My rating: 3 of 5 stars
There are two kinds of male authors we love to hate.
The first is well-known and easily explicable: Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Ralph Ellison, Cormac McCarthy. Their works are all masculine self-assertion and lighting out for the territory; they describe the world of men and the world at war, a world of incised identity and imperiled honor; woman, if she appears, is just a vampire or squid, a mouth that devours, vagina dentata, sucking the vitals out of everything.
The second category is not generally recognized as a category, but should be: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, James Joyce—and John Updike. These men write—extensively, obsessively, and very often well—about women; they write about the social and cultural worlds of women and often live in those worlds, since they didn’t join the army or play too many sports; and their dislike of women, when they express it, is not the distanced and mythological fear, as of Medusa, expressed by the men’s men in the first category, but rather the resentful abrasions and betrayals of intimacy.
They also generally share what Hawthorne’s biographer, Brenda Wineapple, wisely observed of her subject: an “unsettling, overwhelming identification with women.” This is why their work is marked by a permeability of gender as well as an occasional (or more than occasional) impatience with women. Here is John Updike’s mock-hero, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, in successful middle age, reflecting on his desire for a daughter—or rather, a desire that a young woman he’s just met is his daughter, from a long-ago affair:
Her eyes his blue: wonderful to think that he has been turned into cunt, a secret message carried by genes all that way through all these comings and goings all these years, the bloody tunnel of growing and living, of staying alive. He better stop thinking about it, it fills him too full of pointless excitement.
Updike, though, is not Rabbit, even if Rabbit is a tunnel through which he can send some of his secret messages about what it feels like to be a man in the latter 20th century. What it feels like: this is the mission of Updike’s Rabbit novels, a four-book and four-decade chronicle, through one middle-class white man’s life, of America from the 1950s through the 1990s.
In the first volume, Rabbit, Run (1960), a young Harry, former high-school basketball star in the eastern-Pennsylvania town of Brewer, marries young to Janice Springer, and then tried to escape his marriage in an affair with a woman named Ruth; eventually, Janice drunkenly drowns her and Rabbit’s baby daughter, Rebecca, but the couple reconciles in the end. In Rabbit Redux (1971), Janice’s affair with Stavros, an employee at the car dealership her father owns, prompts Rabbit on his own journey into the ’60s heart of darkness: an eventually fatal and fiery entanglement, in which he also involves his son Nelson, with Jill, a troubled white hippie, and Skeeter, a black revolutionary.
Rabbit Is Rich (1981), the third installment, begins with Harry in middle age, still married to Janice, now working at her late father’s dealership alongside her former lover, now Rabbit’s best friend, Stavros. Despite the title’s promise of extraordinary wealth, Harry and Janice have merely ascended into the upper stratum of Brewer’s middle class, into the golf and country-club set, this amid the newsy circumstances of America’s Carter-era malaise. The longest but the least plotted of the novels so far, Rabbit Is Rich mainly concerns Nelson’s return to the parental home from an unsuccessful stint in college. He comes back with first one woman and then another and with a wish to take his place in the family car business. The possibility looms that will soon have, whether he wants it or not, a family of his own. Harry, meanwhile, resents this rival under his roof:
Janice asks him why is his heart so hard toward Nelson. Because Nelson has swallowed up the boy that was and substituted one more pushy man in the world, hairy wrists, big prick. Not enough room in the world.
The theme of oedipal strife is augmented by Harry’s mid-life second youth under the influence of his new prosperity and the changing times. He and Janice seem—more even than the younger generation—to enjoy the freedoms of the sexual revolution. The novel’s literal climax comes when the Angstroms and their country-club friends swap spouses at a Caribbean resort, and Harry enjoys an unexpectedly poignant anal dalliance with a friend’s sick wife. She is, she confesses, desperately in love with him. Another motif is Rabbit’s belief that a young girl from the country he’s started seeing around Brewer is his daughter from the affair narrated in Rabbit, Run. Harry is surrounded by, obsessed with, resentful of a mixed company of women who define his life.
The novel’s themes, then, are time’s passage and human decline, both personal and political—and the question of whether wealth can make up for it. Without much of a story, though, Updike puts his style to the work of embodying these themes almost alone. As his admirers and detractors alike would observe, he covers the whole visible universe in language. Not a surface that meets Rabbit’s eye goes ungilded by Updike’s lush lexicon, and Rabbit, being l’homme moyen sensuel in a famously pornographic decade, spends a lot of time gazing on women’s bodies. Tolerance of this will vary from reader to reader.
Updike, like it or not, descends from the tradition of Flaubert, Joyce, and Nabokov, which is, as Louis Menand observes, a secular version of the believer’s finding justification for the creation in its mundane splendors. But Updike, unlike his literary forebears, is a Christian, and Christ was harder on money-changers than he was even on those who lusted in their hearts. Rabbit Is Rich never quite settles its thesis on riches, or on whether it is satirizing its protagonists’ nouveau-riche pretensions or just portraying them neutrally. In its most famous scene, Rabbit invests in gold Krugerrands (to keep his money safe from inflation) and then has sex with his wife atop a pile of them:
His underwear off, the overhead light still on, his prick up like a jutting piece of pink wreckage, he calms her into lying motionless and places a Krugerrand on each nipple, one on her navel, and a number on her pussy, enough to mask the hair with a triangle of unsteady coins overlapping like snake scales. If she laughs and her belly moves the whole construction will collapse. Kneeling at her hips, Harry holds a Krugerrand by the edge as if to insert it in a slot.
