Monday, April 12, 2010

Rabbit is Done

I started reading the Rabbit Angstrom books in the group home in Laconia. That was in November. So, 5 months later, I just finished Rabbit Remembered, the novella that completes the cycle. The books are as follows
Rabbit, Run
Rabbit Redux
Rabbit is Rich
Rabbit at Rest
Rabbit Remembered

I've praised these books more than once and I'll stand by the series as one of the rarest accomplishments in literature. Sequels in movies are nothing new because we're talking about generally taking the same characters and making exactly the same movie. Lethal Weapon 1-4 are sort of different because as cliche as the characters were (loose cannon + jaded veteran) the writers found a way to develop them. Riggs (Mel Gibson) gets less loose and insane and falls in love. Murtaugh (Danny Glover) watches his acting career go down the drain. But it's rare. Characters don't develop in movie sequels nor in sitcoms. That's the rule.

But there was a time before Harry Potter and the Eclipse series when a trilogy was a rare thing. Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Master and Commander, Shogun, there are probably others. Sexus, Plexus and Nexus. The Rosy Crucifixion. Should I include those trashy Jack Ryan Tom Clancy books? No. I can't. Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest both won the Pulitzer Prize. Find me another time a writer won two Pulitzers for books in a series. I'll save you the research time and tell you only William Faulkner and Booth Tarkington also won two Pulitzer prizes each and they were both for unrelated books.
It's rare. But, a series of five books that are written about the same character over the course of 40 years, each book being roughly ten years after the last from 1960-2000, is crazy. I mean, Updike wrote a book a year for half a century and five of them were devoted to Rabbit Angstrom. I'm in awe of this devotion. And I'm even more in awe of Updike's ability. He comes so close to slipping into despair so many times. I've mentioned how Mark Twain's later works were written from the pits of depression and are difficult to digest because of the obvious lecturing tone. I think that is more natural than prevailing over your own worldview for 40 years. I mean, how did Updike manage to stay out of his own way while writing these books? The consistency is like he wrote them all at once. He has the exact same omnipotent tone of voice for every book, the same loving attention to the forgettable. That's like 2000+ pages, maybe a million words, written without cracking. These characters cried real tears.
I don't want to spoil the reading for anyone but his greatest skill is the personalized commentary that is the bulk of the books. A person will walk into a room and say, "Is there anything in the fridge?"
And what will follow is like three pages of observations so incisive that I almost forget about my petty troubles. Then the other person in the room will say, "Why don't you look." And then another three pages of commentary on memories and hidden desires and mis-communications ranging from deaths and dreams and regrets and tiny gestures and the meaning of the most minor head nod. I wonder if Updike's life was a hellish jumble of oversensitivity and hyper-conscious observations. And all the comments do not seem to come from Updike because if they did then I would have to reject the books. No, the narrative is heavy on judgment and reaction but not necessarily Updike's. Updike managed to climb inside the skull of several people and see through their eyes. He brought his own preconceptions to the table but he also saw the dimensions one person usually doesn't see.
And it's amazing that he wrote so differently than Hemingway or Steinbeck or Kerouac, so complicated and devoted to the subtleties but it still feels like he's only giving you what you need to understand. Furthermore, the characters are basically average Pennsylvania folk, men and women who are neither saints nor criminals. So, when your setting is a gathering of middle aged men and women at a country club, then you've got to be some kind of genius to write 30 pages of gripping commentary with hardly any dialogue, but every word is skillfully and surgically dissected.
I think that's the key here. I'm hunting for the secret he had and the word 'dissected' rings true. The characters dissect every gesture and comment. They notice everything and react to it. They hold grudges and drink too much and speak too freely sometimes and everyone else notices. I think it's as accurate a depiction of human thought as I've read. He's like a scientist of human behavior and he goes to the absolute edge of the border between commentary and psychology before someone makes a frivolous comment that gets dissected again. Indulge me for a moment and read a random passage from Rabbit Remembered:

"Numb, heaped with disgrace, she follows him back into the dining room, past the tall breakfront where Ma Springer's precious Koerner china trembles at their double retreat. Annabelle has to hurry with her choppy small steps to keep up. She dressed for this occasion in a white cashmere cardigan and cinnamon-brown skirt, perhaps a little tight and short for the company. But that's how skirts come now, from New York via the buyers for the malls."

