Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rabbit Redux by John Updike

Three classes behind his, Peggy Gring had gone to high school with Rabbit and had seen him when he was good, had say in those hot bleachers screaming, when he was a hero, naked and swift and lean. She has seen him come to nothing.

I read, but didn’t review, Rabbit, Run, last year. It follows Rabbit Angstrom, aged 26, as he lives his post-high school life, tries, and fails, to make his marriage to his high school sweetheart work, and suffers some pretty heavy-duty heartbreak. It’s a tragic book, and Rabbit is a tragic character, both unique and universal—he’s his own man, but the narrative of Rabbit, Run is a universal chronicle of one man’s failure to live up to whatever potential he has. It’s also an exercise in both character and reader debasement, disturbing and moving in equal part.

Rabbit Redux takes place 10 years later, with much of the cast returning, picking up where Run left off, with Rabbit, in the aftermath of the tragic event that closes Run, trying—and once again, failing—to shape his life into something that makes him less miserable. After discovering his wife is having an affair with a co-worker, George Stavros, Rabbit’s life again goes off the rails. His wife leaves him, and he takes in a young female runaway, Jill, and her “friend”, a black drug dealer named Skeeter. Things don’t go well.

The title. Rabbit Redux, speaks to a restoration, and, in the end, there is a restoration of sorts. It comes at a cost, of course, and most of Redux doesn’t seem redemptive at all. If anything, Rabbit is a bigger jerk than in Run, more confused, volatile, misogynist, and, adding a new wrinkle, racist. He descends into drug use and, regarding Jill, what could easily be construed as sexual abuse, and, frankly, is pretty reprehensible. It speaks to Updike’s skill that Rabbit still feels human and, in the end, pitiful, if not exactly sympathetic.

Parts of Redux are hard reading—the bleakness rarely lets up, and there’s a dearth of reader surrogates. Updike dares us to sympathize with Rabbit, the cruel screw-up, as he watches those around him collapse. And watch, he does; Rabbit’s defining characteristic is his passivity, his impotence. He is acted upon and around. Even in his seductions, which in Run were at least initiated by Angstrom himself, are thrust upon him by others. He allows terrible things to happen under his roof, allows his wife to leave when she all but tells him she wants him to fight for her, lets his son do as he pleases. In the end, even Rabbit’s redemption, such as it is, is a sad, passive affair, as he is restored, not by his own actions, but by the actions of a woman he has wronged.

In the end, the title ends up being a cruel irony: Rabbit’s restoration at the end of the novel only restores him to less than the state he was in at the beginning. He is renewed only in the sense that his situation has changed, for the worse—the man in the middle is the same as always, growing older as the world revolves around him. Rabbit stifles every attempt at epiphany, never striving to be a better man, drowning in his own confusion and pity, kept from the deepest depths by the outstretched hands of the people he hurts.

One more thing: I don’t know if it comes through in this review, but Rabbit Redux is a very strange, very adult book. It’s disturbing, creepy, and can be kind of disgusting. Let the buyer beware.


Christopher said...

I agree that Rabbit is worse here and, accordingly, more tragic. The good news for you is that the next book is the funniest and most light-hearted of the four.

Christopher said...
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Robert Stone said...

Signs and signage – road signs, movie marquees, newspaper headlines real and imaginary, municipal signs, electronic message boards, storefronts, etc. – function as important indicators of the shifts, changes, and developments in Angstrom’s consciousness as he grows older throughout the decades chronicled in Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ series. Perhaps.