Saturday, 27 July 2013

The 60s Doing a Number on Us: Rabbit Redux - John Updike

As I read the next novel in the Rabbit Cycle ( I finished the first in the depths of winter) - the summer got unseasonally hot  - pardon the pun- and the American State was once again paralysed and exposed on race.  The murder of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of Neighbourhood Watch man - George Zimmerman on the basis of  self defence provoked protests and demos across the USA - even Obama had to comment that it could have been him.   Why this was so relevant is that this book outlines and exposes the same arguments and fautlines of racism in the USA amongst many other things though it was written 42 years ago.

Set once again in the fictional city of Brewer in Pennsylvania - it emerges in the novel that a film crew has chosen it as the epitome of the American Mid-West- which Rabbit never did run away from.  In fact 10 years on it is revealed he has hardly ever been anywhere else - never left the country or indeed visited any American city apart from military training in Texas.  But the world and its troubles have certainly visited Harry and indeed as an extension the sleepy Mid-West as well.

Set in the Summer of 1969 which was a tenser, troubled time than outlined in the god - awful Brian Adams song funnily enough.   A time of the Moon - which I will return to - but also of the immediate aftermath of 68 including race riots in York - another Pennylvanian city.  These were caused by the gunning down of a young black woman by white armed gangs.   The Trayvon issue - almost identically again. This is the world that Rabbit now lives in as his own domestic world falls apart, once again.

For this is a book - end to the first work.  The 60s have happened and what a happening they have been.  Whereas the stilted Cheever-esque world of the 50s that Rabbit tried to run away from had subtle cultural references intertwined in it and very little politics this novel does the opposite - turning up the colour of the politics and culture of the 60s till it is garish like a cheap colour tv.  We are only a few pages in and Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom is revealing his racist feelings towards the black population, an issue not mentioned at all in the first work.  The intervening decade was period of  a lot of internal migration in America from the South to the North.  Then he holds forth on a full blown nihilistic defence of the Vietnam War.  The news and culture of the time then are really a character themselves in the novel.

This is particularly true of the Moon Landings - these provide a narrative arc throughout the work - with quotes from Armstrong, Aldrin and the parallel Soviet mission Soyuz (also flown in 69) breaking up the chapters. This summer is one of the foundation myths of modern USA and I like how Updike used it here with it being background noise to the battles that were raging across the country at that time.  Rabbit like millions of other Americans has been forced to heed the wider universe and he doesn't much like it.  He has a desire for order and certainty - ironically given his attempt to escape from all that ten years previously.

In fact his wife Janice outlines Rabbit's raging against modern America in this way "he wants to live an old fashioned life, but nobody does that anymore, and he feels it".  His dabbling with rebellion in the previous decade was something very different to what was going on by 69.

In another way this book is a reflection of the previous work as Janice runs away in this one to her lover - again like Rabbit in the first work to the same city.  Her sexual awakening again are tied to the decade and the development of contraception and the women's movement.  Although here escape here although ostensibly radical in his politics proves to be as staid as Rabbit in some ways.

So it is Rabbit and Nelson, his son, now a teenage boy with all that entails who are abandoned in this work.  His baby daughter who died in the first work due to Janet's negligence is a ghostly presence too.  Rabbit goes into a form of disintegration with the only order being provided by his job as a typesetter in the printing industy and the TV schedules.  Yet the work and Rabbit's life take an unusual twist when he takes in an 18 year old rich-kid hippy runaway Jill - introduced to him by his black workmate in a transactional way at a night club.  He then becomes sexually involved with her despite her age and  her closesness to his son.   Then Skeeter, a black rebel, also is invited to stay by Jill in the semi-suburban home  despite his separatist views and his disdain for Rabbit and all that he stands for.

It is this part of the novel that a broader vista of American history is given with Skeeter ( a Vietnam Vet)  giving lectures almost every evening about how the USA developed.  He also makes his white audience read aloud from books - including Frederick Douglass.  This was actually quite enlightening with stuff I didn't know about the Reconstruction following the Civil War  and how in a sense an uneasy truce was made in the name of American Capitalism to allow for the continued ill treatment of African Americans if there was no interference in business.

A parallel could be seen here with the English Civil War and the Restoration of the Monarchy.  The King was allowed to return as long as he didn't mess with the merchants!  In fact Redux - means restoration and was used in a Dryden poem about that - I don't know if this parallel has ever been drawn.

