My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I will confess to wanting to like John Updike. A bias toward contrarianism—or perhaps metacontrarianism—makes me skeptical of the cool-kid consensus against the prodigious man of letters that has extended at least from David Foster Wallace’s overcompensatory try-hard male-feminist routine to Jessa Crispin’s exasperated middle-school “ugh.”
A decade ago, a distant acquaintance urged me, over the noise of a crowded bar in Central Pennsylvania, to read Updike after I had unthinkingly repeated the cool-kid cliches. Updike, he said, was an American Shakespeare; he could write about anybody and anything in any genre. This facility has also been held against him. As James Wood wrote in The Broken Estate, “Updike, unlike Beckett or Bernhard, never appears to doubt that words can be made to signify, can be made to refer, to mean.” I admire Beckett and Bernhard, but I wonder what they would think of how their astringency has been made into a fashion statement by the Anglo-American literati. In any case, Wood in his punitive Protestant iconoclasm would of course disparage Updike, since the novelist, as Louis Menand explains, belongs to the Joycean tradition of sacramental poetics from which Beckett was in flight:
The most persistent and mindlessly recycled criticism of Updike’s work is that he was infatuated with his own style, that he over-described everything to no purpose—that, as several critics put it, he had “nothing to say.” But Updike wasn’t merely showing off with his style. He wasn’t, as all those critics were essentially implying, masturbating. He was transubstantiating.
There was nothing secret about this. He explained what he was up to many times. “The Old Testament God repeatedly says he wants praise, and I translate that to mean that the world wants describing,” he once explained to an interviewer. In the preface to the collected Rabbit novels, “Rabbit Angstrom,” he talks about “the religious faith that a useful truth will be imprinted by a perfect artistic submission.” “The world is the host,” he has a character say in one of his short stories; “it must be chewed.” Writing for Updike was chewing. You can dismiss this conception of the literary vocation as pious or old-fashioned, but, if you do, you are dismissing Joyce and much of literary modernism.
Modernism put this sacralization of reality to a particular kind of work: transfiguring the news, even as it brought it. Leopold Bloom was an ad canvasser for a newspaper, and in Rabbit Redux, the title character is a typesetter, employed by the ironically named Verity Press. The novel reproduces newspaper articles as Rabbit sets them, mistakes and all. At one point, Rabbit comes home to his lover, Jill, and she pays him this a compliment whose metafictional wit reveals Updike to be more than a complacent realist: “‘You smell of ink,’ she tells him. ‘You’re all ink, so clean, just like a new newspaper. Every day, a new newspaper come to the door.'” So this 1971 novel, a story of familial upheaval in the summer of ’69, amid the Vietnam War, urban riots, and the moon landing, will be a kind of newspaper, its man made of ink a setting into form of present reality.
The sequel to Rabbit, Run, this novel rejoins Rabbit Angstrom ten years after the events of the earlier novel, in which the hero, hoping to recapture his lost youth as a star athlete, fled his marriage, only to return after his wife, Janice, in a drunken stupor, allowed their second child to drown. The setting is the fictional town of Brewer, PA, standing in for Reading and for post-industrial America at large. As this novel opens, it is Janice who seeks escape in an affair with a co-worker, the leftist Greek-American Stavros. After she goes to live with Stavros, Rabbit (with his thirteen-year-old son, Nelson) explore the chaos of “the Sixties,” its freedoms and openness to otherness both challenging and eventually confirming Rabbit’s petit-bourgeois conservatism.
Rabbit’s black co-worker, Buchanan, invites him to a bar where he “offers” him a woman named Jill, a white eighteen-year-old from Connecticut, trying to escape her rich family. She has been “slumming” at the black bar, and its habitués fear she is bringing unwanted attention. So Rabbit takes her in and begins an affair, even as she also exposes Nelson to a world beyond his relatively sheltered upbringing. Eventually, in the novel’s most controversial section, the black revolutionary and Vietnam veteran Skeeter, hiding from the law, comes to stay with Rabbit as well, and the quartet becomes an unconventional family, with both Rabbit and Skeeter (and even possibly Nelson—this is never made clear) sleeping with Jill. After-dinner sessions of pot-smoking and black history feature heavily in the novel’s third quarter as Skeeter schools Rabbit on slavery, Vietnam, and the need for salvation. But this alternative household comes to a bad end, and the novel concludes with the equivocal promise of domestic reconciliation for the Angstroms.
On purely aesthetic grounds, I found the long and delirious Skeeter passage credibly evocative of Rabbit’s having his head broken open; the novel references 2001: A Space Odyssey early on, and the Skeeter section, formally, is like Dave Bowman’s eponymous trip. On ethical and political grounds, many have understandably objected to Skeeter. He does seem to belong to a different order of reality from the novel’s other characters, emerging, I suspect, from the literature of black revolution rather than from Updike’s observations, and Rabbit’s (and the reader’s) final sight of him naturalizes the figure:
As Harry backs the Mustang around in the strait intersection, the young black waits by a bank of brown weed stalks. In the rear view mirror, Skeeter looks oddly right, blends right in, even with the glasses and the goatee, hanging empty-handed between fields of stubble where crows settle and shift, gleaning.
