Monday, February 25, 2008
Over the weekend, I finished "Rabbit at Rest", the fourth volume of Updike's amazing series, charting the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom from about 1960 to 1990. I mentioned this over on Jazz Corner and, as had occurred in the past, received a variety of opinions about Updike, by and large negative. I'm curious about this.
I'd always brushed Updike aside and had little interest in reading him for a long, long time. I associated him with a certain New Yorker magazine kind of writer--white, WASP-y, novels concerned with wealthy Westchester-ites, in whom I had no interest. There were a few writers who fell in to this category--Bellow, Cheever (who I still haven't gotten back to, having only read a short story collection back in the 70s). Maybe it was seeing his books on the shelves of parents of friends (not sure if we had any ourselves) figuring, if they like him, how good could he be?
Somewhere in the early or mid-90s, for reasons that escape me, I picked up his novel, "S."--and enjoyed it greatly. I then read both "In the Beauty of the Lilies" and "Toward the End of Time" and loved them, marveling in both the language and the perspicacity of his observations. Much of it is simple affinity--his characters notice and consider many of the same things I do. The latter novel is one of the finest, most subtle works of speculative fiction I know. Incidentally, I wasn't able to get much into "The Centaur" at all and had a good deal of difficulty with the more recent "Seek My Face" as well, while I've generally enjoyed his non-fiction essays, especially those involving art criticism.
So a couple years back, I began the Rabbit series ("Rabbit, Run", "Rabbit Redux", "Rabbit is Rich" and "Rabbit at Rest". For my money, it ranks with Richard Yates' "Revolutionary Road" as the most trenchant, honest and real example of contemporary American fiction concerned with middle class life in the period. Rabbit seems to be someone Updike could have been, had he been athletic, more stolid, more fundamentally conservative. He's an absolutely fascinating character to have created, in his complex combination of antipathetic characteristics and a surprisingly keen and penetrating mind. He's baffled by much of the change that occurs over the three decades, a large part of him wanting things to remain as they were during his "glory years" as a star local basketball player, he's utterly selfish though he doesn't think he is, he's fascinated by people and how they run their lives and he observes thousands of small things that etch the middle class American landscape with more brutal honesty, good and bad, than I've ever encountered elsewhere.
Yet he seems to be held in low regard by at least a good number of people whose tastes in literature I generally admire. Someone used the phrase, "a phallus with a thesaurus" which I don't get on either account. His use of language, while imho very beautiful, is hardly a matter of fancy words; pretty much the opposite. (Maybe I've not read the ones to which that observation pertains?). And while there are a number of scenes throughout Rabbit that are quite sexually explicit (more so for the eras in which the first two were published), it's all bound up with Rabbit's character which, as mentioned, was a local athletic star who reaped the side benefits of same and spent a good portion of his life thinking that state of affairs should somehow always be maintained (and who, indeed, found a few partners who felt the same way, one of the aspects that lends a tawdry, tragic atmosphere to the books).
My guess is that a large part of the negative reaction toward him (unless it's based on novels, like the Bech series, I haven't read) lies in his unflinching rendition of the banality and smallness of the existence of a character like Rabbit, someone whose way of thinking is uncomfortably close to those of us who grew up in similar surroundings, that is white and middle class in the US (though Rabbit is about 20 years older than myself). It's extremely unhip and, indeed, "hipness" is viewed by Rabbit with extreme suspicion, a foreign kind of virus that upsets what he thinks should be the normal course of things, though he'll appropriate aspects of it if it suits his purposes. He's too much like our parents, perhaps, something we'd rather not examine this closely.
Oh well, just riffing while at work here. I'm sure I'm leaving out tons of analysis that could be, and I assume has been, done. When I finished "Rabbit at Rest" yesterday, it was with great sadness, not merely for coming to the end of the books, but for Rabbit who, for all his obtuseness, insensitivity and stubborn oafishness, was one incredible, complicated individual.