Sunday, 7 June 2015

Final Destination Approaching: Rabbit at Rest- John Updike

These thoughts on the last instalment of Updike's epic collection on the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom have been much delayed due to a large increase in my workload of marking.  An unacceptable consequence of living in the age of austerity and the cut-backs in the public sector but  a finite one.  That is I knew the marking would end - at some point to be defined in the future.  The reader has a similar knowledge of Rabbit at Rest.  As the last volume of the study of Rabbit this book is only ever going to end one it way : with his death even though by our standards Harry is too young for that (in the West) at 55.   This is a powerful reflection of out own knowledge (or denial) of our own finite existence.  To that extent for me this made the work one of the more challenging as these connection between Rabbit, me (the reader) and mortality is a difficult one to face.

One of the factors behind this is the setting of 1988/89.  Of all the Rabbit novels this is the one time that I have full memory and cultural/political knowledge of.  I was a young child during the Rabbit is Rich time of 1979.  But Updike uses the same structure as the three previous novels - set at the cusp of a new decade with around a 10 year gap.  I am glad that I have left a fairly sizeable gap between the works rather than devour it in one period  ( I have the Everyman edition with all the novels in one chunk) - this gives a sense of time and development albeit a much more compressed one than the 30 years from the starting point - it took me two years to read the quartet.

Judging a writer's development when they have a long writing span (as Updike did) is not normally done through the medium of one character and the changing society they live in.  Crime writers and the like who use the same people tend to use a formula for the work and  deal with issues like aging as asides to the plot.  But Updike focuses on the man who has aged at the same rate as him and has some autobiographical similarities particularly with his place of birth with one of the clear differences being the date of death.  Updike lived for 20 years more than Harry - dying in 2009.

It was a bit gimmicky but the Richard Linklater movie  Boyhood filmed over a decade of a young boy growing up with the same actor deals with a similar theme in a more obvious way - the passage of time and the altering mores that an individual faces.  Although focusing on the earliest years of life (at least for the main character) where the protagonist has little self awareness and is making the first steps on the road of learning Updike's journey with Rabbit began in his mid 20s as an "adult".

So as a piece of literary fiction is this the pinnacle of Updike's work as it is the culmination of Rabbit's life?  Does it overcome the burden of being the end?

Well I would say almost.  The first thing to note is that I think (ironically perhaps) it is the funniest of the four.  This is as much to do perhaps with our familiarity with the characters and our insight into Harry's thoughts but I thought the first third is some of the funniest American fiction I have read.   This is a little unsettling when you consider that Harry is in almost constant pain throughout this part of the work - Rabbit is very overweight and out of shape with recurring chest and heart pains.

The separation of the work is done under the heading of  three states of America - this is perhaps a little surprising as it is a constant in the books that Harry almost never left Pennsylvania and seemed stuck completely to his  Middle American haven (with a brief soujourn to the Caribbean in Rabbit is Rich).  However he has managed to (partially) escape to Florida with Janice (his wife throughout) as they have bought a condo in Florida where they live for part of the year.

This has echoes of Rabbit's originally planned escape in the first book which never happened where he had ill thought out plans of running to the Gulf  of Mexico.  Well this time he has made it but it is not for nothing that Florida is called God's Waiting Room.   The mundanity of this life with its rounds of golf, institutionalised restaurants and endless TV are captured brilliantly by Updike's prose.  Harry's obesity and health means the sharpness and the sexual obsessions  of the previous works have been tempered (though critically for the development of the work not removed) with a pursuit of junk food.   The jogging he attempted in earlier books is long forgotten. Particularly funny is his description of desiring a peanutty chocolate bar in an airport.

One tension that remains though is with his son Nelson who has taken over the car selling family business (from Janice's side - as Harry is always reminded).  Nelson's own family is still standing (just) with is marriage and child (Judy born in the last chapter of Rabbit is Rich) now added to with a younger son:  Roy.
The way that Nelson comes apart and the extent of his deceit and fraud is exposed is brilliantly written as is Harry's antipathy (a constant in all the novels) and Janice's denial then ham fisted attempts to solve the problems.  Alongside the mortality the fear of your children ending up in the state Nelson does is another universal for parents,  so once again the book is pretty close to the bone.

The tensions are resumed in the fourth book when Nelson and family show up in Florida for family holiday.  There is a very funny description of the older couple taking their grandchildren (9 and 4) to see Thomas Edison's old house with predictable boredom.  The interaction of the two families though culminates with Harry's heart attack which he has in the middle of a boating trip with Judy - there is a large amount of detail of all the  hospital equipment and procedures - Updike's parents apparently went through similar heart procedures.

 Death coming to the party as Virginia Woolf put it though sends Harry back to his home turf of Brewer and he tries unsuccessfully to tie up loose ends.  This includes the affair he has had over the last decade with Thelma (his wife swapping partner of the last novel) - who is the other character that dies in the work - although all the parents of Janice and Harry are deceased although they still cast a shadow in particular Janice's mum: a critical character in the last work.

The politics and the culture of the 80s are referenced - with the Lockerbie bombing of 1988 being a bit of an obsession at the start of the book for Harry.  Although his elderly golf buddies of Florida are northern Liberals - musing of Bush's Presidential victory of the same year (Rabbit is the only one who voted for him).  Harry thinks about the dream - like quality of Reagan and his 80s era - again perhaps related to the time of his life.  But more than the politics is the endless reference to consumer products (mainly food) Oreos, Coke, McDonalds - the stuff that is clogging up Harry and indirectly the whole of the U.S.  This is the real consequence (you could argue) from the Rich period of the seventies as is the complex debt restructuring plan put in place to try - in vain - to save the family business.  The cinematic reference is the very 80s Working Girl as Janice tries to model herself on the Melanie Griffith character - also in vain- to set up in business herself as an estate agent.

What is also quite chilling about the latter two thirds of the work is that many characters including Janice behave like Harry is already dead or at least they are preparing  their post-Harry life.

I think all of the books have an unsettling and transgressive event that alters the way we look at the work - the death of the Angstrom's baby daughter in the first, the housefire in the second and the "swinging" scene in the third.  This also has one - "the worst thing you have ever done..." as Janice says to Harry involving sex and his daughter in law when he just leaves the hospital following an operation - linking sex and death again.

The reveal of this unthinkable act leads to Harry's inevitable demise as he runs (again) back to Florida in his car - where a hurricane is approaching.  The radio (as in the first one) is used to give a running commentary on the current events and as if returning to his roots old song follows old song from the 1950s.  He hides out in the condo and the artificial lifestyle it supports then ventures out to the real world.  He tries to play basketball (his one element of success in his teenage life) with a young black kid  and collapses : the cycle is almost complete.

There is so much more to this work - Harry's latterly obsession with obscure points of U.S. History, his spiky but ultimately endearing relationship with his grandchildren, catching up with some of the characters from the earlier books.  Throughout the link between these parts is Updike's effortless prose and his elevation of detail to high art - he won his second Pulitzer for this book.  A challenging work though as it makes you think of things you rather would not but it is funny (hilarious in places) and rewarding. On the whole the four books are an important part of American literature and the late twentieth century.

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