I have just read what is considered one of John Updike’s best novels, Rabbit Redux, the second of four telling the story of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom’s life. I found it to border on revolting, almost claustrophobic in its ‘conservative’ resignation to…well, almost everything, misogynistic of course, smug and obtuse about race in America – I could go on. Updike is obviously an extremely intelligent man, and he writes beautifully, but what is style without content? What is intelligence without critical appreciation? Writing a novel isn’t a practical matter, just laying it all out, like engineering! If you really want a good take-down of the man’s work, you cannot do better than the Gore Vidal in this review of Updike’s memoir and (then) latest novel.
My first exposure to Updike was Roger’s Version, which seemed little more than trash to me, but I was assured by fans that it was the very worst of this prolific writer’s output. I had read some of his literary reviews and found them sensitive and interesting: I’d even liked a short story and poem or two that I’d run across. Time to give him another chance I thought. While Rabbit Redux is a world away from Roger’s Version, the themes and content are very similar, and I’m done with Mr. Updike.
I had to grit my teeth to finish Redux, it was so deeply boring. Harry/Rabbit understands little, questions nothing, and acts on instinct, all the while claiming to feel guilt. I think this is how Updike seeks to portray the beautiful ordinariness of peoples’ lives. Harry also hits his wife and the eighteen-year old rich drug addict runaway whom he takes in after his wife leaves him. He and a loony black radical, another house guest the one pushing dope on the girl, use her as their sex slave while they read Frederick Douglas’ autobiography to one another. Harry also has a kid who witnesses much of this, whom Harry give beer to drink, and before whom he swears profusely and smokes pot. He also complains the world is going to hell and that hippies have no respect for their country – go figure.
It sounds melodramatic, and maybe even interesting, but it’s all so flat, so filled with descriptions of the material minutiae of the 1960s, and the people all seem on autopilot, that it is simply excruciating. Updike is considered a giant of the realist tradition, but to me, none of it seems real: more like the fantasy of reality imagined by an overly literary and intellectual man who is for some reason preoccupied with religion and authority. Consider: Harry works as a linotype operator, and comes from a working class family. His sister goes to Hollywood to become an actress but ends up as an expensive whore. Everyone in the family seems fine with this: not a peep about choices, lifestyle, disappointment, anger, whatever, when she breezes home for a few days. She and Harry chat about fucking a lot. Just like brothers and sisters everywhere, right? Maybe I’m naïve…
I could go on a lot about everything in this book that I didn’t like, didn’t believe, or couldn’t fathom, it was so elaborately pointless – the extended descriptions of Harry’s masturbating for example. The lame discussions of the politics of the Vietnam War. The constant looming of sex as a instinctual drive that seems to give no one pleasure. The fact that neither Harry nor anybody else seems to want to try to figure out a way to do something with their lives that satisfies them. Harry’s love for his son that seems limited to his view of him as a biological extension of himself and that certainly does not involve any care for his welfare beyond asking the drug addicts he harbors not to shoot up in front of him. And… oh, never mind.
He sure does write sentences well, though.