The early years of this century have inspired an uncommon amount of speculation about America’s advancing age. The Olympic Opening Ceremony in Beijing, and the ensuing changing-of-the-guard buzz it inspired, was only the latest, and most pointed, example of the creeping feeling that America, while hardly a senior citizen, might be past its prime.
The change, if it happened, was sudden. I took an international relations class in 2002, my junior year of college, and all of books we read focused on the collapse of the Soviet Union and the new age of American unipolar dominance. Such thinking seems wistful, if not naive today, squeezed and suddenly vulnerable as we are to the unpredictability of terrorism, the rise of petrostates, and the momentum of China. The changing complexion of the world has inspired a raft of books on American descent, some of which look outward in their analysis, like Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, and others, like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that look inward at our unsustainable national habits.
This shift in the national mood was brought home to me when, this summer, I reread Rabbit, Run, which I had first picked up in high school, and at the time appreciated largely for the basketball on the cover and the scenes between the sheets. The novel opens with Rabbit trapped at home, with a pregnant, alcoholic wife in a dingy apartment. The coat closet door bangs against the television set when he opens it partway to hang up his suit coat, a precise and simple illustration of the confined place the former high school basketball star has come to in his mid-twenties. Sent by his wife Janice to retrieve their young son Nelson, Rabbit instead steals into the family car and points his way out of town. Rabbit does not get far though. He’s disoriented soon after crossing from Pennsylvania into West Virginia, and by daybreak the next morning he is back in the bowl of Brewer, ensconced mere miles from the his wife and kid, first with his old high school basketball coach and then for a longer stay with a wounded amateur prostitute named Ruth.
I read Rabbit, Run several months after finishing two novels from our time featuring troubled male protagonists. Frank Bascombe in Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land and Hans van den Broek in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland are constructed similarly to Rabbit, in that they are distinctively strong and confident in one part of their lives, but fundamentally weak and uncertain in the emotional dimensions that matter most. Though he’s some years out of high school, Rabbit still maintains the cocksureness and presence of a talented athlete. Frank and Hans are confident and assured as well-off, successful professionals, yet like Rabbit, they are emotionally feeble and crippled in their marriages.
The characters are similar in design, yet reading Rabbit, Run, I was struck by just how differently Updike depicts Rabbit’s dislocation, compared with the renderings Ford and O’Neill give their characters fifty years later. The last line of The Lay of the Land describes Frank’s descent into a Minneapolis airport, bound for the Mayo Clinic with his second wife tight by his side. “A bump, a roar,” Ford writes, “a heavy thrust forward into life again, and we resume our human scale upon the land.” The idea of returning to the ground, and to life, marks a break with the feeling of suspension that permeates the three books of the Bascombe trilogy. Battered by the tragedies that have accumulated in his life, Frank floats down the many miles of the Jersey turnpike, and drifts just out of reach of his emotions and the other people in his life. A similar sense of distance accents Netherland. Hans surveys New York from an upper floor of the Chelsea hotel and appears to have the same vantage on the events of his own life, dazed, almost, as if drugged, a surveyor hanging by the foot from a hot air balloon.
Rewind fifty years, however, and Updike offers a different view of the situation. To hear Rabbit tell it, he is anything but adrift from the circumstances of his life. He is more besieged, and the language throughout Rabbit, Run is abrasive and aggressive. Rabbit is “irritated” by Ruth’s friends. The strap of his golf bag “gnaws at his shoulder.” The chair in his living room “attacks” his knees and his son’s strewn toys “derange” his head. He is beset at every turn, gripped as if trying to escape the clawing branches of a phantasmagoric forest. Though Frank and Hans are just as up against it as Rabbit, Updike’s language, describing such direct conflict, seems of a simpler time, when the antagonists in the world could still be so clearly named. A bag strap, a chair, some children’s toys.
The stresses Rabbit faces are the stresses of youth, crucible pressures which bore in on him. It’s not pressure, though, that afflicts Hans and Frank. They face instead the dissolution of narrative, the escape of once familiar boundaries and reliable sources of meaning. Frank has confronted the loss of his son, the end of his marriage, and cancer, unknowable episodes from Rabbit’s vantage. Frank’s losses have not left him with the oppression of a place he knows too well, the way Brewer confronts Rabbit, but instead with the void of a place he knows not at all. That the world becomes less intelligible, not more, as we grow older, is the wisdom Frank has to offer Rabbit, an allowance to ease the struggle, and perhaps a message for our time.