[ilds] risk such lushness again

Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Sun Oct 18 16:55:17 PDT 2009

Running away

When Julian Barnes first read the Rabbit quartet on a book tour of the States he was overwhelmed by Updike's joy of description. Twenty years later, he still thinks it is the greatest postwar American fiction

    * Julian Barnes
    * The Guardian, Saturday 17 October 2009 


When a writer you admire dies, rereading seems a normal courtesy and tribute. Occasionally, it may be prudent to resist going back: when Lawrence Durrell died, I preferred to remain with 40-year-old memories of The Alexandria Quartet rather than risk such lushness again. And sometimes the nature of the writer's oeuvre creates a problem of choice. This was the case with John Updike. I have only ever met one person – a distinguished arts journalist – who has read all Updike's 60-plus books; most of us, even long-term fans, probably score between 30 and 40. Should you choose one of those previously unopened? Or go for one you suspect you misread, or undervalued, at the time? Or one, like Couples, which you might have read for somewhat non-literary reasons?

The decision eventually made itself. I had first read the Rabbit quartet in the autumn of 1991, in what felt near-perfect circumstances. I was on a book tour of the States, and bought the first volume, Rabbit, Run, in a Penguin edition at Heathrow airport. I picked up the others in different American cities, in chunky Fawcett Crest paperbacks, and read them as I criss-crossed the country; my bookmarks were the stubs of boarding passes. When released from publicity duties, I would either retreat inwards to Updike's prose, or outwards to walk ordinary American streets. This gave my reading, it felt, a deepening stereoscopy. And even when, too exhausted to do anything, I fell back on the hotel minibar and the television, I found I was only replicating Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom's preferred way of ingesting politics and current events. After three weeks, both Harry and I found ourselves in Florida, "death's favourite state", as he puts it in the final volume, Rabbit at Rest. Harry died; the book ended; my tour was over.

I came home convinced that the quartet was the best American novel of the postwar period. Nearly 20 years on, with Updike newly dead, and another American journey coming up, it was time to check on that judgment. By now those four volumes had been fused into a 1,516-page hardback under the overall title Rabbit Angstrom. If the protagonist's nickname denotes a zigzagging creature of impulse and appetite, the angst of his Scandinavian surname indicates that Harry is also the bearer of a more metaphysical burden. Not that he is more than fleetingly aware of it; and the fact that he isn't makes him all the more emblematically American. John Cheever once said that Updike's characters performed their lives amid a landscape – a moral and spiritual one – of whose grandeur they were unaware.

Harry is a specific American, a high-school basketball star, department-store underling, linotype operator and, finally, Toyota car salesman in the decaying industrial town of Brewer, Pennsylvania (Updike based it on Reading, Pa, which he knew as a boy). Until Rabbit starts wintering in Florida in the final volume, he scarcely leaves Brewer – a location chosen to represent middle America by a New York film company in Rabbit Redux. Harry is site-specific, slobbish, lust-driven, passive, patriotic, hard-hearted, prejudiced, puzzled, anxious. Yet familiarity renders him likeable – for his humour, his doggedness, his candour, his curiosity and his wrong-headed judgments – for example, preferring Perry Como to Frank Sinatra. But Updike was disappointed when readers went further and claimed they found Rabbit lovable: "My intention was never to make him – or any character – lovable." Instead, Harry is typical, and it takes an outsider to tell him so. An Australian doctor, asked by his wife Janice what is wrong with Rabbit's dicky heart, replies: "The usual thing, ma'am. It's tired and stiff and full of crud. It's a typical American heart, for his age and economic status etcetera." Harry's quiet role as an American everyman is publicly confirmed in Rabbit at Rest when he is chosen for his second, brief moment of public fame: dressing up as Uncle Sam for a town parade.

Rereading the quartet, I was struck by how much of the book is about running away: Harry, Janice and Nelson all take off at different points, and all return defeatedly. (Updike explained that Rabbit, Run was partly a riposte to Kerouac's On the Road, and intended as a "realistic demonstration of what happens when a young American family man goes on the road" – ie, the family gets hurt, and the deserter slinks home.) I had forgotten how harshly transactional much of the sex was; how increasingly droll Rabbit becomes as he ages (Reagan reminds him of God, in that "you never knew how much he knew, nothing or everything", while Judaism "must be a great religion, once you get past the circumcision"); how masterfully Updike deploys free indirect style, switching us in and out of the main characters' consciousness; and how, instead of making each sequel merely sequential, he is constantly back-filling previous books with new information (the most extreme example being that we only get Janice's pre-Rabbit sexual history in the 2000 follow-up novella Rabbit Remembered – 40 years after we might have learned it).

