Asides: Rabbit Angstrom’s incoherence in ‘Rabbit Redux’

In my previous post I looked at a paragraph near the beginning of John Updike’s 1971 novel, Rabbit Redux. In this, the second in a sporadic series of ‘Asides’ (ie not conventional book reviews) I want to take a look at another paragraph closely in order to explore how Updike’s narrative voice functions with such artistic power.

I’m returning to the same early section of the novel from which yesterday’s extract was taken: Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom’s marriage is faltering, his wife Janice has admitted to having an affair with a Greek car salesman called Charlie Stavros, so her insistence that they eat at a Greek restaurant in their home town of Brewer, Pennsylvania with their teenage son Nelson is another of the recurring knocks to his pride and self-esteem that Harry is assailed by throughout this quartet of novels.

In the restaurant Harry is determined to find something on the menu ‘enough like a hamburger’; his natural xenophobia is exacerbated by his incipient jealousy of Charlie. His unreflecting patriotism is one of several unendearing features of his character.

He touches the flowers in the vase on the red checked tablecloth: they’re real. ‘Janice was right. The place is nice.’ The free indirect style and present tense are trademark features of Updike’s technique; here, the words mirror Harry’s thoughts pretty exactly – monosyllabic, unsophisticated, indicative of his grudging approval.

There’s only one other couple dining:

Their faces have an edgy money look: their brows have that frontal clarity the shambling blurred poor can never duplicate. Though he can never now be one of them Harry likes their being here, in this restaurant so chaste it is chic. Maybe Brewer isn’t as dead on its feet as it seems. [p. 33, PMC edition]

The focalisation here is Harry’s, but the language shifts away from his untutored register into one more like the articulate, literate voice of Updike. ‘Edgy, money look’ is surely Harry (‘money’ for the standard ‘moneyed’ is his voice), but ‘frontal clarity’ is too abstract and polysyllabic to be in his lexicon, and the rest of that sentence is far too syntactically, aesthetically poised and complex for his limited range. ‘Chaste’ and ‘chic’ are way beyond Harry’s ken, but they illuminate for us the murky, muddled thoughts and impressions Harry is entertaining in a way he’d never be able to articulate with any such incisiveness or clarity.

Nevertheless these lines do reflect Harry’s grubby class envy and sense of inadequacy in the presence of people more wealthy or intelligent than he is (which is most people). Then the final sentence takes us right back into Harry’s sensibility: the clichéd ‘dead on its feet’ chimes with the rueful sentiment expressed: Harry feels he’s in a dead-end job (a linotype operator), in a dying marriage and a country that’s losing its way – situations with which he can personally identify.

In these few short lines, because of this subtly shifting narrative position, Updike is able both to show us Harry, as all the best writing courses recommend, as edgy and indecisive as his nickname implies, and as metaphysically challenged as the first syllable of his surname indicates. But Updike also provides an insight into Harry from this other, hovering perspective that he himself would be intellectually incapable of.

The narrator is rendering coherent what remains largely incoherent in Harry’s mediated thoughts. Updike doesn’t patronise Harry, however, in shifting the narrative voice about in this way. He is able to give us a perspective from which we can understand and sympathise with Harry’s habitual disappointment and bafflement as life conspires against him and his fundamental, flawed decency.

 

 

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.