Asides: John Updike’s Rabbit

When I started this blog just over three years ago I intended posting a fairly eclectic mix of pieces, literary and otherwise. As time has passed, I find it’s turning into, for the most part, a book reviewing site, with occasional forays into other areas.

I’d like to revert to that slightly more varied approach, and start posting different kinds of piece, either unconsidered trifles that I’ve squirreled away in notebooks over the years, and which when I revisit them strike me as interesting, or snippets I come across that caught my attention. Maybe just a short passage from a book I’ve enjoyed, but don’t necessarily want to review as a whole.

I realise some visitors to this site might not want to read such stuff, so I shall flag these pieces with the generic prefix ‘Asides’ in the title, so you can ignore them if you came here looking for book reviews.

My Penguin Modern Classics editions

My Penguin Modern Classics editions

So here’s a note about a passage in John Updike’s second novel in his Rabbit tetralogy, Rabbit Redux, first published in 1970, and which I read 5 years ago (an old notebook informs me). It picks up Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom’s life ten years after the first in the sequence, Rabbit Run (he added each volume at roughly decade-long intervals).

In this book Harry is older, fatter, softer and has done with running. His marriage is faltering in the first volume, which ended with a domestic tragedy that stretched the marital situation to the limit; his wife Janice has now admitted she’s sleeping with a salesman at the Toyota franchise her father runs (Updike shows the zeitgeist brilliantly – here the looming demise of the American industrial-manufacturing machine; in the background are also the moon landings, civil rights, the Vietnam war) – a Greek man called Charlie Stavros. Harry is something of a bigot and a racist, so this doesn’t please him in several different ways.

He’s not an intellectual or a thinker, so when he does feel something, it tends to be visceral, conflicted. He’s not a particularly engaging protagonist, but there’s a humanity about him that’s rarely encountered in modern fiction in such a direct style, as I hope the following extract shows.

On his way to see a film he takes his teenage son to a Greek restaurant (Janice’s choice wasn’t too subtle). Here they’ve been discussing the film, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ – which Harry typically resents having to go to see [spoiler alert – plot revealed]:

Harry likes the sensation of frightening her, of offering to confront outright this faceless unknown he feels now in their lives, among them like a fourth member of the family. The baby that died? But though Janice’s grief was worse at first, though she bent under it like a reed he was afraid might break, in the long years since, he has become sole heir to the grief. Since he refused to get her pregnant again the murder and guilt have become all his. At first he tried to explain how it was, that sex with her had become too dark, too serious, too kindred to death, to trust anything that might come out of it. Then he stopped explaining and she seemed to forget: like a cat who sniffs around in corners mewing for the drowned kittens a day or two and then back to lapping milk and napping in the wash basket. Women and Nature forget. Just thinking of the baby, remembering how he had been told of her death over a pay phone in a drugstore, puts a kink in is chest, a kink he still associates, dimly, with God. [pp. 31-32, PMC edition]

Updike’s handling of the present tense and complex syntax seems effortless. And he risks taking on the biggest of themes: sex, death, gender, Nature – and God.

The technique is similar to the free indirect thought that has been a feature of prose fiction since Jane Austen: these words are largely focalised through Harry’s consciousness. But it’s more subtle than that. The extended cat simile has the naked nastiness that we’ve come to identify as Harry’s default response to anything upsetting. It’s misogynistic (reinforced by that brutally short, simple sentence about ‘women and Nature’ later) and cruel – but it rings true. Updike doesn’t take the easy option of making Harry ‘relatable’, as my teenage students would say.

He has the courage to make him all too human, as flawed as the next person. He’s consumed with self-pity, inarticulate rage, and an existential-spiritual bleakness that matches some of the bleakest moments in Beckett. Yet there’s a warmth and humour lurking near the surface all the time which somehow redeems these damaged, hurting people. They’re banal, baffled and transcendent in their abrasive contact with the exigencies of life. Harry is no everyman, but he’s not far off.

