Friday, 6 April 2012

A Kind of Assignment: Rabbit is Rich

John Updike, steeling himself for more metaphysics on the golf-course
   A couple of years ago I wrote a laudatory post about John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Now I’ve just got round to completing the third novel in the tetralogy, Rabbit is Rich. For one thing, it’s certainly a more successful, assured novel than the second book, Rabbit Redux, which – while having its own anguished virtues – is lumbered with such major problematics no amount of prose-brilliance can redeem Updike on this one: chiefly a jive-talking blaxploitation-stereotype of a black character he makes a calamitous (not to say tiresomely-longwinded) bodge of exploring race issues through, and an Edie Sedgwick-stereotype of a doomed female character who’s little more than a shared sexual puppet for the male characters, even it seems Rabbit’s 13-year old son.
      To be fair to Updike’s long-term project, however, we should be careful to read each novel within the context both of its preceding decade and of the stage of his life at which we find Rabbit each time, so that the sequence is as much a record of American social history as it is a biographical  narrative. As in Joyce’s A Portrait, shifts in maturity and world-view are reflected both in prose-register and the tenor and texture of Rabbit’s interior monologues: the first book, set in the optimistic 50s and the most poetic of the three, evinces a young man’s verve and impetuous unknowing; Redux parallels the failure of the 60’s hippy- dream with the falling-apart of the nuclear family, and is attendantly dark and troubled; Rich finds Rabbit a beneficiary of the prosperous 70s and settled into a complacent materialism which issues from his past conspire to undermine.
     Rabbit’s thoughts, then, in this third instalment are ostensibly never far from money and what he can buy with it: now a worldly, overweight car-salesman rather implausibly back on good terms with the wife who left him in Redux, there is a Leopold Bloom-like mundanity to his domestic musings which is often the source of rambunctious humour but also juxtaposes less well with Updike’s characteristic riffs of lyricism than in the previous books. Unlike Bloom, Rabbit has become prone to some fairly portentous metaphysical broodings, such as “ By the time they finally get out onto the golf course, green seems a shade of black. Every blade of grass at his feet is an individual life that will die, that has flourished to no purpose. The fairway springy beneath his feet blankets the dead...” Surely no-one has actually thought this while out playing golf; but of course this is no longer Rabbit, Updike has interpolated his own showboating prose-stylism (and writerly weltschmerz) in a way that jars against any sort of continuity of character we had previously believed Rabbit to possess.
    Although the family dramas of his son’s wedding and attempts to re-contact the daughter he’s never known are subtly, vividly handled, with throughout the familiar sense of muddling-through the big events of life, of “playing grown-ups”, my other reservation about Rabbit is Rich is its episodic, almost saga-ish linear narrative, keeping us updated about the characters we recognise from the previous books and moving them forward in not too resolved ways to prepare us for the next novel. Perhaps it is the relentless present tense Updike has chosen to stick with that doesn’t gel so well with Rabbit’s new preoccupation with memories and ghosts.
   But equally the main motor of the rather chugging plot is the  succession of sex-scenes the novel seems all too reliant on to hold our interest; not that they are not well-done for the most part, just that they seem rather gratuitous, functional rather than erotic in a way that lovemaking between a middle-aged husband and wife must often be - and ultimately reflective of an almost seedy and certainly sexist prurience on the part of Rabbit/Updike( there, I have finally conflated the two!), as when he pries into the bedroom photos of the couple he’s just had dinner with.
    By the time we get to the wife-swapping episode, weirdly positioned as the novel’s culmination, we find the two major problematics of the novel (incommensurate over-writing/ pervy phallocentricism) conjoined in one monstrously bathetic and unintentionally hilarious scene. Without giving the game away for potential readers, I will let perhaps the most jaw-droppingly awful sentence of the novel speak for itself: 

     “He dares confide to Thelma, because she has let him fuck her up the ass in proof of love, his sense of miracle at being himself, himself instead of someone else, and his old inkling, now fading in the energy crunch, that there was something that wanted him to find it, that he was here on earth on a kind of assignment.”
     Actually, no amount of prose-brilliance can redeem Updike on this one, either.

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