Wednesday, March 18, 2009
John Updike: Rabbit Redux (1971)
“These marvelously masked eyes force upon her pale mouth all expressiveness; each fractional smile, sardonic crimping, attentive pout, and abrupt broad laugh follows its predecessor so swiftly Harry imagines a coded tape is being fed into her head and producing, rapid as electronic images, this alphabet of expressions.” Updike's sequel to Rabbit, Run picks up the story of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom 10 years after the first novel finished. Whereas in the earlier novel Rabbit is the one who runs out of the marriage (and into the arms of a prostitute), this time around it is Rabbit's wife Janice who leaves him and their teenage son for another lover. Now in his mid-30s, Rabbit has openly become a racist conservative who praises the Vietnam War and hates the growing presence of African Americans in his city. Set in 1969, Rabbit's conservatism aggravates many of the people around him (it is one reason his wife leaves him), though not his father, with whom he trades racist slurs. Each night he anxiously watches the television news reports about race riots occurring throughout the nation, which, along with the hippies and the anti-war movement, reinforce his belief that the nation is decaying. Adding history into the narrative through television reports is a rather superficial ploy for relevance (no wonder Hollywood films love to do it), but Updike also quite literally brings these national concerns home to Rabbit. After his wife is gone, Rabbit takes in a rich, young, and drug-addicted hippie, Jill, who exchanges sex for a place to stay. She later brings home a black Vietnam veteran named Skeeter, who gives Rabbit an education in radical black politics as well as drug abuse. At night, Rabbit, his son, Jill, and Skeeter read classic African American texts while Skeeter verbally assaults Rabbit, and then turn on the television and form a community watching Laugh-In. This could be a preachy, feel-good set-up except that Skeeter remains violently contradictory (Updike's representation of him is problematic, though defensible), Rabbit only becomes a milder conservative, and Rabbit's son becomes witness to a number of drug and sexual excesses. The local community, however, is scandalized by Rabbit's new interracial, sexually-open family, and they burn down his house one night, killing Jill and forcing Skeeter to flee from the law. With his home literally and metaphorically destroyed, Rabbit at the end of the novel gets back together with his wife, though both are ambivalent in their feelings for each other. By turning Rabbit, Run into the first novel of a series, Updike opened the door to exploring how his working class Everyman is affected by History. However, I'm not convinced arbitrarily introducing characters and plot developments dragged from the headlines does more than add a token amount of political relevance to Updike's stylish realism. More interesting for my own work is the fact that at the end of the novel Rabbit loses his job when the printing company he works for becomes computerized. A number of passages make it clear that Rabbit's difficult and messy job of imprinting black ink on white paper reflexively describes Updike's integration of racial concerns into his novel. But the new computerized "offset" process uses a cathode ray tube to cleanly integrate black and white, hinting either at a future when racial conflicts will be resolved or the "automation" of writing will prevent literature from addressing those conflicts.