What I remembered well was the audacity of Updike's starting-point. Harry is only 26, but past it: his brief years of sporting fame lie behind him, and he is already bored with Janice. On the second page, he refers to himself as "getting old" – and there are still several hundred thousand words to go. Even when he attains bovine contentment and material success in Rabbit is Rich, it is against a general background of things being over before they had really begun. Each book is purposefully set at the dying of a decade – from the 1950s to the 1980s – so there is little wider sense of fresh beginnings: the 1960s America of Rabbit Redux isn't filled with love and peace and hopefulness, but with hatred, violence and craziness as the decade sours and dies. Perhaps America is itself dying, or at least being outpaced by the world: this is what Harry, and the novel, both wonder. What is American power if it can be defeated by the Vietcong; what is American inventiveness if it can be out-invented by the Japanese; what is American wealth when national debt piles up? In Rabbit Redux Harry feels he has "come in on the end" of the American dream, "as the world shrank like an apple going bad"; by the start of Rabbit is Rich he feels "the great American ride is ending"; by the end of Rabbit at Rest "the whole free world is wearing out".

Whereas in my first reading I was overwhelmed by Updike's joy of description, his passionate attentiveness to such things as "the clunky suck of the refrigerator door opening and shutting" – by what he called, in the preface to his The Early Stories, "giving the mundane its beautiful due" – in my second I was increasingly aware of this underlying sense of things being already over, of the tug of dying and death. Thus the whole trajectory of Janice's life is an attempt to expiate the sin of having accidentally, drunkenly, drowned her baby. And while Harry imagines himself a genial and harmless life-enhancer, others see him quite differently. "Boy, you really have the touch of death, don't you?" his sort-of-whore girlfriend Ruth says at the end of Rabbit, Run. "Hold still. Just sit there. I see you very clear all of a sudden. You're Mr Death himself." Harry's son Nelson agrees with this analysis. In Rabbit Redux, Harry is away on another sexual escapade when his house burns down, killing the runaway hippie Jill; teenage Nelson, equally smitten by the girl, thereafter treats his father as a simple murderer. And in Rabbit at Rest Harry fears his female-killing curse is striking a third time when his rented Sunfish capsizes and his granddaughter Judy is nowhere to be seen. This time, as it happens, the hex is reversed: Judy is only hiding beneath the sail, and the scare triggers Rabbit's first heart attack, a dry run for his death.

And after death? Harry's intimations, not of immortality, but of the numinous, show up more clearly on rereading. Updike said that he couldn't quite give up on religion, because without the possibility or dream of something beyond and above, our terrestrial life became unendurable. Rabbit shares this vestigial need. "I don't not believe," he assures his dying lover Thelma, who replies, "That's not quite enough, I fear. Harry, darling." But it's all he can manage: "Hell, what I think about religion is ... is without a little of it, you'll sink." But this "little" doesn't find or express itself, as did Updike's, in churchgoing. God-believers in the quartet tend to be either crazies like Skeeter, fanatics, or pious post-Narcotics Anonymous droners like Nelson. Harry is not exactly a joined-up thinker, but he has an occasionally questing mind, a sense of what it might be if there were something beyond our heavy-footed sublunary existence. It's perhaps significant that the sport at which he excelled, which he plays in both the opening and closing pages of the tetralogy, involves a leaving of the ground and a reaching-up to something higher, if only to a skirted hoop. A greater reaching-up is offered by the US space programme, whose achievements (and failures) run through the book; Harry has a couch potato's fascination for it – as he does for the fate of the Dalai Lama, with whom he bizarrely, mock-heroically identifies. But there are also moments when Harry is able to recognise his longings more precisely. Beside the big stucco house belonging to Janice's parents there grew a large copper beech, which for many years shaded Harry and Janice's bedroom. When Nelson comes into occupation of the family house, in Rabbit at Rest, he has the tree cut down. Harry doesn't argue; nor can he "tell the boy that the sound of the rain in that great beech had been the most religious experience of his life. That, and hitting a pure golf shot." In such moments Rabbit exemplifies a kind of suburban pantheism, giving the mundane its spiritual due.

Rabbit Angstrom has its imperfections. The second volume is usually considered the weakest of the four; and it's true that Skeeter's mau-mauing of whitey Rabbit goes on too long, and to decreasing effect. And there is a change in register after the first volume, where the hushed Joyceanism of his early mode – when he thought of himself as a short-story writer and poet, but not yet fully as a novelist – is to the fore. (Updike didn't realise that he was heading towards a tetralogy until after the second volume.) On the other hand, it's rare for a work of this length to get even better as it goes on, with Rabbit at Rest the strongest and richest of the four books. In the last hundred pages or so, I found myself slowing deliberately, not so much because I didn't want the book to end, as because I didn't want Rabbit to die. (And when he does, his last words, to his shrieking son, are, maybe, also addressed consolingly to the reader: "All I can tell you is, it isn't so bad.") Any future historian wanting to understand the texture, smell, feel and meaning of bluey-white-collar life in ordinary America between the 1950s and the 1990s will need little more than the Rabbit quartet. But that implies only sociological rather than artistic virtue. So let's just repeat: still the greatest postwar American novel.

Rabbit Angstrom is published by the Everyman's Library at £25.

Charles L. Sligh
Department of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Charles-Sligh at utc.edu

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