Yet Updike’s immersive engagement with what to him and to his hero was other is perhaps more laudable, even in its inevitable failures, than an evasion of the contemporary; it makes our own taste for fantasy and allegory seem a bit puerile. And those among Updike’s contemporaries who ventured into these territories of sex and race without being white men also wrote novels that are, from the present vantage, not a lot less “problematic,” as the righteous kids say: I think of The Golden Notebook or Tar Baby. Anatole Broyard praised Rabbit Redux for its bravery, his own background, then concealed, lending savor to his judgment: “What Updike conjures out of the combination of Skeeter, Jill, Nelson and Rabbit makes most writing about blacks, sex and families seem like something out of a children’s book. It will leave Americans shuddering for a long, long time.”
The novel is of course punctuated by sex scenes; they are, so to speak, climactic, and why not? They are what the realist novel has in place of gunfights, alien invasions, or fantastical metamorphoses—and they serve the purpose in their genre that those do in theirs. And this is a novel of the midcentury, disporting itself in the new post-Chatterley freedoms. Pornography in mid-twentieth-century novels is like sentimentality in mid-nineteenth-century novels: a literary requirement imposed by period ideology that you just have to endure to enjoy the other pleasures afforded by the fiction. Even at that, as Nabokov defended Dickens’s sentimentality as an advance on Homeric brutalism, Updike’s pornography too is defensible: with his modernist precursors and his 1960s peers, he made sex intelligent, an aspect of characterization and drama, so that personal sexual habits become signs of individuality, and changes in those habits register personal transformations. Updike was fearless, to appropriate William Deresiewicz’s adjective for him, giving his hero honest thoughts that might give anyone pause, as in this passage wherein Rabbit’s sister, Mim, shows him her California tan: “She pulls up her pinstripe blouse and her belly is brown. He tries to picture the rest and wonders if her pussy is tinted honey-blonde to match the hair on her head.”
Updike’s seemingly dated approach to sex may even become relevant again, as this seems to be, at least as far as literary culture goes, a new age of prudery (heralded by Wallace’s wounded Gen-X dismissal of the sexual revolution), with feminism’s increasing advocacy of Victorian norms and gay liberation’s climax in the annexation of queer desire by the Hegelian-progressive state. We may yet find something to learn, or at least to wonder at, in those twentieth-century writers who exposed how complicated and intricate and dangerous sex could be. I am certainly not always impressed with the heights of Lawrentian vagueness (“His fair silver girl with flesh-colored hair and cloudy innards floats upon him, stings him, sucks him up like a cloud, falls, forgives him”) and sub-Joycean tastelessness (“she is gumdrops everywhere”) scaled by Updike’s sex scenes, but as Deresiewicz writes, “Updike stood between the old and new Victorianisms”—between, that is, the hegemony of Christian sexual morality and the hegemony of progressive sexual morality, when sex was briefly available for amoral examination. (As for the feminist critique of Updike, I have observed elsewhere that I think it is at least partially made in bad faith.)
Harold Bloom said that Updike was a “minor novelist with a major style.” But I am not persuaded Updike has a style in the relevant sense (does any major novelist have a style?): he can write well in many styles, from mordant dialogue to stream-of-consciousness inner monologue. This is a capacious novel, alive on every page with some detail or phrase or character, a product of the old ambition, now considered philosophically naive by the followers of Beckett and phallocratically arrogant by the sons of Wallace, to recreate as much reality as possible in imperishable language. Somewhere in S/Z, Barthes writes of “the novelistic without the novel.” He meant that the classic realist novel, overly plotted, could offer no such liberatory thing; but this novel, in its diffuseness, its commitment to the quotidian, its open beginning and its open ending, is novelistic all the way. The novelistic returns our times to us; its pages float free of mere story, that overrated commodity. I love no passage better in this superb novel than Rabbit’s bus ride, at the narrative’s center, home from his parents’ house, where his mother is dying of Parkinson’s Disease, time and times passing, and he takes it all in and gives it to us:
The bus goes around the side of the mountain. The gas station with the Dayglo spinners, the distance-hazed viaduct in the valley. He waits to change from the 16A bus to the 12 in the doorway of the roasted-peanut place on Weiser. PIG ATROCITIES STIR CAMDEN, a headline in the rack reads. The bus comes and pulls him across the bridge. The day whines at the windows, a September brightness empty of a future: the lawns smitten flat, the black river listless and stinking. HOBBY HEAVEN. BUTCH CSSDY & KID. He walks down Emberly toward Vista Cresecent among sprinklers twirling in unison, under television aerials raking the same four o’clock garbage from the sky.