let the great world spin (colum mccann)*
CHALLENGER: rabbit redux (john updike)

i read john updike's rabbit, run for my 101 in 1001 list around this time last year (see 04.29.09). my strongest reaction was to an unfortunate image early in the book, and my conclusion was that rabbit updike would be a fascinating guy if he wasn't so busy being a creep. spring is here again, and with it another opportunity to appreciate the rabbit tetralogy: i found a copy of the midcentury-sexy redux first edition (third printing, mind**) at the city opera thrift shop for five bucks (on a stand that said something like "if you don't buy this book, you're an asshole"), so here we are. as luck would have it, i got to enjoy the hated image all over again on page 27:
He had been afraid marrying her she would get fat like her mother but as she ages more and more her skinny little stringy go-getter of a father comes out in her. His hand leaves the dip to stray around in front to her belly, faintly lovingly loose from having had two babies. Puppy's neck.
really, updike? this second traipse through harry ("rabbit") angstrom's life takes place a decade later, in 1969; harry and janice are still married and now in their mid-thirties, and we're brought up to speed on what happened to their bodies in those intervening years via updike's interminable accounts of their sex acts. we're then presented with a number of set pieces: harry with an eighteen-year-old runaway, the runaway with a fugitive black vietnam vet, harry with his former schoolmate, janice with her hairy greek lover, the greek lover with harry's sister...it's kind of intense. the book's fans (who are themselves awfully intense) love the fact that updike is reacting to the social upheaval of the sixties in the moment (rabbit redux was published in 1971), but this is hardly a three-dimensional look at how two people remake themselves; we're told, for example, that janice's lover appreciates her in a way that harry doesn't, but honoring her femininity appears to boil down to making her feel like "a piece of ass." revolutionary, that. the fugitive, skeeter, is the revolution's babbling tongue, and the trouble he causes by hiding out and smoking up in harry's home is at the center of the story. the center, mind you, but not the core: his rants are plunked down in the middle of the book like tropical fish in a tank. as an admiring recent reviewer puts it,
Rabbit Redux shows a writer willing as few other American novelists are (Norman Rush comes to mind) to suspend judgment on his characters’ political, philosophical, moral, and theological failings – to love them anyway. Indeed, it is characteristic of Updike that the “rhetoric of social protest and revolt… antithetical to [his] Fifties education” (as he puts it in the omnibus introduction) aroused not his defenses, but his curiosity.
am i expected to applaud him for being superficially interested in fish, or for following through on every last one of his characters' inclinations? that reviewer goes on to argue that skeeter really does change harry, but i'm skeptical: rabbit's a looter, not a protester, and both he and his author leave me cold.

VICTOR: let the great world spin. updike's writing is just as lovely as mccann's, puppy imagery notwithstanding - but he's still a creep.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 no peeking; how do you pronounce "redux"?

02 since it's that time of the year again, how are you feeling about john updike today? am i being unfair to him?

03 how much sex, in a literary sense, is too much?

04 what was your last nifty used book find? i had some luck the other day, and am excited about getting into my first dashiell hammett (once i finish this paul auster, which...burns).

*previous battle here.

**which made it a bit easier to forgive steve for eating(?!) the dust jacket. on some level it's appropriate for rabbit redux to suffer at the hands of a white troublemaker, but still.


LPC said...

1. Ree Ducks?
2. Updike is creepy.
3. No such thing as too much sex, but there is such a thing as too much creepy sex.
4. Liar's Club. My family was all browsing having arrived, as we frequently do, too early to the restaurant. My father bought it for me. Only a few months ago. First and last time. Oddly poignant.

jacob said...

1. I would also go with Ree Ducks.
2. There's only room for one White Male Narcissist on my bookshelf, and it's occupied by Philip Roth. Re: Updike - I've only read "A Month of Sundays," and it was...ok? I really can't remember.
3. This may be the obvious reaction, but as long as such scenes are written well, I don't know there's a specific quantity that would be too much. This does bring up that NYTimes article where some writer complained about the lack of sex writing from today's well-regarded novelists.
4. This being Iowa City, land of book readers, we successfully hit a very large church fundraiser and made off with tons of great stuff, though I think the hardcover of Nam Le's "The Boat" for $1 was the best deal. And several paperback NYRB reissues and "The Russian Debutante's Handbook" and a nice old copy of "Howard's End" for 50 cents each.