Restoration also refers to Rabbit himself.  He is a cipher of a character at the beginning - racist, pro-war and not very aware.  It is always a risk of having such a person in the centre of the work (and most of the narrative does focus on him) - Jonathan Coe did this in his last work.  However the counterpoints to this are speeches from Janice's lover Charlie, Skeeter - even his son Nelson.  Rabbit seems to absorb them.  He becomes attached to his strange new family and the dope smoking attached to it (!) but there is no Hollywood moment when he confronts his racist neighbours or father.    Rabbit also has an attention to detail which Updike makes the most of.

In fact the climax of the work  is tragic like in the first - and it occurs at almost the same point in the novel. It is on a higher scale though but as in the first leads to a form of reconciliation and Janice leaves her summer lover and returns tentatively to Rabbit and Nelson.   Even though Rabbit is almost now completely destitute losing his job and his house.

What makes this work quite remarkable is that not only does it do all this but it is written with a narrative fluiditiy  - almost stream of concious-like which does not bog the book down or make it difficult to read.  It is similar I think to Virginia Woolf''s work particularly in Mrs Dalloway; so it is quite modernist.   It is also very funny in parts (honestly!) particularly in its dialogue.  I liked the pre-disaster family meal in the Greek restaurant.  Late 60s American cinema and tv is also an important part of the work - in particularly (and perhaps obviously) 2001  a Space Odyssey.   There is even a cameo  appearance by Eccles - the now lapsed clergy of the first work - who makes an important observation on Plato's cave.

The work has disturbing moments - Rabbit is violent to both Janice and Jill in quite an extensive way, the explicit sexual relationship between 18 year old Jill and Rabbit - literally twice her age and discussions of rape - perhaps date the work in terms of sexual mores.  There are passages that are quite difficult to read because of that.  But  the permanent racism of the white community is relentlessly mentioned  - Rabbit (though arguably this alters), his father, his neighbours in what essentially is a white-flight neighbourhood from Brewer thrown up quickly, and numerous other characters are sadly not as dated.

Updike's own political views were ambiguous but here he catalogues the sexual and racial tension endemic in the USA.  He offers no real salvation but I don't think I have read a better overview of America of that time.  I look forward to how the 70s hit Rabbit or if he hits them.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Locked on the inside looking in : Dostoevsky's Memoirs from the House of the Dead

Prisons have a strange status in modern society.   Most of us tend not to think of them yet Scotland (and England)  has one of Europe's biggest proportionate prison populations.   In the USA (a different league to the rest of the planet vis a vis prisoners) a massive industry has built up around incarceration - in some respects it now challenges Eisenhower's fabled military industrial complex.

The tabloid press whip themselves up into synthetic fury over so-called luxuries in prisons and the extension of the legal protection of human rights to convicts.  Even when the European Court of Human Rights argues for the right to vote ( a fairly fundamental right in a democracy)  to some prisoners - politicians from David Cameron to Jack Straw (admittedly not a very big spectrum) speak of their disgust. Even the SNP - out of step with European legal thinking - are not extending the franchise for next year's referendum: probably out of fear of a public backlash.

But for Dostoevsky prison was not a theoretical construct nor a place where you lock people up and throw away the key - it was for the 1850s his home.  As he explains the real hell of prison is  the theft of time and place which is critical to a human's liberty.  The existence of pool tables and Sky TV in cells 150 years later does not alter that.

For although as a society we may like to ignore them prisons have always been a recurrent setting for popular fiction - from novels to movies to TV serials we seem to be drawn to the darkness. Prison memoirs are also a constant phenomena - even Jeffrey Archer wrote one!  In fact the law has been altered across the whole of the UK (English and Scots Law) so prisoners cannot make money from any artistic work related to their crime or their time in prison.

This pivotal work for Dostoyevsky ostensibly has the structure of a novel - there is a perfunctory introduction explaining that the book is a recovered text from a convict settler's belongings who worked as a teacher prior to his death.  There is one other reference to this device but that is it.  This really is Dostoyevsky's own thoughts on his time inside.

