Beauty and the Arc of Terror: Rabbit Redux Reconsidered

May 13, 2009 | 6 books mentioned 6 5 min read

If life is a novel, death is an editor. It strikes through every extraneous detail. It erases periods of divagation, inactivity, and muddle. What’s left is the stuff of obituaries and of eulogies: stories that fit together with a retrospective snap. Applied to public figures who spend their lives “on message,” this tendency to condense may even represent a kind of fulfillment. Writers are an odd subspecies of public figure, however – an expansively private one – and when a writer dies, our journalistic last rites run the risk of cutting his million-word testimony down to a stingy clutch of nouns. Thus David Foster Wallace and John Updike, the two greatest literary losses of the last year, get reduced to “difficulty” and “depression” (in the former case) and to “virtuosity” and “complacency” (in the latter).

Another quirk of writers, though: they bequeath us the tools we need to reach our own conclusions, without the mediation of professionals. For those disinclined to snap judgments, the death of a novelist may invite a long – even leisurely – period of reconsideration. Meandering through the back catalogue (it’s all back catalogue now) even longtime readers may stumble on a different writer than the one they thought they knew.

coverThis spring, I found myself returning to Updike’s fiction of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and I was startled by how it diverged from my memory of it. In particular, I was bowled over by the strangeness, the reckless compassion, and the emotional power of Rabbit Redux (1971). Late in life, Updike published a slimmer novel called Terrorist, which met with distinctly mixed reviews. Reviewers found fault with Rabbit Redux, as well, Updike confesses in his introduction to the Rabbit Angstrom omnibus. But, in its ardent engagement with the revolutionary zeitgeist of Nixon-era America, Rabbit Redux now looks to be Updike’s great novel of the age of political terror.

coverThe novel, the first sequel to the celebrated Rabbit, Run, opens with Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, American Everyman, more or less reconciled with the wife he abandoned in the earlier book. Updike lovingly describes the creature comforts that surround the Angstroms in Penn Villas, a middle-class suburb of decaying Brewer, Pennsylvania: their “flagstone porchlet,” their “door with its three baby windows arranged like three steps, echoing the door-chime of three stepped tones.” Their son Nelson is on the cusp of puberty, astronauts are about to make a moon landing, and all is right with the world, or at least hunky-dory.

Rabbit soon discovers, however, that his wife, Janice, is contemplating an abandonment of her own. Now a working woman, she has succumbed to the charms of her coworker, Charlie Stavros. Stavros shows her an emotional and sexual solicitude Harry has never been capable of. The hell of it is, Harry can’t bring himself to hate Janice, or even her lover, an upwardly mobile, politically progressive ethnic food aficionado who seems to hail from some distant, shag-carpeted planet. Updike – the poet laureate of infidelity – can’t bring himself to hate the adulterers either. Indeed, both author and protagonist take Janice’s sexual awakening as an opportunity to interrogate the Eisenhower-era values of which Harry Angstrom is a repository… and to find them, in their inflexibility, wanting.

Updike, who openly admired many of those values, has sometimes been characterized by writers to his left as a reactionary. However, a bravura early scene in which Angstrom and Stavros debate the war in Vietnam exposes this as a caricature. We sympathize with Stavros, who “‘can’t get too turned-on about cops bopping hippies on the head and the Pentagon playing cowboys and Indians all over the globe.'” He tells Janice, of Harry, “‘See how little and tight his mouth gets when he talks about politics?'” And we sympathize with Harry, who claims not to think about politics. “‘That’s one of my Goddam precious American rights,” he says,

“not to think about politics… And it really burns me up to listen to hotshot crap-car salesmen dripping with Vitalis sitting on their plumped-up asses bitching about a country that’s been stuffing goodies into their mouth ever since they were born.”

To which Charlie retorts, “‘I want to follow your reasoning. Tell me about the goodies we’ve been stuffing into Vietnam.'”

More than Bellow in Mr. Sammler’s Planet (that other great response to ’60s-era unrest, and surely an influence here) Updike is willing to interrogate his own biases, to exercise negative capability. He seems to conclude that politics are personal on both sides of the ideological divide. Rabbit can’t disentangle the message from the messenger; Stavros can’t see what a lousy messenger he is. Which doesn’t mean they can’t try. Stavros will eventually try to persuade Janice to return to her husband. And Harry will touchingly parrot Stavros’ point-of-view later in the book, in an attempt to enlighten Janice’s father. Indeed, by this point, Rabbit Redux has assumed a form borrowed from the counterculture Updike is supposed to have hated: the consciousness-raising session.

The middle section of the book, wherein Janice moves out of the house – is a long, strange, irresponsible trip. Harry begins smoking dope and exploring the down-and-out side of Brewer. He entangles himself with a teenage runaway named Jill and a petty criminal-cum-black-nationalist named Skeeter. Updike’s willingness to hurl himself into the thicket of American race relations is remarkable. “The bus has too many Negroes,” Harry thinks, at one point.

