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.