It is unusual for such a traumatic life event for a fiction writer to be used in such a way.  Though not unique.  The Empire of the Sun by Ballard was  a real novel but it was based around Ballard's youth in a prison camp - though he changed several key issues in the fiction.  He later did write a memoir  - in fact his last original published work.  The House of Dead cannot really be called a novel in any sense - it is episodic and written totally from the unshaking gaze of a participant in the incarceration.  However you could argue that Dostoyevsky could not have written his master works - all of which followed this memoir - without this experience.  His view of the world and hence his fiction is sharpened, honed by his collective living experience amongst the Siberian convicts.  This he shares with Ballard whose fiction throughout his life was dominated by the Japanese war camps.

But perhaps more surprisingly in his characterisation and its outline of the hierarchy and dynamic of prison life   he creates a structure that has been followed by almost every prison drama since.  I was actually reminded more  of the underrated HBO 90/00s show Oz than I was of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich's time in the Stalinist Gulag.  This is because the writer is nearly absent he views all his fellow inmates and their interactions almost from a distance which is difficult because he is living almost on top of them.   It is like a cinema camera is omnipresent.

The different nationalities of the Tsarist Empire - the Tartars, the Poles, the Musselmesn (Muslims!)a solitary Jew are subjected to forensic examination: much as the various prison gangs were in the Oz penitentiary in Clinton/Bush America.
The absence of the narrator contrasts with his more traditional novel ( a weaker work that this) : the Humiliated and Insulted which he wrote around the same time as this where you can't escape the writer who is in nearly every scene.  For a fiction writer this was an important exercise in finding his voice.

The narrative structure dips in and out of various scenes over the writer's imprisonment - in the jail or the hospital prison which he admits he escaped to at every opportunity to escape the hell of prison.  These are mainly set pieces but some are beautifully written: the visit to the public baths, the Christmas Feast with its limited pleasures and happiness for the prisoners and the prisoners putting on an amateur dramatic  performance.  Arguably the Christmas episode (!) was part of Dostoyevsky's personal focus on the importance of religion but it fits well in the work.

One thread which runs through the work though is Dostoyevsky's alienation from the group.  This is not simply down to bullying or the fact  he was there for political activity not some of the brutal crimes which are outlined at different points in the book, particularly in one harrowing incident told as a story as one of the inmates in hospital.  It is rather a reflection of his "gentleman" status outside in the strictly delineated feudal structures of  Tsarist Russia.  Although prison is a uniform setting even that location cannot escape the class division.  This was a time of serfdom where even FD who was on the lower fringes of the system had a family that owned other human beings or souls.

This is outlined in a brilliant chapter : the Grievance.  This covers a limited revolt from the prisoners over conditions and food  where FD is told he is not welcome to take part (because of his background) and has to cower in the kitchen with the other aristocrats and various others (including the other nationalities) who do not want to participate.  In fact he outlines tremendously well the tensions of a collective action - the sort of people who don't take part,  how it begins in the first place, how it crumbles and its aftermath.  Yet more than anything it outlines the bizarre outmoded structure of feudalism (even for the 1850s) that crippled Russia and lead to a series of revolutions to remove all remnants of it.  It also shows the mindset of the peasant as well and how difficult it was to transform that - a problem Lenin and Trotsky wrote extensively about.

Dostoevesky was making a political point as well though - essentially criticising the early Left leaning aristocrats of Russia who thinks they could be part of the peasantry or be accepted.  However he is contradictory on this as his later works tend to idealise the peasantry.  I think it is also wrong to see this as a universal that people from one group will never accept another or be fully part of them - it is firmly grounded for me in the particulars of Russian feudalism.  It did show the problems facing Russian radicals at that time though - fighting to change society for a group that would not accept them or perhaps had no trust in them.

The horrors of prison life are written about particularly the use of torture, the whip and the birch but not extensively.  The real horror is the grind, the lack of human freedom and the enforced collective living - no solitude allowed.  Yet through this I think Dostoevsky by nature probably a bit of a loner learned much on human interaction.  He writes almost with a lover's eye on one of the Tartars from Dagestan (!) - Aley : or rather "my dear, dear, good Aley" .  His examination of the prison rulers - one corrupt, one effective is really strong. This means there is so much more in it than existential moans of "Woe is me" or "I shouldn't be here".

His voice or thoughts are not absent - there is commentary on all the characters and incidents but as all great writers do Dostoyevsky was absorbing everything.  Because of this there is even room for humour - not what you would think.  One thing tickled me " there were a few unquenchably cheerful souls, who for that reason enjoyed universal contempt"... You said it FD.

He cleared the decks with this work - following this all the classical titles followed.  This however is worth spending some time with - they don't make Oz anymore but this is still here.