Next time I hope to look at another passage from this book.

Hope this diversion has been OK with readers. I’d be delighted to hear feedback in the comments – positive or not.

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17 thoughts on “Asides: John Updike’s Rabbit

    • Liz: thanks for this. I understand he’s not everyone’s cup of tea: U can seem misogynistic, patrician, etc. But he can write! I found long sections of Rabbit Redux tedious, and Harry can be appalling.

      • I’m not sure I like any of these Great 20th Century Male Writers – I had a book of Cheever short stories I took on holiday and really didn’t like, and I also didn’t like that Ice Storm chap everyone raved about. I do love Larry McMurtry so I don’t hate all male, American chroniclers of life and marriage …

        • Liz: the American males can be unreconstructed – Hemingway, Roth – & JU has some objectionable views on gender. Richard Yates in Revolutionary Road portrayed a crumbling marriage in some interesting ways. Wallace Stegner, John Williams show a touch less machismo. James Salter – they all write great prose; shame about some of the content. As for Cormac McCarthy – I’d better not mention him. What about English male writers – any better?

          • A lot of them aren’t, to be honest – Amis etc write about worlds I don’t care for. I’m going to pop next door into Fiction and see which male writers I do like …

            OK, McMurtry, Vikram Seth, Rushdie to an extent, I used to love Hanif Kureishi but went off his thinly veiled descriptions of his private life … Hardy and Trollope and Francis Brett Young I adore but obviously not modern. Bali Rai, David Lodge, James Kelman I ADORE.

            Some Americans – Nicholson Baker I love, Douglas Coupland I did love but he’s tailed off a bit. I love love love Michael Cunningham. North of the border, I LOVE Robertson Davies.

            Not sure what any of that says, but I had fun looking them out!

          • Wow, Liz, some names there i don’t know! I was a big fan of R Davies some time ago, but haven’t read him in…a long time. M Cunningham – check. I also used to like P Auster, till he started repeating himself. English: William Boyd of a few years ago was good, tailed off a touch, but still ok, and writes well about women (I think). Same for S Faulks – esp since he became interested in psychology. G Swift’s recent one I wrote about here, and liked a lot. Oddly, I seem to have written mostly this year about women writers; not planned, just happened. My top favourites tend to be 19C: Dickens, G Eliot, then later, Conrad, James. All flawed, in their own ways, but all brilliant. I guess that’s it, isn’t it: nobody is perfect. The friend who recently died, about whom I wrote earlier this month, was a DH Lawrence expert and adored him; I find him extremely inconsistent – superb at best, but capable of the opposite. Hardy, of course. But not the poems: doing them at A level I’m afraid put me off.

          • Interesting, Simon. I adored Hardy’s poems when I was in school. I found his novels more of a slog.

          • Paula: funny how we arrive at such conflicting opinions. Wonder how much of it is due to extraneous circumstances – i.e. not something about the texts themselves, but about how we arrived at our relationship with them. Like having to read them for a study course, with maybe an uncongenial teacher (though I was usually lucky in that way); or being ill when reading (I’ve arrived at several curious decisions about books when unwell – or well). And yes, Hardy’s novels can be a slog, especially the late, unfunny ones (sorry, Woody Allen references keep surfacing today) – but Tess is inimitable, unrepeatable. And some of the short stories. Thanks for dropping by.

          • Liz: Should have added Richard Ford in that list of admired US authors; I’ve reviewed him occasionally here. DF Wallace I know largely from the short stories, some of which are amazing; others
            I find banal. Still not attempted Infinite Jest…one day.

  1. I didn’t comment at the time, but count me as another who likes the asides.

    I’m kind of with Liz on “Great 20th Century Male Writers”, but that doesn’t make the post less interesting even if (perhaps even more so because) I’m unlikely to read the book.

    • Updike is strange: some obnoxious content, but the guy can write. Like Wagner, perhaps: don’t like him, but the work had merit. E Pound too…Glad you like the asides, Max.

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