Updike was living in Ipswich, Massachusetts – ‘a mini-Mailer in our small salt-water pond, a stag of sorts in our herd of housewife-does’, as he put it in Self-Consciousness. Some readers will recognise in Villages details, scenes, and moments of conversation that have haunted Updike’s novels: the hesitant courtship of a first wife at Harvard, from A Month of Sundays; the party immediately after JFK’s assassination, from Couples, and the fateful question that a woman at that party asks, ‘Why don’t you want to sleep with me?’ As Owen looks back, he strips his once vivid love affairs of the meanings he had originally projected onto them. Dynamic erotic transactions are turned into a lifeless set of obscene friezes, and the brisk, arid sex scenes show how memory, as it worries for decades over the same recollections, eventually gnaws them bare. The search for significance of Updike’s earlier fiction is absent, as are the tens of thousands of magical sentences that mirrored the successes and failures and tentativeness of that search.
Owen wakes up into Villages from a dream of guilt:
faceless official presences guide him into a room where, on a bed like theirs, two single beds yoked together to make a king-size, a man – rather young, to judge from the smoothness of his blond body, with its plump buttocks – lies upon his wife’s body as if attempting resuscitation or (not at all the same thing) concealment. When, under silent direction from the accompanying, officiating presences, this stranger removes himself, Owen’s wife’s body, also naked, is revealed, supine: the white relaxed belly, the breasts flattened by gravity, her dear known sex in its gauzy beard of fur. She is dead, a suicide. She has found her way out of pain. Owen thinks, If I had not interfered with her life, she would still be alive.
Owen can’t escape this dream. In Villages, the sex is timid and fearful and frequently interrupted, an altogether new thing in Updike’s fiction. Even as a boy, Owen is spooked by strange noises in the woods and backs out of intercourse with his first girlfriend, Elsie. When he reluctantly consummates his marriage on his wedding night, he is worried about the blood and Phyllis’s ‘mucous warmth’ and ‘the anxious little stink’ of his ‘poor prick’. The liaisons Owen conducts in Middle Falls during his first marriage are remembered with a neglectful guilty haste. When Owen meets his first lover for a picnic on a hilltop, there are more of those ‘faceless unofficial presences’ that beset the erotic with an immobilising self-consciousness: ‘A flock of crows, six or eight, raucously rasping at one another, thrashed into the top of an oak on the edge of the square of sky … He felt suspended at the top of an arc.’
The most memorable moment of the book comes early on, when the opening dream is transformed, the body resurrected, in a scene of Owen poised above his elderly second wife, Julia, her broken leg in a plaster cast: ‘He tried to hover above her, on his elbows and knees, sparing her as much of his weight as he could, and to his grateful amazement felt her rise to him, in her excitement, quicker than usual; she ground her pubic bone against his decisively and they came together – gemlike dragonflies coupling in the air.’ This image of one body hanging over another, menacing, resuscitating, concealing, addressing itself sexually or pulling back from sex, is the seed of Villages, an image tangled full of meanings that Updike unravels only tentatively.
Those gemlike dragonflies hover above the listlessness of Owen and Julia’s life, but their exalted rapture is an exception to the petty temper of Villages. Updike’s work has always stood up for a maturity now threatened in American culture, but Owen is horribly humbled by old age. Memories of adultery alternate with the sing-song endearments he and Julia exchange, and long burbling accounts of her chastising him for spilling crumbs on the kitchen floor or wearing the wrong hat. His ‘animal optimism’ depleted, Owen wakes up to ‘the day ahead with its hours to climb like rungs on an ancient, dangerous, splintering ladder’.
Villages is a novel with one idea. In its closing words:
It was a celibate villager who wrote: ‘We know not where we are. Besides, we are sound asleep nearly half our time. Yet we esteem ourselves wise, and have an established order on the surface.’ Such a surface order makes possible human combinations and moments of tender regard. It is a mad thing, to be alive. Villages exist to moderate this madness – to hide it from children, to bottle it for private use, to smooth its imperative into habits, to protect us from the darkness without and the darkness within.
Owen’s language here is as forceless as the object of its praise – civilisation is just what lets people sleep – though the neutral wisdom of the ‘celibate villager’ (Thoreau at the end of Walden) is tinged by Owen’s own career as a computer programmer, the tender combinations of love distantly recalling the combinations of computer code. Villages, apparently, tell people who and where they are: ‘no village is remote and obscure to itself; its inhabitants occupy the centre of the universe’; ‘small enough towns make everybody someone.’ They provide for continuity: ‘A village is a hatchery, cherishing its smallest members. A fresh birth votes for the status quo, validating the present and assuring the future.’