Two of the men in the shop are Negroes, Farnsworth and Buchanan, you didn’t even notice; at least they remember how to laugh. Sad business, being a Negro man, always underpaid… But against these educated tolerant thoughts leans a certain fear; [Harry] doesn’t see why they have to be so noisy

This is what the world of many white male characters in novels might look like, stripped of political correctness and bad faith. I can imagine readers who are black, or are women, or both, taking exception to Jill and Skeeter, who hover somewhere between character and symbol. But Harry’s re-education at the hands of these outcasts, his awakening to the sources of his own basic good fortune, precipitates a real change in him. Perhaps it even precipitated a change in suburban readers, circa 1971, as a novel more deferential to pieties or circumspect about stereotypes could not.

coverA prominent critic condemned a later Updike novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, for its “theological complacency.” For all I know, he may have been right. But this verdict is far too narrow to contain the vast corpus Updike left behind. Rabbit Redux shows a writer willing as few other American novelists are (Norman Rush comes to mind) to suspend judgment on his characters’ political, philosophical, moral, and theological failings – to love them anyway. Indeed, it is characteristic of Updike that the “rhetoric of social protest and revolt… antithetical to [his] Fifties education” (as he puts it in the omnibus introduction) aroused not his defenses, but his curiosity.

Agitated by the times, his limpid prose in this book approaches the visionary. Near the end, Harry thinks of Jill, now gone, and remembers “her daughterly blind grass-green looking to him for more than shelter.” We are reminded, adverbially, of the daughter Harry lost in Rabbit, Run. Yet even in his redoubled grief – that extraordinary, comma-less catharsis – there is some hopeful green stuff woven. Rilke wrote that beauty was merely the beginning of the arc of terror. Rabbit Redux suggests a corollary: that terror may sometimes be the beginning of the arc of beauty.

6 comments:

  1. That middle section of Redux felt like paint-by-numbers political fiction to me. It's where I stalled out on the Rabbit books. (Rabbit, Run, in my memory, came by its relevance more organically.) Commentary on the sexual revolution? Check. Civil rights issues? Got it. Now let's throw in some dope and some 2001: A Space Odyssey, and we've got ourselves one hell of a relevant book! All of this in rust-belt Pennsylvania, and mediated by the perspective of a "typical American"! I couldn't help feeling that Updike was thinking in political categories first, human beings second. Norman Rush's people, by contrast, embody politics in dizzyingly complex ways. They are never reducible to categories. They sort of perspire politics. It almost never feels forced.

    I admire Updike's willingness to go beyond what he knew, to risk seeming foolish, especially since his competence in high-church domestic realism was so formidable that he'd have been celebrated if he'd written nothing else. But it's hard to think of a writer as talented and intelligent who got out of his depth as frequently.

    All that said, you make me wonder if I should take another look.

  2. I agree and disagree with the previous comment – the middle section at first did feel calculated, the way an episode of Law and Order, say, can reference issues rather than actually consider them, but upon reflection, something more emerges… (and remember, this book wasn't written 10 years after the events it reacts to – it was written, more or less, as they were happening, making the charge of over-calcuatedness less persuasive)

    Rabbit's confused, inarticulate anger find a sort of metaphorical parallel in Vietnam. The allegory of "middle America meets teen runaway and black nationalist" falls away and the psychological reality of Rabbit's experience starts to come to the fore. We understand Rabbit better by understanding his reaction to these things; we don't learn all that much about the politics/history/whatever. But Updike does presage some critical-theoretical approaches to American foreign policy – the moment when he and Skeeter confusingly find themselves agreeing about the necessity of the war comes to mind.

    Basically – I think the Skeeter-Jill-Rabbit-Nelson middle section is more problematic (in a good way) than it might seem. This is more than just Forrest Gump meandering through a picture-postcard version of history.

  3. Jill and Skeeter are two of the most powerful characters Updike (or anyone) ever created. His was a Shakesperian talent whose likes we will never see again.

  4. Luke Lea.

    ‘His was a Shakesperian talent whose likes we will never see again.’ You say that like it’s a good thing. I have yet to encounter a single person (except for my teacher who condemned me to read this piece of writing this semester) who has to say something nice about this book and is not American. Most of the political references are lost on me, but what set me off is the ridiculously boring plot: married couple breaks up after a long period of mutual indifference and reunites at the end following a series of absurd events. The characters, especially Harry, are exaggerated and the events they get drawn into (or trigger themselves) are plainly too far fetched. The only relatable characters in this writing are Harry’s parents, Nelson, Peggy, and Mim. I have wasted too many hours on this book, and if I could save anyone the torment of going through this racist, nationalist painting of the US (which I don’t know how much it has changed, really), I must say you shouldn’t even bother starting it up.

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