Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Reading List: Rabbit Redux

Rabbit Redux
by John Updike

Rabbit Redux is the first of three books on the Reading List listed under the omnibus entry “the other Rabbit books after Rabbit, Run.” Rabbit, Run itself isn’t on the list, and hasn’t been reviewed in these here pages, because I’d already read it when the List was assembled. It’s a book that inspires passionate devotion – I believe it is occasional reader Chuckdaddy’s favorite book – and also heartfelt detraction. In fact, I can already sense frequent commenter Elaine readying herself to emphasize that she very much dislikes the Rabbit books, and in fact I’m hoping that she will offer a pithy yet cogent statement of the case against. No pressure, Elaine.

For my own part, I found Rabbit, Run an almost exhilarating piece of prose writing. Updike at his best deploys language masterfully, like some sort of grim homegrown Nabakov. I am especially fond of the unbroken opening sequence in which the protagonist Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom comes home from work, unexpectedly snaps from the banality and disappointment of his everyday adult life, and half-consciously sets out on a road trip that almost, but not really, propels him out of the deep rut that has been lain down for him. Rabbit’s epic and often pyrrhic battles against that rut continue through the remainder of Rabbit, Run and pick up again, ten years later, in Rabbit Redux.

Some things about Rabbit Redux that I found to be, you know, good.

The Novel as Time Travel. Rabbit, Run conjured up a vivid picture of the late 1950s, a time when urban decay was beginning to emerge amidst a general prosperity. I wasn’t around for that time, but in reading Updike I felt immersed in the rhythms and textures of a just-slightly foreign land recognizable from photographs, from old magazines, from the family albums that I don’t usually look at because there aren’t any pictures of me in them yet. Rabbit Redux is set in 1969. I existed then, but only just; my memories begin in the world that had just staggered out of 1969, and there is an amazement of detail in Redux that vividly brings that time back to life. As a forty-something in 2011, I am consistently amazed at the precision and depth of Updike’s research and memory – before remembering that the book went to press in 1972. The abundance of cultural reference must have given Rabbit’s adventures a tremendous immediacy at the time; but for us people of the future, it is as if Updike deliberately set out to leave us a rich and well-stocked time capsule.

Antihero Ascendant. Willful without ambition, Rabbit the character often falls short of the kind of behavior you might hope for in your literary protagonist. Indeed, he is often a real jerk. An asshole. A prick, if you will. But yet there is also a real humanity about him, if you dig deep enough. If he can get a conviction into his thickish skull, he has the courage of it. If situations force him to interact with those unlike himself, he is capable of starting to see the world from their point of view. In Redux we see Rabbit beating his wife, but making sure not to hurt her too much while doing so; standing up to the racism of his neighbors, but mostly because he doesn’t like their attitude; and acting out dozens of other instances of tempered spite and half-hearted kindness. Like most of us, he is adrift in a sea of his own wasted potential. Really, I think many of us who become fond of Rabbit, the character, do so because we recognize ourselves in him. Perhaps this is also true of people who hate Rabbit.

Words, Words. Updike writes in the present tense, which is sometimes thought to lend emotional immediacy to a narrative . For me, however -- I don’t know why -- it creates a little bit of intellectual distance, giving the action a slight quality of abstraction. Indeed, Harry Angstrom is treated just a little like the subject of a case study. But then much of Rabbit’s life experience is shaped by his history as a local basketball star, so Updike’s present-tense prose has the function too of serving as a play-by-play, picking up the story where the radio announcers who called the games of his glory days left off.

