Monday, August 13, 2012

Rabbit Redux Rabbit Redux by John Updike

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

At the beginning of the summer I set myself the goal of polishing off the first four of John Updike's five Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom novels. As I near the end of book #2, Rabbit Redux, I might have to admit defeat. I don't think I'll make it past this one, for now. I wasn't expecting light summer fare, but these novels drag. They are virtually plotless, completely character and relationship driven. The aspect that rankles most is the uncanniness of the main character, by which I mean that he is both there and not there at the same time. Two novels in and I still don't have much of a sense about what makes the guy tick. Turbulent relationships swirl all around him as in a storm, and he appears to be like the empty vortex in the centre. I want to hate, or love, or feel something for Rabbit, even pity, but ultimately all I feel is indifference. If he can't commit emotionally to what's happening to him how is the reader supposed to? Rabbit spends most of his time evading, which is Updike's point of course. But he can't go on running forever. At some point he has to face up to his problems, and two novels in, he still hasn't and it's as frustrating to the reader as to him. But Updike's ultimate goal was less to chronicle the trials and tribulations of an American man then to write a novel that pronounces on the zeitgeist of the decade in which he lives, in this case the 1960s. The central character is actually America herself and Updike wants to describe how she's being ravaged by social upheaval. So characters become representations instead of real people. Harry is the befuddled and bewildered American middle-class white suburbanite male who supports the war in Vietnam (more for patriotic reasons than for political ones) and carries around some of the lingering racial prejudice and misogyny that characterized white America prior to the civil rights revolution. Contrast Harry as emblem to: Jill, a Porsche-driving spoiled little rich kid junkie who uses sex to gain acceptance, and her dealer, a black Vietnam vet with a messianic complex on the lam named Skeeter. The war, check. Sexual revolution, check. The dissolution of traditional bourgeois family values and the American dream, check. Updike has lined up all his ducks in order to take aim at the social and political issues he wants to address. The novel has that deliberate contrived feel to it, with lots of dialogue, frequently monologue (rants), especially from the oratorically-flamboyant Skeeter. The other relationships of importance to Harry are with his 12 year old son Nelson, his parents, and his estranged wife Janice, who ran off with a car salesman work colleague. Tellingly, the closest Harry comes to making a genuine emotional connection is with his dad (his mom is suffering from Parkinson's and for most of the novel Harry can't muster up the courage to visit her.) The domestic vacuum left by Janice's departure is filled by Jill and Skeeter, which is to say, that it's not filled at all except to add further instability and a sense of impending disaster. Everyone seems to be using everyone else, Jill trades on sex with Harry to gain a roof over her head and the approval of a father figure, and uses Skeeter to get drugs and allay her white bourgeois guilt. Harry uses Jill for sexual pleasure and comfort. Skeeter uses Harry for refuge and as an audience to mouth-off about the injustices done to black Americans from slavery onward. Harry uses Skeeter to allay his guilty feelings for supporting the war. It's a pathetically dysfunctional square-dance; partners coming together to trade-off their guilt, shame, victimization, self-righteousness, bigotry, misogyny, immaturity and irresponsibility which is how Updike seems to see the way the 'new' America works (or rather doesn't work). Not much genuine tenderness is in evidence, except in the relationship between Jill and Nelson, which is its own special recipe for disaster, he seeing a sister/mother-figure in a lost, self-destructive, immature girl not much older than him. As social commentary - and given Updike's own objectives, I believe it's the only way to see this novel - it doesn't offer much hope, let alone balance. As a novel, well, let's just say I'm tired of seeing Rabbit run.

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