Friday, February 6, 2009

Remembering John Updike's 'Rabbit'

Updike_McGrath
"John Updike," Artwork by Josh Cochran, All rights reserved

A woman friend once told me she read John Updike’s “Rabbit” novels to try to understand the way men think. “Did it work?” I asked her. “Well, yes..." she answered. "...and no."

I like to think Updike, who died last week, would have been pleased by the exchange. He was our most precise & authoritative writer, but he never seemed to get up on a soapbox & tell us exactly what to think. His prose stayed nimble & easy, essentially comic, even as it grappled directly with the dark disappointments and bewildering complications of our endlessly morphing history. There has been no other author so perfectly pitched between earnestness & irony to explain the contradictions of our age.

In the days following his death, papers & magazines everywhere filled with insightful & heartfelt tributes (for a somewhat NY-centric sampling, go here & here & here). As I read these pieces, I thought of Rabbit -- Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom -- the protagonist of Updike’s four best-known novels (Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest). I thought: Updike is dead, but Rabbit will live on.

I had been simultaneously fascinated & frustrated when I started reading Rabbit's story in the 1960s. I considered myself a member of the counterculture then, coolly above what I saw as Rabbit's crude sexism & unquestioning patriotism. Why, I wondered, had Updike -- who could make those beautiful poetic sentences -- written about such a loser?

Childish, lustful, materialistic , given to swings between self-aggrandizement & self-pity, Rabbit starts out a small town high school basketball star, gets his girlfriend pregnant, is forced into early marriage, runs away & finally returns to reluctantly, sullenly take up his responsibilities. In the later books, he weathers tragedy, inherits a Toyota dealership, has affairs, struggles with his difficult family & finally -- out-of-shape & overweight in his 50s -- dies of a heart attack brought on by a one-on-one basketball game with a teenage boy. Could anything sound less appealing?

Yet the Rabbit tetralogy is a masterpiece that will be read for a long time. Rabbit & Updike’s other male characters may not have given much comfort to my friend, but I have no doubt they were worth her attention. Unheroic – but not anti-heroic – Rabbit & his ilk are the kind of men who are thoroughly familiar to millions of Americans . Neither perfect suburban husbands nor hard-bitten outsiders, such men are caught in the middle, tugged in two directions at once. “I like middles,” Updike explained once. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”

“…These men vacillate between duty and self-fulfillment, a craving for roots and a hungering after freedom.,” says critic Michiko Kakutani. "As the author [Updike] himself once put it, his heroes ‘oscillate in their moods between an enjoyment of the comforts of domesticity and the familial life, and a sense that their essential identity is a solitary one — to be found in flight and loneliness and even adversity...’ “

OK, but what about Rabbit's harsh prejudices, his ridiculous self-regard, his compulsive eating, his even more compulsive philandering? I found as I aged -- perhaps a decade behind Rabbit's fictional aging -- that these things became easier to understand & thus to forgive. Even as he drifts through middle-age toward right-wing politics, Rabbit [Updike] reveals an independent mind, an urgent spiritual life, & a steadily generous, if not always dependable, urge to do the right thing. I ended up caring about Rabbit, not in spite of, but because he can’t stop himself from self-destructively pigging out on salty snack foods or being tempted by every remotely available woman. He's a sinner, in short. If you don't like the religious connotations, choose another term -- flawed, insecure, neurotic, narcissistic. Whatever you call it, this is what makes him interesting.

Illuminated by Updike's brilliant sentences, Rabbit’s restless curiosity about everything from global politics to motel décor makes him a good companion, even as I sometimes disagree. Admittedly, he's not an exemplary man, let alone a righteous one -- but then, it turns out -- neither am I. And, after all, don't I -- don't you? -- nevertheless deserve love?

It's instructive to anyone who has found a portion of salvation in art to realize how much Updike the author loved his flabby blowhard creation. Perhaps Rabbit was a kind of ur-ego for the great author, the self Updike had stepped away from -- the self that had been refined away by education, travel, the company of the sophisticated. Perhaps writing Rabbit's life was Updike's way to forgive himself. To gratefully accept, as Rabbit does, his fate. In these books Rabbit's awareness continues to grow. He is not a thoughtful man, yet he comes to understand that his life is far from ideal. He embraces it anyway. He is tormented by regrets, afraid of pain & death, overmatched by the demons that beset his loved ones, unsure of his ultimate worth. Yet Rabbit tries -- imperfectly -- to make the best of his alloted time.

4 comments:

Ron Diorio said...

Tim, that was a good read.

Never read Updike except for a few short stories in "Couples".

Hope all is well.

Christine (CA) said...

Wonderful piece. I tried Updike a long time ago. Could not get past a few pages. I don't remember why but it was during my raging feminist period and your description makes me suspect it was distaste for his character. I've mellowed. Maybe I should try again.

Anonymous said...

Tim, I had a sort of correspondence with Updike when I was a teenager. He was courteous that way.

I hear what Christine is saying in her response, above.
I read Updike for the sex. I thought I was learning the make point of view, somehow.

Recently I have read his memoir, "Self Conscousness".
I loved it until the chapter about being for the war in Viet Nam. For that, I cannot figure him out at all.

The memoir does explain a lot though:

-he was an only child of a mother who wanted to be a writer, who was intelligent but ill-positioned to use what she so evidently had

-like all first borns he had that pressure to please which I believe kept his work essentially light compared to say Richard Ford or Saul Bellow

-there were money stresses growing up ( thus Updike's love of country club sets and being integrated into middle class suburban life

I do think that Updike was really a visual artist, and that the joys for me in reading him are in seeing him look at the world like an artist

-his many illnesses-- in particular, psoriasis--totally dominated his life and his stuttering kept him out of public life by and large

-he wanted desperately to please

-he really "Got" New England, and his essays on Emerson etc are spot on. He was a very good essayist

-he saw the Rabbit books as a metaphor for
America

-Nancy

Carolinux said...

Tim

The upside of being an underemployed computer programmer is the ability to devote time to one of my favorite pastimes: reading...

Your piece reminded me of yet another great writer that deserves revisiting...

Thanks for brightening a blue day...

-be