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.

1 comment:

  1. Tracking John Updike's Foot Fetish.
    This is only scratching the surface! Some quotes from six of Updike's fifty odd books.He kneels to comply. Annoyed at such ready compliance, which implies pleasure, she stiffens her feet and kicks so her toenails stab his cheek, dangerously near his eyes.