Both the choice of currency, with its intimations of apartheid, and the grotesque exaggeration of the whole scenario suggest Flaubertian satire, as when Emma Bovary hears her lover’s romantic pleadings while the agricultural fair, with its pigs and manure and civic orations, goes on outside. But the satire here is less obvious than Flaubert’s, with his precise juxtaposition of discordant details; Updike gives us too many details to balance one against the other. We are swimming in the abundant coinage of his prose, but can’t establish exact values. If Updike’s attitudes toward gender and sex alienate younger generations, it is his stylistic abundance, often seemingly gratuitous, that repelled two generations of old-guard critics from Harold Bloom to James Wood.
I think Updike’s disinterest—which does not mean boredom, but lack of partisanship—is to the novel’s advantage. He lets us inhabit his characters’ multifarious lives without directing our attention or attitude. This means that his personae’s moral behavior, their political attitudes, their racial bigotry, their sexual fantasies, and more are recorded without censure. Such self-effacement is brave in a writer, because it respects readers enough to let them think for themselves, even if they decide the author is as vile as they may deem the characters. Updike, through his very withdrawal, wins the realist novel the honor of recording history in the moment.
Take, for instance, the novel’s racial politics. On the one hand, the narrative centers on a company of white people who don’t say anything positive in almost 500 pages about anyone who isn’t white. (Even my forebears, not themselves paragons of racial enlightenment, aren’t spared: “‘The spics do that,’ Harry says. ‘The spics and the wops.'”) But here Updike does exactly what critical theorists of race would have the white writer, or any writer, do: he writes about white people with total class and ethnic specificity as he charts their ideologies as products of their social setting, not as universal truths.
The Rabbit novels are monuments to the detail, a microscopic examination of one man in one milieu; Updike never gives the sense that he is writing everybody’s story, only that he will tell you everything there is to know, including much you don’t want to know, about this body:
It streams noisily into the bowl it seems forever, embarrassingly, all those drinks at dinner. Then he sits down on the seat anyway, to let out a little air. Too much shellfish. He imagines he can smell yesterday’s crabmeat and when he stands he tests with a finger down there to see if he stinks. He decides he does. Better use a washcloth.
Updike seems at times determined to alienate readers from Rabbit, not to endear us to him, by finding words for his every unreasonable appetite and unkind thought—until we realize, unless we are hypocritical moralists, that our heads, too, are full of unreasonable appetites and unkind thoughts, even if not the same ones.
437 pages, though, is too many pages to survive on pure description, and there is an almost farcical amount of sex, even for a novel set in the 1970s, doing duty for plot developments. Part of Updike’s point, I take it, is that fashions in sexual morality change, and that these changes alter everyone’s lives for good and ill. If there is any critique of the sexual revolution here, it comes when Updike portrays the older and more privileged generation disporting themselves, while the young are confused and adrift in the chaos of a world without norms.
Nelson is on the attack, frazzled and feeling rotten, poor kid. “And who are you to criticize me and Pru for going out to see some friends when you were off with yours seeing those ridiculous exotic dancers? How could you stand it, Mom?”
Janice says, “It wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. They keep it within bounds. It really wasn’t any worse than it used to be at the old fairgrounds.”
“Don’t answer him,” Harry tells her. “Who’s he to criticize?”
“The funny thing,” Janice goes on, “is how Cindy and Thelma and I could agree which girl was the best and the men had picked some girl entirely different. We all liked this tall Oriental who was very graceful and artistic and they liked, Mother, the men liked some little chinless blonde who couldn’t even dance.”
“She had that look about her,” Harry explains. “I mean, she meant it.”
“And then that tubby dark one that turned you on. With the feather.”
“Olive-complected. She was nice too. The feather I could have done without.”
Much the novel’s pleasure comes from its surprising resonance with the present. I kept finding today in yesterday. How does Updike portray the United States in 1979? It is an America where the middle class is threatened with decline, the environment is about to collapse, the youth are failing to mature and are moving back in with their parents, older people are hoarding wealth and position to keep young people from ascending in the world—and the U.S. is practically at war with Iran. I kept wondering as I read: Just how long has this apocalypse been going on? Or is it—life—always this way, with each fresh generation naïvely appalled by it?
This cyclical character of history, this transient character of morality, offers all the more support for Updike’s narrative dispassion. We can’t change the world, but we can record it as it is, or even better than it is, transfigured—transubstantiated, Menand would say—by the poet’s eye. A sense of historical futility also allows Rabbit Is Rich to strike its mingled note of bitter satire of and keening elegy for a world always wrong but still too beautiful to lose. Here are the final sentences—Rabbit meeting his baby granddaughter for the first time, finally turned, as it were, into a woman—and note that no moralist could catch, as Updike does, almost as deftly as Shakespeare, the mixed feelings a man might have on greeting new life as he runs into the twilight of his own:
Oblong cocooned little visitor, the baby shows her profile blindly in the shuddering flashes of color jerking from the Sony, the tiny stitchless seam of the closed eyelid aslant, lips bubbled forward beneath the whorled nose as if in delicate disdain, she knows she’s good. You can feel in the curve of the cranium she’s feminine, that shows from the first day. Through all this she has pushed to be here, in his lap, his hands, a real presence hardly weighing anything but alive. Fortune’s hostage, heart’s desire, a granddaughter. His. Another nail in his coffin. His.