Stream-of-consciousness writing is deeply etched into Updike’s Rabbit books, so deeply that you could easily read through them without realizing that the implied outside narrator is frequently taking you on jaunts through his character’s thought processes. Here’s a passage from late in the book, with Rabbit in his childhood bedroom thinking about how he used to fantasize that it was a train car in motion:
And for a while there had been a stamp collection, weird to remember, the big blue album with padded covers and the waxpaper mounts and the waxpaper envelopes stuffed with a tumble of Montenegro and Sierra Leone cancelleds. He imagined then that he would travel to every country in the world and send Mom a postcard from every one, with these stamps. He was in love with the idea of traveling, with running, with geography, with Parcheesi and Safari and all board games where you roll the dice and move; the sense of a railroad car was so vivid he could almost see his sallow overhead light, tulip-shaped, tremble and sway with the motion. Yet traveling became an offense in the game he got good at.
You could spend a lot of time thinking about that paragraph. For one thing, it represents Rabbit’s entire life history within a few sentences. It also follows the contours of a immediate thought process, from the slight marvel that one used to collect stamps (“weird to remember”) to the tactile memories of the experience (“waxpaper mounts”) to the still-remembered specific knowledge involved (not “stamps,” but “cancelleds”). The sentences are third person, but from a first-person point of reference – not “his mother,” but “Mom.” You could fret over whether that last sentence is an exquisite conclusion to a chain of thought that rambles through games, travel, and nostalgia, or is just a little too much – as I did myself, enlisting Mrs.5000 into the fretting for good measure. But you could also – and this is my point, I think – zip right through that paragraph without worrying about the language, yet absorbing a rich sense of the moment, and the character’s sense of muted regret at the loss of his childhood ambitions.

Some things about Rabbit Redux that I personally felt as weaknesses, although that certainly could just be my own opinion.

Where’s Janice? Rabbit’s wife Janice, something of an empty dress in the first book, begins to emerge in Rabbit Redux as an interesting, nuanced, well-realized character. And then she disappears for the bulk of the book. This is more than just crabbing about the book that Updike didn’t write, because it creates a real asymmetry within the narative. We are given to expect that there will be a certain volume of Janice there, and then she is gone.  If that feeling of absence is a deliberate creation on Updike’s part to make us share Rabbit’s experience, than he is indeed one clever sumbitch.

Incidentally – I am not, and never have been, a woman, but be that as it may I’m not sure that Updike is remarkably successful at really getting inside the thinking of his female characters. I mean, I think he does a better job than most men writing in 1971 did, and I salute that he was giving it the old college try, but did he get there? Maybe some of you of the female persuasion would care to address this issue? Maybe not? OK.

C’mon, really? I usually push back against complaints about the plausibility of the scenario in a work of fiction. The unlikely parts of a story are after all usually the premise, the element that makes the fictional or factual aspects of the story noteworthy, that makes it worth reading or writing about. So sure, events in Dickens (or in most novels, really) are driven by preposterous coincidence. But this is what makes his novels interesting stories, with plots, rather than descriptions of daily life in Victorian England.

But. [mild spoiler ahead]  If Updike was aiming for “a brilliant portrait of Middle America” – Life magazine’s words, not his – he needed to keep the action within the recognized parameters of Middle American behavior. And sure, one hears that lots of crazy stuff was happening in the late 1960s. But did people like Rabbit start hosting people from radically different backgrounds as permanent houseguests in their shabby suburban homes? I suppose that nothing technically impossible happens in this book, yet I was distracted throughout the middle half by a persistent feeling of events not ringing true.

And On That Note

I will now wind up what I intended to be a quick, three-paragraph review of Rabbit Redux. I wouldn’t want you to think of me as long-winded.


Jenners said...

In my effort to read books that I feel I SHOULD read but haven't, it occurs to me that I should start this series. It is bound to be scads better than the Brothers K.

mrs.5000 said...

I really love these books. I long had the idea I should read them, but was put off by what I knew about about the main character. He is, as M5K so precisely puts it, a prick. Yet I find him completely engaging, both maddening and likable, an extreme but extremely real person.

Rabbit's world, too, seems astonishingly real--the books do feel like time capsules to me also, even more so as the series progresses, and we dive back into his life every ten years or so, as if he were a lifelong friend we were only in sporadic touch with. The books remind me of the 7 Up films in that way. But Updike also lavishes care on the geography his characters inhabit--a car trip across the river is described with the kind of loving attention Tolkien might give to discussing routes through the Misty Mountains. We like Rabbit because he notices things. At least I do.

