What I Read in July and August, Plus a Wrap-Up of Updike and Rabbit

August 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

Updike, Adam Begley; Rabbit, Run, John Updike; Rabbit Redux, John Updike; Rabbit Is Rich, John Updike; Rabbit at Rest, John Updike. Even though I was reading it for the fourth time, and knew its plots and patterns inside-out and upside-down, and could even recite certain passages, it took me more than two months to get through John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy as I read it more or less side-by-side with Adam Begley’s biography of its author. I’m not sure what additional perspective I was expecting as I got to know the human Updike—the only child, much loved by his family, the eager Harvard student, the husband, the father, the swashbuckler among the Ipswich social set—who was behind their creation. It becomes apparent that Updike borrowed a great deal from his own life for his stories and novels, but the Rabbit books did not see a lot of this influence.

If there is a danger in re-reading a favorite book, I suppose it is that it opens up the possibility of it ceasing to be your favorite book. That didn’t happen to me. One thing I did notice that I hadn’t before was a pounding home of metaphor—for example, the comparison of Janice to a nut, her nut of a face, her nut-brown skin, aptly drawing from her job working the nut counter at Kroll’s department store, all of which not only emphasize Harry as a forager of women but foreshadow his deadly snacking habit (the first thing he buys in Rabbit at Rest is a Planter’s peanut bar; an old Mr. Peanut sign is transformed into the sign of a gentlemen’s club near the family car dealership). There is a lot in the last two books to remind readers of what happened in the first two, as though the only eventful things to occur to the Angstrom family do so at the end of each decade.

Begley takes a mostly linear tack for the biography, but throughout the project faced a challenge of access: while he had the cooperation of Updike’s first wife, Mary, and their children, he did not receive the same from Updike’s second wife, Martha, whom he married in September 1977, and who is portrayed, somewhat dubiously, as a possessive adoring fan-turned-homewrecker (“conspicuously purposeful, unhesitatingly vocal, and perfectly willing to bully John for his own good”). As a result, the book is weighted unevenly toward the years in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where Updike lived through his late twenties and early thirties with Mary and the kids; I used to work in Ipswich and have walked past the boarding house at 26 East Street where he wrote Rabbit, Run. The Updikes made friends with a number of other rising, politically active Ipswich couples, and John and Mary turned out to be as freewheeling as they were. Tennis and volleyball and beachcombing give way to middle-class disaffection and a reticulated array of affairs. It becomes apparent that Updike wrote so easily from the mind and sentiments of a philanderer because he was one himself.

In fact, Updike used his fiction to sublimate his grievances and internally manage crisis. Almost anything that he observed, or happened to him, or any person he met—even children—went into his books. Ipswich, of course, became Tarbox, the setting of Couples (1968), and much of the human scenery and its anecdotes were borrowed for the narrative. Seven years later, after he and Mary had separated due to his infidelities, Updike wrote one of my favorite of his lesser-known books, A Month of Sundays (1975), the first novel of his so-called Scarlett Letter trilogy and a book that goes out of its way to reconcile the author’s desire for forgiveness with a distinctly Protestant lack of apology.

Updike returns to Rabbit at the end of each decade, the character’s point of view a lens through which to interpret headlines and zeitgeists and the fattened, energy-starved, increasingly addicted American electorate. Each book, appropriately, gets fatter and slower as they go, and both hero and author try to comprehend more as the world starts to go faster, even pre-Internet. The books assess America in elements of consumption: food, gasoline, drugs, sex, and the medicine to sustain all of its effects. With Harry’s role in the drowning of his infant daughter in the first book hanging over him, he develops an antagonistic relationship with his son, Nelson. His wife, Janice, transforms from a housebound pregnant child watching The Mickey Mouse Club, drinking old-fashioneds and fearing her mother to a wise-on-her-feet real estate broker. In the final book, Rabbit marches as Uncle Sam in a Fourth of July parade, and then, only some hundred pages later, sits in the judgment of a visiting Japanese Toyota executive befuddled by discrepancies in the company books and Americans’ racing impulsiveness.

There is so much death in the fourth volume, starting with an ominous reminder of the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland, and so much rage in the second, as Rabbit allows a spoiled teenage hippie and a button-pushing black nationalist into his home to challenge his assumptions of privilege. Which is why Rabbit Is Rich feels like the pleasantest of the four books, the most slaphappily ridiculous, as Updike allows his characters to bounce around free of consequence, emotional or financial, against a tense news setting of gas shortages and hostage negotiations:

Crowded together in the cubicle, he and Janice keep bumping into each other, and he scents rising from her for the first time a doubt that he has led them well in this new inflated world; or perhaps the doubt he scents arises from him. But there can be no turning back. They transfer silver dollars from the boxes to the bag. When the silver clinks loudly, Janice winces and says, “Shh.”