What a village hides holds it together, Owen believes, and it hides sex by keeping it everywhere on view. ‘A village is woven of secrets, of truths better left unstated, of houses with less window than opaque wall.’ To Owen there is ‘a polymorphous sharing noticeable not only at weddings, where the weeping parents and awestruck flower-girl unite to consign the bride to the connubial mysteries, but at polite adult parties where custom seats husbands and wives not together but beside the spouses of others, tempting potential confusion and exogamous trespass’. By the time Owen has finished with it, ‘villages’ seems just about the dirtiest word in the language. He would have us think that in all his sexual adventures in Middle Falls he has been tracing the sexual threads of the social fabric, threads brought into vivid colour by the erotic revolution of the 1960s. Before lapsing into the chaste wisdom with which he concludes, Owen reflects: ‘Villages have inglenooks, root cellars, attics where mattresses covered with striped ticking quietly wait for the orgy to begin.’
With Owen, Updike has discarded his earlier ideas about love. ‘Picturing himself in Middle Falls, he cannot imagine what drove him into so many hazardous passes and contorted positions: he was a puppet whose strings old age has snipped.’ Sexual maturity seems an aberration through which he briefly passed, more or less uncomprehending, on the way from his first childhood to the second childishness of old age. Sex is always ‘batsy’ – a private word from Owen’s childhood, meaning ‘messy, gross’. Owen’s sexual education begins with an obscene drawing on the side of the playground-equipment shed, a picture that ‘looked like a swollen letter M, but, on examination, was a naked woman’. On his wedding night he sees his wife in this ‘obscene M-shape’, and the image comes up again when he first has sex with Faye. Sex has some truth to tell Owen that he cannot spell out, whose language he will never know; the M is the variable in an equation that Owen cannot solve, the banal obverse of W, or woman. In Rabbit Redux, as he’s flicking through the phonebook, Rabbit muses that M is exactly ‘the initial to put off obscene calls’, least likely to attract aggressive sexual inquiries.
Owen goes to women to be told things: he needs his first wife to explain to him that his mistress had been ‘flashy and hard-nosed and shallow’, and his mistress to tell him sternly that ‘life isn’t some dream you can just wander through.’ The priapic curiosity and dynamic tensions of the characters in Updike’s earlier novels are desperately missing. Owen delivers his thoughts to the reader in the tone of an unenthusiastic pupil presenting a school report: ‘She sparkled, Faye did; she was the woman you noticed in a room, with that sudden piercing girlish laugh.’ Occasionally the narrator reports on Owen’s progress with facetious condescension – ‘Another step in his education was due’ – which is picked up by the arch, even mocking, Victorian chapter headings: ‘Dream On, Dear Owen’; ‘How Phyllis Was Won’; ‘You Don’t Want to Know’. For all the talk of education, Owen’s character seems not to develop. The numbness is made worse by an unvarying reliance on middle-distance perspective. Owen is never excited enough by his memories to involve himself in them again; he just sets his life against cut-outs of Life Magazine history: ‘With Lyndon Johnson as president the old decorums and austerities were melting away’; ‘Late in the preceding year, President Kennedy had been shot and Phyllis had produced a fourth child … both events left Owen a little shaky, feeling his mortality.’
It was 1967. Walt Rostow averred: ‘Victory is just around the corner.’ Robert McNamara, not sure this was so, resigned the office of secretary of defense to become head of the World Bank. H. Rap Brown claimed of the black riots in Newark and Detroit that they were a dress rehearsal for revolution. Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, defected to the West.
And so on, at much greater length. There may be a connection here with a comment Updike made in an introduction to Walden he wrote last year, about ‘the media’s substitution of “the news” for private reality’. Owen’s life is trammelled by the stream of discourse that culture constantly mutters to itself, an artificial language that never catches his ‘private reality’ in its net. The reference to Thoreau on the last page of Villages suggests that Updike has in mind a reply to Walden: a hymn to the ‘established order on the surface’. But Thoreau’s meaning is being twisted, since for him nature confronts that order with indifference. Thoreau continues:
As I stand over the insect crawling amid the pine needles on the forest floor, and endeavouring to conceal itself from my sight, and ask myself why it will cherish those humble thoughts, and hide its head from me who might perhaps be its benefactor, and impart to its race some cheering information, I am reminded of the greater Benefactor and Intelligence that stands over me the human insect.
In a passage of Villages, Owen, the most secular character Updike has ever written, is affronted that to ‘the birds, the insects, the flowers’, ‘the human world … is merely a marginal flurry, an inscrutable static’. Like Rabbit, Owen dimly intuits that ‘something out there’ is trying to find him – God, Nature – but that faint glimmer on the edge of his inhabited world serves only to persuade him to favour and magnify the inscrutable static of human chatter.