Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Rabbit Redux

I started this book, John Updike's Rabbit Redux, seemingly so long ago, and I remember then in those now seemingly far off days raving to just about everybody I talked to concerning such things, books and such, about this book, about what a great writer Updike was, and about how amazing, how absolutely great, some of these early passages were. Finishing the first section of the book, putting the bookmark in at page 93, I even remember thinking to myself that that right there is all there needs to be, that that section itself would make such a great novella.

Now, having read the following two sections, "Jill" and "Skeeter", I am wondering why that wasn't it, why anything had to follow that first section, why an editor wasn't kind enough to say, "You know, John, maybe we should reconsider the middle of this book." That is not to say anything against the writing in these sections - it is still excellent - however, the book veers wildly off the course it has set for itself in the first book and the first section of this second book. It becomes not only unbelievable, but absurdly so, and worse still indulges in a giddily racist hundred or so pages. It is not ruining the plot (since you read it for the writing) to say that in this middle section, after Angstrom's wife leaves him, he ends up at a black jazz club (in small town Pennsylvania no less!), where he meets a pimp and a young white prostitute, the titular Jill of the second section. Jill moves in with Angstrom and his son, which is already unbelievable enough, but then at some point, psychotic Skeeter, a black Vietnam vet and drug addict who believes he is Jesus, moves in with them while he is running from the law. The story has totally lost all its well earned sense of reality. The first section was so brilliant because it took the everyday, the mundane, the normal, the lived lives of a lot of people, and made literature, made art, out of the thing. Here in the middle section, Updike either doesn't have faith in his ability to do so anymore and ratchets up the excitement level just to keep you tuned in, or rather, and which I think is the case though I am having a hard time parsing it exactly, Updike is trying to say something big and ambitious here about race, about the sixties, about America.

I think the effort is a failed one and painfully so. It is embarrassing to read how Skeeter forces Angstrom, his son, and Jill to sit in the living room and talk about race, to do so in such absurd ways. Skeeter forces them to read aloud passages from Frederick Douglass's autobiography and moans whiles they read select passages, moans orgasmically, and at one point even has to strip naked so the words can make contact with his pores. There is that scene and then there is also a scene where Skeeter forces Jill to suck his dick for some drugs, forces her to do so in front of Angstrom, and all the while is babbling on about how he is a white lily, how Jill is black, and how Angstrom is a slave tied to a chair.

Surely, Updike is striving for meaning, attempting to say something, but the effort is painful, all the more so since Updike is so white. I would be embarrassed had a black writer written this, but for it to be Updike, man, it makes this section (and quite a long one it is) painful to endure, difficult to get through. Part of the reason why this book took me so long to read was because I really had no interest in reading anymore of what Updike was attempting to say about race relations, whatever it was he was trying to say seeming really offensive to me.

But then you emerge from that section, just as Angstrom emerges from his relationships with those two characters, bleary and feeling like a fog of delirium has lifted, that fog being Updike's take on the sixties, and you again start to get conflicts and passages that more closely resemble the lived reality of most people. There is this section of Angstrom looking out his mother's windows that does this, poeticizes the everyday:

He looks out of her windows. There was a time--the year after leaving, five years after--when this homely street, with its old-fashioned high crown, its sidewalk blocks and railings of painted iron and two-family brickfront houses whose siding imitates gray rocks, excited Rabbit with the magic of his own existence. These mundane surfaces had given witness to life; this chalice had held his blood; here the universe had centered, each downtwirling maple seed of more account than galaxies. No more. Jackson Road seems an ordinary street anywhere. Millions of American streets hold millions of lives, and let them sift through, and neither notice nor mourn, and fall into decay, and do not even mourn their passing but instead grimace at the wrecking ball with the same gaunt facades that have outweathered all their winters. However steadily Mom communes with these maples, the braches' misty snake-shapes as inflexibly fixed in the two windows as the leading of stained glass, they will not hold back here fate by the space of a breath; nor, if they are cut down tomorrow to widen Jackson Road at last, will here staring, that planted them within herself, halt their vanishing. And the wash of new light will extinguish even her memory of them. Time is our element, not a mistaken invader. How stupid, it has taken him thirty-six years to begin to believe that. (324-325)

And coming back into this section today, again feeling the thing that literature is capable of doing, feeling this life more intensely, I lived and I smiled and I had a great day, doing so many things I needed to do, doing these things aware of other things, so many things, and so happy for those things. I went into the Strand, coveting more feelings, more love, more life, and walked out with three books I am very excited to start reading.

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