“Why? Who’ll hear?”

“The people out there. The tellers.”

“What do they care?”

“I care,” Janice says. “It’s stifling in here.” She takes off her sheepskin coat and in the absence of a hook to hang it on drops it folded to the floor. He takes off his black overcoat and drops it on top. Sweat of exertion has made her hair springier; her bangs have curled back to reveal that high glossy forehead that is so much her, now and twenty years ago, that he kisses it, tasting salt. He wonders if people have ever screwed in these cubicles and imagines that a vault would be a nice place, one of those primped-up young tellers and a lecherous old mortgage officer, put the time-lock on to dawn and ball away. Janice feeds stacks of coins into the coarse gray pouch furtively, suppressing the clink. “This is so embarrassing,” she says, “suppose one of those ladies comes in,” as if the silver is naked flesh; and not for the first time in twenty-three years he feels a furtive rush of loving her, caught with him as she is in the tight places life affords.

There is a lot of Updike I have yet to read, including The Centaur and Marry Me and the spacier stuff like The Coup and Brazil. His short stories, which I have read (at least those in The Early Stories) are perhaps a more suitable barometer to measure the concerns that dotted the timeline of his life. And we haven’t even cracked mention of his criticism. He published four block-thick volumes of the stuff, plus two books of art essays, enough to put to bed any suggestion that the author was too busy gazing at America’s suburban navel to not understand the grander cultural context in which he participated.

Bad Marie, Marcy Dermansky. I knew the author virtually via Fictionaut, where she had posted an excerpt of this novel. It presents an interesting challenge in that the protagonist is a convicted ex-felon, with no real motivation to improve herself, and a wish right off the bat to steal her employer’s (and former friend’s) husband, yet Dermansky gives Marie enough redeeming qualities to encourage the reader to invest in her journey. She reminded me somewhat of the narrator in Iris Owens’ After Claude.

Even before I read the author interview at the end of the book, where she admitted as much, I could definitely sense a Nouvelle Vague-cinematic influence at work in the narrative, not only in the starkness of tone but the simplicity of arrangement—we meet only six significant characters—and, naturally, much of the book is set in Paris. One of those six characters is Marie’s charge, a young child, too young for her words to tip the plot with any weight, but she holds a magnetic orbit around Marie as the one person Marie loves more than herself and therefore cannot sacrifice. As the relationship with the husband disintegrates, Marie is left to fend for herself with the little girl as her past closes in around her. But since we are never really hinted throughout the book toward the unresolved conflicts regarding Marie’s criminal past, they don’t ring true when they resurface, leaving the book’s tensions somewhat unbalanced.

Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi. I haven’t cultivated enough of an acquaintance with fairy tales. But in thinking about fathers and sons, the relationship between Geppetto and Pinocchio struck me as a literary example that must have stood the test of time, and this NYRB Classic translation by Geoffrey Brock presented me with the opportunity to find out. Plus I was curious to see how much the original story differed from its cinematic retellings. It includes an introduction by Umberto Eco and a comprehensive afterword by Rebecca West.

Although the story was intended for children, Collodi was not afraid to insert horrifying elements into the narrative, ostensibly to create a tale that could frighten away a young reader’s itch to misbehave. Pinocchio gets his feet burned off after he sleeps too close to a brazier full of hot coals. The Talking Cricket, twisted in an entirely wrong direction by Disney, is killed when the embittered boy has enough of his sober advice and throws a boot at him. A blackbird that tries to persuade him not to fall for a Cat’s scheme is quickly swallowed by the Cat. Pinocchio and a school chum are kidnapped, cursed, turned into donkeys and made to perform in a circus. And even though it is his penchant for lying that gets the most play in the film and his legend, it could be argued that Pinocchio’s greatest crime is one of trust. On seemingly every page he encounters some stranger who wants to separate him from his money or distract him from his objective, and because he has not been taught discipline, or the notion that he can be just as easily lied to, he falls into their debt and loses that which he has been tasked to protect.

In the afterword, West reveals that Pinocchio was supposed to have died at the end, hanged at the end of Chapter 15. It took pleading from Collodi’s editor (of Giornale i per bambini, the children’s magazine publishing the series) to persuade the author to resurrect the character. Pinocchio does seem to survive assaults in some of the most unlikely ways, as though made of cartoon plasma. We don’t hear enough about Geppetto; he is absent from much of the story almost until he’s ready to be swallowed by the fish. It is no wonder Disney wanted to get their hands on Pinocchio; it meshes perfectly with the company’s dreamy legacy of pairing children with quasi-parental guardians who, with an amiable paucity of investment, let their charges slip away from the shackles of conscientiousness.

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