It's that time of the year again. When the hibernation season is going on I am generally attracted to 20th Century American novels exposing the cracked reality of life inside the powerhouse of world capitalism. This January I have begun the John Updike group of four novels examining the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom - one for each of the last decades of the last century. I have never read any Updike but heard a lot about him when he died in 2009 and always remember his appearance on the Simpsons as Krusty's biographer- which Jonathan Franzen has also been on.
Rabbit is living in the past. Although he lives in an apartment with his wife and son, a suburbof the "fifth largest city" in Pennslyvania (both places creations of Updike). He has a job - selling the Magipeeler kitchen appliance. This is the low -rent end of Cheever/Mad Men America - though this is set at the cusp of the 50s: 1959. A long way from down -town Manhattan, Grand Central Station and pre-dinner cocktails, though alcohol does play a part. He is very tall and moderately good looking. The birth of mass consumerism is here - televisions, second-hand cars, kitchen "machines that were modern five years ago" but Rabbit is a bit player in it. And he wants to escape.
Partially that is to his past. He was a basketball star at high school - feted by all. But that was 10 years ago. Rabbit is in his mid twenties - in current setting he would probably be about ten years older - I noticed a similar phenonmeon in Cheever's short fiction. The novel starts with him jumping into a street ball game with sceptical teenagers.
So far so American. Due to the domination of Hollywood and to a lesser extent T.V. we are used to tales of American High School and sports stars and the faded aftermath. It's as much an alien culture to us in Scotland as the Russian Peasants of Turgenev but its cliches and images seem to be stuck in our DNA like the annoying recurrence of a Grease Megamix.
What sets this novel apart though and raises it into a realm of universal literature, I think, is what happen next. That is Rabbit Runs - his unhappy marriage to his pregnant Janice is put in sharp relief when he comes home after the ball game and she is drunk watching the Mickey Mouse Club on TV. He goes out for cigarettes for her and never goes back....
Except he does in a way. His escape is complex and incomplete. At first he seeks to drive away but in comical fashion and written with detailed geographical precision he seems to be damned to driving round in circles in the North-Eastern states of America despite a desire to go the Gulf of Mexico. He seems to be held like a magnet and can't escape the diners and gas-stations. He then drives back to the suburb - via his old basket ball coach he ends up living with Ruth. She is a faded beauty who is outwith the traditional 50s America family structure. But this is pre-60s sexual "revolution" and contraception so there are hints of prostitution about her life and life style. She is an interesting character but not as fully developed , I didnt think as the others.
Though apparently the later Rabbit novels are more explicit with a running commentary of the America of the times this is a little more subtle. All the trappings of consumerism which fail to alleviate almost any of the characters' sadness and Rabbit's feelings of failure are just there. Like the early surf-rock music he listens to on his car radio when he tries to flee and the mention of the escape (significant I think) of the Dalai Lama from the Chinese Tibetan invasion of 1959 - the only contemporary event that is mentioned. This says a lot about America but it is more centred on the alienation and lack of direction that Harry Rabbit feels.
He is fairly shallow though particularly when it comes to women. The novel is pretty frank in its sexual language which was out in the same sort of era as Lady Chatterly's Lover. Rabbit sees sex as a power weapon over the women in his life. There are two particularly uncomfortable scenes - one with Ruth where he demands oral sex and one when he returns to Janice - which precipitates the tragedy in some ways. They emphasise his selfishness and his personal obsession.
The novel is largely but not wholly written from Rabbit's perspective but not in the first person. However there are a number of times when Updike shifts to a different character's perspective. There is an excellent part dealing with Eccles, the minister for Rabbit's church (a really well drawn character)- another part of suburbia, visiting Harry and Janice''s parents trying to reconcile the couple. He, chronically thirsty throughout is obviously struggling with his own faith - he justifies his job though as a social one trying to solve other people's problems: which causes him to be condemned by his wife (another woman Rabbit tries to make the moves on) and the Lutheran hard line Protestant minister who says his only role is to be an "examplar of faith" not a "cop without hand-cuffs".
Powerfully, though, and in I think the best part of the novel, in the pre-tragedy scene he focuses on Janice as she descends into drunkenness as she thinks Rabbit has run again and causes the horrible event. It is a brilliantly written well measured scene and changes the tone of the last third of the novel significantly. It is almost like a separate short story contained within a larger work.
Though this has ended up as part of a four novel set looking at the development of Harry Rabbit I am not sure it began like that because there is a lot here - a study of what being a man is, sex, America, religion, death. The novel ends with the sentence. Runs. Literally Rabbit is pursued (not for long) by Eccles who tried hard to reconcile him to his life. What will or can happen next?
A great book. I intend to read the novels at different points throughout the year - I hope they are not like diminishing movie sequels but take up the themes that are explored here.