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Carnal Knowledge

Reviewed by Fay Weldon
Sunday, October 24, 2004; Page BW03


By John Updike

Knopf. 321 pp. $25

John Updike sees his reflection in a mirror. (April 2004) (Laurie Swope / Ftwp)

This book gives great pleasure. Some writers get more boring with age, but John Updike just gets more perspicacious. The wealth of connections and imagery increases with the years; the practice of literary expression makes the prose yet more perfect. It's easy, though, to take this recording angel of our times for granted -- he's been around for five decades, and familiarity can breed indifference. Awe at his dexterity with language, his gift for metaphor, his talent for the overview, can drift into "Oh yes, Updike, sex in the suburbs, all that." And then may come the yet more damning afterthought, which is so bad for sales: "Didn't we do him in college?" Being "done" in college may be flattering for the novelist, but it can also be a danger. Who wants to read now what they were obliged to read then?

But it's not surprising that Updike gets "done." He writes a powerful novel. His books have stirred many on both sides of the Atlantic to infidelity, not to mention serial marriage -- but a writer's got to do what a writer's got to do. And no other novelist creates his alternative universes with such a delicate grace, recreating the smells and textures of other places, other people, other times, tracing the remembrance of sexual desire with such melancholy relish, granting significance to the everyday and ordinary.

Villages is Updike's 21st novel and serves as a wondrous sexual and social retrospective of small-town living over the last half-century. Owen MacKenzie's sex life starts with the innocence of the missionary position, back in the 1950s, when sex and procreation were still connected, and progresses to the prophylactic couplings of the present, by way of oral and anal sex. Find "Owie" in the beginning in the back of the Chevy with a nice, good girl; find him decades later, cocaine-fueled, on the road to Vegas with Mirabella's post-feminist head in his lap, with its spun-sugar hair and careless black roots. He's picked her up at a conference. Is she a hooker; is she not? It scarcely matters. The domestic/maternal female has given way to the ravenous working girl, anxious for her job, and Owen, for his part, has learned over the years "to have sex without kindness, without a grandiloquent gratitude." It is a loss for both of them, but so the times went.

Even in the calm village fastnesses of Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts, change happens. The fictional Owen lives it, and Updike records it: It is hard to tell which of them speaks from the pages. Updike's "villages" are seen as benign and enviable, not oppressive: They provide the surface order that makes possible those "human combinations and moments of tender regard" by which society masks what, in Updike's words, is "the madness of being alive." Thus sex and society coexist amicably enough.

Owen, habitué of the villages, is a computer nerd who grows prosperous helping the computer revolution on its way, as it rises from its early atomic brilliance in the '50s only to sink with the "muddy stifling of cyberspace" -- Updike's words -- in the new century. "A practically infinite sprawl of e-mail, pornography, spam, half-baked data, digital photos and videos, pirated music -- all the importunate, demotic trash that in Owen's youth had been mostly confined to the print medium, to bales of recyclable newspapers, magazines, catalogues, and flyers. . . . In engineering as in the arts, the dawn time, before all but a few are still asleep to the possibilities, is the time for leaps of creation."

If Owen doesn't actually think, feel or see as we expect of a computer obsessive, but has the generosity and sensitivity more typical of a writer, so be it. This is Updike's way, and who are we to quarrel? In the four early Rabbit novels, who ever believed Harry Angstrom was anyone but Updike pretending to be a basketball star? Was ordinary life, other than to the writer, ever so rich in virtue and in vice?

Traveling with Owen on his path through life are the women of the villages. Elsie, Alissa, Vanessa, Karen, Faye, Jacqueline, Antoinette and Mirabella -- jacketed between wives Phyllis and Julia. Owen loves women for their weaknesses, for their flaws, their accumulation of hurt, as much as for their capacity to sexually arouse, which is no doubt why he does so well in the amorous stakes. What woman doesn't like a man who "takes an interest"? "He studied [Patricia] from the side. Her profile showed a chafed pinkness to the nostrils and an underslung jaw that left her plump upper lip protruding as if pensively. He felt in her the crack of some old sorrow, like a teacup's chipped rim on his tongue." Death may claim Phyllis, mother of his four children, but Julia, the vicar's wife, is there ready to take over, with her loving murmurs and mildly irritating domestic attentions. Owie has done well in the world: The respectful hum of the villages blots out scandal and remorse.

But for Owie it was more exciting, more tender, the affections more sustainable, way back then when Phyllis and he were young and courting. Thus Updike describes the minutiae of his early carnality: "the bluish inner sides of her arms, turned submissively uppermost, and the backs of her thighs, his fingers curled to lightly scratch the goosebumped skin with his nails." The keyword here is, I suspect, "submissive." Once women were; now they are not. Those who find the idea of female submission to the male distasteful are of a new world -- they will not have lived through the sexual history of our times as Updike has, or relished its erotic pleasures. If they have, they will forgive. •

Fay Weldon's new novel, "Mantrapped," will be published in December.

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