I do like seeing things from other points of view--I think Updike does a reasonably good job imagining the women in these books--but Rabbit remains their very self-centered center. Somehow as a reader I am implicated in his point of view, I indulge him as do those around him, simply by not putting the book down. I'm not sure the books would be better if they were more balanced.

Elaine said...

I think I'm too tired and sleep-deprived to address this; maybe next week when DHubby's radiation treatments are over and (we strongly hope) things begin to settle down, I will be able to cobble two sentences together (long after anyone cares why I hate Updike's series and the characters he made up...)... I feel like I'm letting down the side! (girding loins)

I am mystified as to why the (?professor? it's been SO long) 'loved' Rabbit. What am I missing? The guy has no redeeming qualities--he's not humorous, he's not hard-working, he's not gifted, he's not loving. He's a rudderless dope.

Rabbit has no guiding principles; if it's too much work, he's not going to hold himself to obligations that a personal ethic would require him to meet. He's the opposite of what I believe a human being is charged and required to attempt. And this author wants me to admire and sympathize with him?

Rabbit knew his wife was not adequate to her role as a mother; he didn't step in to care for their baby, but instead became a 'pitiful victim; of the tragedy. Bosh! Spare me. The baby was the victim; the parents were both perpetrators.

Updike can indulge in brilliant expository or descriptive writing because he's not telling a true story (in which, often, piercing events sweep away the minor details.) Novels are meant to give us the experiences of the characters--and these do not feel genuine to me; they describe, but do not enter, the 'realities.'

Well, I may have to come back tomorrow and quickly dispose of this post using the little dustbin! I'm tired and discouraged...

Chance said...

You're a book reviewing machine after my own heart.

"Updike’s writes in the present tense, which is sometimes thought to give a narrative emotional immediacy"

No plural, no apostrophe, to teacher, no guru, no method.

Michael5000 said...

Why hello Chance. Long time no see.

Characteristic error: Relic of change from "Updike's prose is written in the present tense." Let's get us a preposition in there too, as long as we're polishing.

Chuckdaddy said...

Oh how I miss the rabbit books... Am presently on the amazon waitlist for Rabbit Reincarnated.

But am totally with you on the "really?" criticism. What's so strong about the books for me is the realism- the timeliness, his flaws, the interior monologue flipping from sex to banalities to current events... And it always took me out of the moment when I felt he went for an over-the-top scene. Particularly the end of Rabbit Redux, but other times as well throughout the series. I'm reading John Updike, not Michael bay (ok, I guess he never went that far ).

But am glad to hear you like them.

Michael5000 said...

Healthy wishes for your husband, Elaine....

Elaine said...

Thanks, M5000. Today (Thursday) is the Last Treatment, and boy-o-boy are we glad! Celebrating by paying off the mortgage. Simplify.

Actually came back to trash-bin the comment I left, but someone stole the can (again! Living on a busy street can be an invitation to 'beachcombers.') Words always seem more vehement written vs spoken.

I am not sure why I can love books like _Look Homeward, Angel_ or _Angle of Repose_ (to pick fiction titles) and _In Cold Blood_ and hate Updike's Rabbit novels. Capote's work was seminal and evocative (even though both subjects and author were all far from admirable people.) At least Capote did not demand that we love any of them or think them cool. I didn't feel manipulated (as with Irving's Garp and Updike's Rabbit.) Could have had something to do with my age and stage when I read those books...

Michael5000 said...

Nah, you done good. The only vehemence was on the FB rebroadcast.

I would say that in the two Rabbits I have read I have felt invited, although not demanded, to "love" Rabbit, in the sense of empathizing with him as a fellow human being. I certainly haven't felt any suggestion that he should be admired or thought of as cool. I think of him more as a figure of pathos.

Maybe we should make a list of cultural flashpoints! 1) Pinnochio. 2) Rabbit.