Milkmaid's dumb friend said...

01: I’ll admit it: Wouldn’t’ve known except for Apocalypse Now Redux.
02: It’s like Norman Mailer retorting to Gore Vidal’s accusations of misogyny with a comparative list of their wives (5-0) and children (7-0/five daughters). Doesn’t Updike get points for engaging with women, and we’re talking grown-women, so regularly in art and life? Also, and I’m ready to be upbraided for a crappy close reading, but isn’t the puppy’s neck remark still alluding to her belly, like scruff on a wrinkly puppy’s neck (puerile?)? I haven’t read The Dux so maybe surrounding paragraphs make vagina obvious, but I didn’t get it until I linked to your tweet. (More defense: I usually miss abstract sexual similes that don’t reflect my own experience e.g. crash helmets and bite plates.)
03: It’s always too much.
“Art, like light, needs distance, and anyone who attempts to render sexual experience directly must face the fact that the writhings which comprise it are ludicrous without their subjective content, that the intensity of that content quickly outruns its apparent cause, that the full experience becomes finally inarticulate, and that there is no major art that works close in.”
“I should like to suggest that at least on the face of it a stroke by stroke story of a copulation is exactly as absurd as a chew by chew account of the consumption of a chicken’s wing.”
-On Being Blue, William H Gass
Having quoted thus, I still like the explicit sex in Ballard’s Crash, Desclos’ The Story of O, and Baker’s The Fermata for various mitigating reasons. Is there a definitive good literary sex example anywhere?
04: I ganked a copy of The Swimming Pool Library before its owner dispensed with it in the recycle bin. I hear it tests the concept of too much sex in a literary sense.

kidchamp said...

as you all probably guessed, i'd been saying "re-DOO" until i looked it up a week or two ago. sigh.

MDF, engaging isn't nearly enough for me; bearing in mind that these are the only two updike novels i've read, these women orbit harry, and it makes me crazy. janice's 'flowering' with charlie stavros was updike's chance to give her an interior, and his big explanation was that she now understood that female sexual pleasure was back-to-front. giving a woman lines and writing her a part are two very, very different things. you're quite right about the puppy's neck, and i should have been clearer on that - here it's her belly, and in rabbit, run it's her vulva (so i was actually a bit imprecise with the tweet as well). this is the run passage:

Just women after all, descended from some old Indian-cheater luckier than the rest, inherit the same stuff if they lived in a slum. Glow all the whiter there, on drab mattresses. That wonderful way they have of coming forward around you when they want it. Otherwise just fat weight. Funny how the passionate ones are often tight and dry and the slow ones wet. They want you up and hard on their little ledge. The thing is play them until just a touch. You can tell: their skin under the fur gets all loose like a puppy's neck.

as for good literary sex, i'd have to throw that one out to the internet. i was extremely fond of the apprentice when it first gained notoriety, but then i love absurdity almost as much as i hate sex.

Amanda said...

01 Ree ducks?
02 I read bits of Nicholson Baker's U&I from time to time, usually upon MDF's prodding, which is to say that I like Updike via Baker. Otherwise, I like him (and Malcolm Gladwell, incidentally) best in the New Yorker, where I can sit momentarily amused but not have to think about it after I get off the train. Also, I like putting him in my purse. (Ha.)
03 Baker's The Fermata.
04 The Interpreter of Maladies. Free.

metameat said...

I had to fight over that pronunciation the year I moved back to Tucson, and lost; like you, I was looking for French where it's Latin, and had to deal with everyone saying "reDU" to me, with ludicrous uvular trills, for the rest of the year. There's no excuse for most of what Updike does, and I'm temped to follow what Gibbon said about the fourth-century Roman poet Ausonius, that his "poetical fame... condemns the taste of his age."