THUNDERTOME: ROUND 31
SURVIVOR: black swan green (david mitchell)*
CHALLENGER: rabbit at rest (john updike)
Martin Amis, Updike's only rival as a post-Nabokov virtuoso, wrote that "having read him once, you admit to yourself, almost with a sigh, that you will have to read everything he writes." Nicholson Baker, another scintillating miniaturist, embarked on the memoir/homage U and I despite not having read even half of Updike's books. Do writers as inimitable as Updike leave heirs? Or just addicts?i'm finished; while i can't say that i'll never read updike again (in truth, i wouldn't mind reading the centaur soonish), i can say that the unscratchable itch is less ferocious now than it's been for a few years. there's a scene in this final rabbit novel in which (aging, bloated) harry angstrom rolls down main street dressed as uncle sam for the local independence day parade, taking in admiration like a balloon float on thanksgiving: he's full of nothing (and hazardous to bystanders**) and manages to rivet (and delight) the whole damn town. though harry peaked as a high school basketball star, though chasing updike's portraits of american decades down the dirty corridors of harry's thoughts is more than a bit like scrambling around, ninja turtlish, in a sewer...you can't stop watching the fucker.
harry is only fifty-five when rabbit at rest kicks off, but updike wastes no time making sure we know this rest won't be happening on a barcalounger - not much of it, anyway.
Standing amid the tan, excited post-Christmas crowd at the Southwest Florida Regional Airport, Rabbit Angstrom has a funny sudden feeling that what he has come to meet, what's floating in unseen about to land, is not his son Nelson and daughter-in-law Pru and their two children but something more ominous and intimately his: his own death, shaped vaguely like an airplane.he and his wife have retired to florida's valhalla village, a terrifying snowbird community which bears a striking resemblance to leisure world, the gigantic south orange county oldsters' enclave that packed our family's church every sunday and voted down our community's effort to become a city every november (because they'd have had to help pay for our fire department and schools; retired people are so giving). valhalla village is full of norfolk island pines*** and - lucky updike! - freeze-dried golfers; as in previous rabbit novels, we're treated to frequent, painterly status reports on the local foliage and harry's short game. they're far better news than the reports on harry's family: his son, now a full-fledged coke addict, is running harry's toyota dealership into the ground, his daughter-in-law is desperately unhappy and even more mercenary than she was in the seventies, and his grandson is a portly little malcontent. his granddaughter, judy, has something of a rapport with harry; nearly alone among the tetralogy's sympathetic females, she neither snuffs it as a result of his negligence (though she comes close!) nor stars in his creepy musings. i like judy very much, and the scenes in which harry and janice drag her and her little brother around thomas edison's estate and a questionable florida zoo are some of the best of the series. i am, for reasons i don't quite understand, especially fond of this:
A small machine such as those that in Harry's youth supplied a handful of peanuts or pistachio nuts in almost every gas station and grocery store is fixed to a pavilion post near an area where peacocks restlessly drag their extravagant feathers across the dust. Here he makes his historic blunder. As his three kin move ahead he fishes in his pocket for a dime, inserts it, receives a handful of brown dry objects, and begins to eat them. They are not exactly peanuts, but perhaps some Florida delicacy, and taste so dry and stale as to be bitter; but who knows how long these machines wait for customers? When he offers some to Judy, though, she looks at them, smells them, and stares up into his face with pure wonderment. "Grandpa!" she cries. "That's to feed the birds! Grandma! He's been eating birdfood! Little brown things like rabbit turds!"it's in this novel that one starts thinking of harry as a family member, albeit an often-repellent one, and that, alright, i finally let updike in; his protagonist's weird personal gravity, the way he draws himself to you with big, dumb gestures and repulses you with swift, hard ones, collapses into a small, dense nugget of commentary on white male america that feels very true. i began to suspect quite early that rabbit at rest would take this round, and the plot point (involving harry and his daughter-in-law) that initially drove me from that conclusion is the very one that deposits me there. blimey, internet.
Janice and Roy gather around to see, and Harry holds open his hand to display the shaming evidence. "I didn't know," he weakly says. "There's no sign or anything." He is suffused with a curious sensation; he feels faintly numb and sick but beyond that, beyond the warm volume enclosed by his skin, the air is swept by a universal devaluation; for one flash he sees his life as a silly thing it will be a relief to discard.
VICTOR: john motherfucking updike, in the dirtiest match on record.
imaginary reading group discussion questions
01 to whom are you addicted?
02 have you ever participated in a parade? if so, how?
03 which of your hobbies would be most interesting to novel-readers? which would be least interesting?
04 in 2001 updike wrote a 182-page "sequel," rabbit remembered, about harry's surviving family (reviewed here by my boyfriend a.o. scott). you get to commission a novella-sequel! to which sequence of novels will you demand an addition?
05 does updike's win surprise you?
*previous battle here.
**that list of thanksgiving day parade accidents is something else. "1994: Barney tore his side on a lamppost and had to be removed from the parade with the help of knife-wielding officials, crying kids and cheering adults. 1995: Dudley the Dragon, who was leading the parade, was speared and deflated on a lamppost and showered glass on the crowd below."
***much like magnus, acquired on the way home from a coworker's farewell party just before i began rabbit at rest. it's possible i felt updike was taunting me for adopting a plant i'd almost certainly kill (norfolks are far too tender for new york winters, and are happiest in, well, florida).