Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Money doesn't talk it swears: Rabbit is Rich - John Updike

1979.   It seems to loom large in my existence at the moment.  35 years ago it may be but the current Top of the Pops repeats on BBC4 are from this year: great episode last week - Sunday Girl number 1 - and Bowie and Elvis Costello on! It was also the year of the first constitutional referendum in Scotland relevant in 2014 - a victory but a defeat for devolution.  Of course it also lives in infamy as the year of the first election triumph of Thatcher although the economic model she devastated society with had already a couple of years behind it having its birth pangs in Chile amongst other places.  So the end of an era or the beginning - or a bit of both.

Such contradictory times are an ideal setting for a good novel and the year 1979 is when Updike chose to set his third Rabbit novels Rabbit is Rich - a decade on from the racial tension of Rabbit Redux.  For although Rabbit has still not moved from Brewer the economic beginnings and ends over the Atlantic in Uk plc were global and Rabbit Angstrom was right slap bang in the middle of it - as the ambiguous title of the work tells us.

By this work Updike had decided that there was going to be four of these novels which meant there was always going to be an inherent danger that this being the 3rd it would fall in to a bit of a rut.  It could have just been a review of the 70s, popular references, fashions etc and lose its focus as a novel  But as a piece of work it never fell into any of these traps - in fact I think it could be the strongest of the three I have read so far.  One of Updike's skills as a writer of contemporary fiction writer I have found is that he can identify things about living in the era that are immediate but universal.  So, the observations of the time are neither kitsch or immediately dated.  Nixon  - a critical figure for the American  70s - gets a throw away mention on page 2 although the Watergate hangover arguably fuelled the dash to consumerism and the tone of the novel.

The other benefit of the Rabbit series is that we are in his head and know of major events that have crashed into him.   The narrative itself is almost exclusively from his perspective with a slight detour with his twenty something son Nelson, now a college dropout.   So the reader can hit the ground running or not (!) for I think you could enjoy it on its own mainly because of the period where the characters operate.

Ironically given the context Updike has really struck oil by setting the work at this transitional time of consumerist capitalism.  For Rabbit from the opening scene of him standing in his dusty car showroom where he works to the final scene settling into his heavily mortgaged "dream home" has the trappings of success defined by the wealth of American capital.  He is Rich... or is he?

Now back with Janice (they were reconciled at the end of Redux) almost totally - he lives with his mother in law (father dead) in her house, has a job at her dead dad's car dealership - notably a Japanese brand: Toyota.  Even his sexual proclivities - such a big part of the other novels are for the most part focused on Janice - with one fairly major exceptions.

The accumulation of wealth by Rabbit is outlined with unerring mundanity by Updike - the prose is full of figures and dollar signs, interminable conversations about car finance and investments.  But this is of the time and by that I don't just mean 1979 I mean 2014.  For the period of credit fuelled capitalism really sprang into life then - fuelling Thatcher and Reagan lets not forget too- and has never gone away despite the crunch 30 years later starting in one of the banks that Rabbit keeps his deposit box.

Those are just the trappings though for like the credit Rabbit's wealth seems based on sand - all in the hands of his wife and inlaws - who abandoned him in  Redux and who he sprinted away from in the first novel.  The world he lives in is as defining - the Iranian hostage crisis so critical to the petro-economy of the US buzzes away in the background, the oil price spike in the dog days of Jimmy Carter - even the young pope John Paul II's visit to the land of Mammon all seem to directly affect Rabbit in a way similar to the moon landings in the last book.  Disco - with the voice of Donna Summer - is the partial soundtrack as Harry tries to dissect the lyrics of Hot Stuff.  Tellingly most of this news arrives with Harry Rabbit on his car radio as he drives around burning oil.

The so called success and potential social climbing which Rabbit wants to indulge in is disrupted in many ways by the past in two ways.   Firstly Nelson appears with a girl in tow strangely determined to make it as a car salesman and drop out of Uni  and also the sight of a beautiful teenage girl makes him obsessed that she is his daughter from his 1950s scandalous tryst with Ruth.

The tension between this superficial belief in "wealth" and his struggle with his family real and imagined provide the real strength of this work .  Where does Rich - ness come from? . In the other two books there seemed to be a character that acts as a vehicle for monologues that contextualise the underlying themes of the books - Skeeter in Redux and Reverend Eccles in Run.   There is no one figure like that here although Rabbit's personification of success: Webb Murket - older with a very young wife does seem to represent consumerism and the trappings of wealth - this is more reflected in what he has rather than what he says.

The conflict really comes with his son Nelson who like all twenty somethings is simmering with rage about pretty much everything but again the reader has a good chance of knowing why he would be particularly angry with both his parents - having been abandoned at different times by each of them. The narrative arc of the work largely focuses on Nelson's return home with more than usual baggage - a pregnant girlfriend eventually emerges as does a curiously dated (even for 1979) shotgun wedding. Reflecting the essential small town nature of the Pennsylvanian city they live in.  Becoming a Dad at a similar age to Nelson Updike outlines brilliantly the gamut of emotions young fathers have - fear, pride, happiness, loss, gain - a bundle of contradictions.  Repeating his father's life in many ways although Rabbit with his eye on the consumerist prize hardly seems to notice - yet Nelson still maintains his independence.  I thought the antipathy and love of the relationship between father and son was particularly well written.

The other "family" story culminates in Rabbit meeting Ruth - a much altered yet at base similar person from 20  years before.  Ambiguities hang over this encounter which I thought was  a little unfulfilled  - perhaps Updike was setting this up for resolution in the last novel : it did feel a little contrived.

 The narrative style again is stunning in places with its ability to transmit human thought particularly male thought in a readable way.  I liked the interspersing of violent fantasy with banal thoughts - acts against Janice mainly - really exposing the underlying anger within Rabbit - the intermittent flashes of this along with crude sexual imagery is genuinely shocking in places.

The endless alcohol - Nelson's slightly older other half Prudence (Shamefully for Rabbit's bigoted mother in law a Catholic) drinks constantly through the pregnancy, Janice seems permanently sozzled- the social climbing of the country club, the nouveau riche trappings of the Murkett's home provide a real seventies flavour of the establishing U.S. middle classes.  Rabbit even manages his first trip overseas in his life to the Caribbean culminating in another 70s image - a night of  wife swapping swinging.  That scene has all the awkward sweaty details that you could imagine as does the aftermath and consequences.

As well as all this the novel is very very funny in places. The drawn out scene where Rabbit and Janice change their investment from Gold to Silver dollars (as recommended by Capitalist scion Webb) and move it across town is hysterical. As is much of the dialogue between Rabbit and his greek chorus of fellow social climbers.

Are the tensions and contradictions of this era resolved for Rabbit?  There is no real conventional plot as life began before the book started and goes on after it.  Yet movingly in his mortgaged up to the hilt house the last paragraph has him holding his newborn grandaughter "hardly weighing anything but alive".  Is this the Richness? or as the penultimate sentence put it "Another nail in his coffin".  Perhaps all will be revealed in the next decade and final book. Or perhaps not.

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