Saturday, January 12, 2008

Rabbit Redux by John Updike

When Updike published Rabbit, Run, his protagonist Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom was only two years his junior; at intervals of almost exactly ten years he wrote the next three Rabbit books, wherein Rabbit ages at exactly the same rate. This is, I think, an achievement of unparalleled ambition. Rabbit is Updike's everyman, and it seems as if Updike spends each of his ten years gathering material for Rabbit; for this reason Updike's legacy is tied to his character just as Updike's life is. The effect is like meeting an old friend--ten years have passed since you've last seen each other, but life has not stalled since then, and Rabbit grew with the rest of his generation in real time.

Rabbit Redux finds Rabbit back with his wife Janice, living in a small starter home in the suburbs of Brewer, Pa. with their now 12-year old son Nelson. Harry's infidelity and the tragedies of the first book (which I will not recount because Brent is going to read it) have been pushed to the corners of the Angstroms' consciousness, but not forgotten; they inform much of what the characters do or think. When Janice leaves Rabbit to stay with her lover, Greek car salesman Charlie Stavros, Rabbit, through a strange series of plot turns, takes in a rich young runaway from Connecticut named Jill, who pays her rent in nookie. It isn't long before a friend of hers, a young black radical named Skeeter, ends up at Rabbit's house on the lam from the cops.

What this sets up is a strange chunk of the novel in which Rabbit, Nelson, Jill, and Skeeter live in Rabbit's house in a peculiar commune-type situation: Skeeter, who styles himself as a "Black Jesus," spreads his dogma to the other three during nightly discussions. I looked for a passage from these discussions to quote, but I got lost and exhausted really quick; they're dense and full of odd anger and mishmash radicalism. It is this section that didn't feel quite right to me--Rabbit, despite his frequent escapes from domesticity, is a conservative man who believes strongly in the Vietnam war and is suspicious of blacks. In some way I think that Rabbit clings to this life because it is peculiar and perverse, and refreshing after a stagnant and not particularly satisfying twelve years of marriage, but I find some scenes (especially those in which Rabbit does not rebuke Skeeter for his savageness toward Jill or Nelson) to not quite jibe with Rabbit's character. The culmination of this is a scene in which Rabbit and Skeeter very nearly double-team Jill in the living room--what the fuck? It's Updike's prose that is the saving grace here, turning the ridiculous into the believable.

The other thing I didn't like quite so much about Rabbit Redux is that Updike seems to keen to turn Rabbit into a reflection of the American psyche. In Rabbit, Run, Rabbit was just Rabbit, and didn't need to be anymore--we could identify in him the human desires to be loved and to be free, and all the mess and complications that result from them. But in making Rabbit the prototypical American--and not the prototypical human being--Updike actually narrows his focus and Rabbit's relevance. Updike places Rabbit Redux squarely against a backdrop of social and political change and upheaval: the moon landing, Vietnam, race riots. At one point, Rabbit has a lengthy argument about Vietnam with his Stavros, his wife's paramour (who is a dove). And then, of course, the Skeeter sections. These all have their charms and their positives, but forty years later, I find this aspect of the book to be the least appealing.

Of course, I still recommend this book strongly, if only not quite as strongly as I do Rabbit, Run. Up next: Rabbit is Rich!

9 comments:

Nihil Novum said...

Less analysis, more scatological humor.

Carlton said...

I concur.

Nihil Novum said...

The best thing about posting reviews here is that it makes you feel like the time you spend writing them is appreciated.

Christopher said...

Maybe we should allow comments on the Ometer?

Nihil Novum said...

That would be cool. We need someone who can do it.

Brooke said...

Four books already! I need to hit the library.
I've read a little bit of Updike in some of my classes and can't get into him. Maybe I'll read these.

Christopher said...

Updike is fantastic.

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