So much is happening here, from emotion to subtle action to social commentary. Never mind that this moment takes place at an emotional crisis/high point (after Thanksgiving dinner) to end chapter 3, the details could be dissected again for a master's thesis. The detail of Ma Springer's china hutch is a nod to those readers who have been with this family for 40 years. I mean, imagine that. Many readers of the first two books DIED before the last three were written. I mean, it's just a rarity in itself that one lived long enough to read them all, let alone write them all. The Harry Potter series was done in less than one decade. If you've read all five of these Rabbit books then you've seen Ma Springer, Janice's mother, from 1960 to when she died in the mid-eighties a few years before Rabbit died. (My last image of her is resting her swollen feet in a recliner) You've heard Ma Springer hold the family together through two different separations and a car dealership falling apart and her own husband dying and who knows about her own affairs with sly tennis instructors and such. And this china has been around for 40 years. I'm privileged to not only live at a time when Updike's work is complete, but I've got the leisure time to read it all in 5 months. The only tribute I could make is to write a sixth installment about a person who reads the 5 books and tries to integrate the lessons into his life, and fucks it all up in the process. Updike described his own style as an attempt "to give the mundane its beautiful due." Thus the focus on empty buildings and underclothes and penis shapes. How about this one:

"She and Ronnie left alone tended to each other's needs, one of which, never stated, was getting ready for death, which could start any time now. A pain in the night, a sour number on the doctor's lab tests, and the skid would begin."

That one I laughed at...too honest. Sometimes I felt Updike was too honest, milking the tit of life until it was dry, a little too omnipotent. When someone opens their mouth now I just hear Updike analyze the words and the gestures.
Anyway, the details never cease. Updike just pours on the analysis. I'm done with Rabbit for now. Updike, fortunately, has about 30 other books I haven't read so I'll probably die before I get to them all. I'll leave some for my next life.

Updike had a gift for not manipulating his reader. He unapologetically wrote as he saw it and didn't really try to direct the reader toward a conclusion. People have opinions and if the opinions don't match then you have an argument. Updike saw the argument itself as the interesting part and the topic of the argument as incidental. The story behind the story, that's the lesson here. I'd be a fool to try to write like this. It's just not possible. Furthermore, Updike didn't write one punchline in five books. I laughed a little at the samurai swiftness of Updike's observations such as,

"He and Pru were so upset with each other they couldn't sleep and finally fucked in an effort to get relaxed which made them both madder and sadder than ever."

I relate to that observation and I don't know many people who would read that and think, "Really? They fucked out of anger and that didn't solve everything? Huh?"

It's just honest. I think, wait, this will be my closing comment. Nelson says it to his mother's new husband after the nasty incident at Thanksgiving:

"Let me tell you something, Ronnie, something I've observed: nobody gets away with anything. Those that escape punishment inflict it on themselves. We all do it. We keep our own accounts."

And something I've observed is that if you don't keep your own account, someone else is probably watching and keeping it for you. In this case it was Updike keeping America's account for 40 years. Now, we've got a lot of writers keeping track, recording, revealing, admitting, confessing publicly on the internet. I'm not different. But there is no substitute for quality so it's time for someone else to step up and sort through all these ridiculous blogs for some meaning. There is a blog out there devoted solely to pictures of bad parking jobs. Seriously?
But is sorting through all these blogs any different from sorting through the infinite tones of voice or ways people look at each other? No, it just takes devotion. I think the word is compartmentalization. Updike could compartmentalize. I need to learn that skill. If I could take one thing away it's that line in Rabbit is Rich,

"The world keeps ending but new people keep showing up thinking the fun has just begun."

Who needs the serenity prayer when you have that? I'm going to play some tennis now.


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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.