Book Review: Villages by John Updike

John Updike’s youthful ambition was to be a cartoonist.  He had an excellent eye for painting and the visual arts; his two books on art, Just Looking (1989) and Still Looking (2005), attest to his critical mastery of artistic interpretation.

As I understand it, Updike was also one of the few American authors who had ‘made it’ to the point that he could dictate to his publishers what art his book covers would display.  Often, his covers give a hint as to the themes that emerge within.

Villages, published in 2004, heralds one of its main themes right on the dust jacket: we’re being watched!  The cover image is of The Turkish Bath by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (right.  Image in the Public Domain).  Ingres pulls the viewer in as a voyeur; gazing on a private moment of buxom young women in the nude.  The women mostly seem unaware of our trespass–one has a guitar, most are lazily lounging.  No one seems disturbed.

The (anti?)-hero of Villages is Owen Mackenzie.  Updike begins with Owen’s half-asleep, half-awake memories of his childhood.  Present day Owen is now seventy, looking back at his life, as as an observer.  He remembers villages where he grew up, had sex, got married, got divorced.  Sight, eyes, watchfulness, observation, and voyeurism all play a huge, if ambiguous, part in the novel.  Owen was formed by the comfort of his childhood village of Willow in Central Pennsylvania.  Yet, behind the supposed idyll of small town Americana, Owen was also a youthful witness to sin, secrets and gossip–he’s intrigued by playground graffiti of a naked woman as well as peeping into the high school girls’ locker room, which Owen remembered as having a ‘whiff of scandal’ (as well as lending the image for the cover.)

The ambiguity of sight as a theme is front and center.  In a brilliant early passage, Updike identifies Owen’s happiest childhood moment: near Christmas, playing by a miniature Christmas village, hearing the delivery of the mail: “That mailmen walked and trolley cars clanged through the storm seemed to confirm the Hollywood, comic-strip version of American reality; we were as safe, and as lovingly regarded from on high, as the tiny, unaging figures in a shaken snow globe.”  [43]  That same feeling of providence, of being watched from the heavens, interrupts a youthful dalliance with a woman in a car.  And if the previous hints weren’t enough, Owen is a co-inventor of computer technology named DigitEyes.

As Owen ages, we learn about his family, his career.    The novel is structured somewhat like a fugue–with themes overlapping and recurring.  Time shifts back and forth between Owen’s villages and marriages.  Updike clearly is dealing with the idea of nostalgia here–his verdict seems to be that the past was never as perfect as we remember it.  One could be forgiven for calling this one of his more pessimistic books–for Updike uncovers much of the pain and secrets of life that we’d wished had remained hidden.  However, I would prefer to call it realistic.  Updike lovingly crafts his prose, even the images of pain, sin and loss–and that’s how we’re to live, isn’t it?  Lovingly.

What to listen to when reading this:  Bach, The Art of the Fugue.

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