Updike, John: Rabbit is Rich

Fading gently towards the venue for the November meeting, as from a gentle three wood, the scribe arrived a little late on a cold night with frost on the ground. However, the small group that waited in the living room soon generated a heated discussion. It was Thanksgiving, so the choice of an American novel seemed fully justified.

The proposer introduced the author, John Updike, and the book, “Rabbit is Rich”, one of a tetralogy telling the story of Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom from 1960 to 1990 (with a sequel to form a pentology in 2001). Updike was very prolific, having moved from ‘Rabbit’ country in Shillington, Pennsylvania to Harvard, Oxford, the New Yorker and so to a full time, and very distinguished writing career, winning many major literary prizes.  The proposer cited modernism as an important influence on his style, and suggested that his early concentration on poetry was also clear in his writing, as for example in the superb metaphors in ‘Rabbit’. For example, “He can’t take his eyes off this girl….The milky flecked shoulders, the dent of flesh where the halter strap digs. Squeeze her and you’d leave thumbprints, she’s that fresh from the oven” or “[Pop’s] emphysema just got too bad and you’d find him sitting in a small chair all curled over like a hand sheltering a guttering candle flame from the wind.”

The unusual, possibly unique (according to the proposer) device was that every ten years Updike imagined how his characters developed over the last decade. As well as the characters being ten years older, the novelist is ten years older, America is ten years older. This counter-pointing gives the telling of the story of a life, and the story of the development of a nation, unusual depth, richness and complexity.

Those assembled discussed the uniqueness of this approach. Certainly there are many book series where the character ages (Sunset Song was mentioned), but not concurrently with the author. One member struggled to recall a film trilogy that used the same device, the actors and director aging with the text but no-one else had a Scooby. (Editor: that would be Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013) with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, Director Richard Linklater, obviously after the Rabbit novels.) Ultimately, it is doesn’t really matter.

The proposer suggested it was the funniest and most up-beat of the novels. It seems to have a higher sexual content than the other Rabbit books, which some may have found offensive or at least tedious. Actually, some thought the ‘instruction manuals’ quite amusing although perhaps too late to put into practice.

As a potential weakness, the long, beautifully formed descriptive and meditative passages, written as a stream of consciousness, can seem (to some) overblown and can slow down the movement of the story. However, surely they were germane to his wider themes and quite hypnotic. There’s not much plot – they are concerned with very ordinary lives, and the delicate interplay of family relationships. Again, the proposer pointed out that they focussed very much on a small community of interest; the inhabitants of Brewer had no real interest or understanding of the wider world. He suggested, alas, that this was true of a large American constituency, and perhaps a constituency that had elected Donald Trump as president. Like Updike, Trump has been accused of misogyny.

There was general agreement about the quality of the prose, and the enjoyment of the descriptive passages. For example, your scribe was particularly taken with the early description of the ‘Hick’ couple, ‘milky pale’ (her) and ‘roughened and reddened’ (him) with the “fat tired 71 or ‘2 Country Squire wagon soft on its shocks, with one dented fender hammered out semi-smooth but the ruddy rustproofing paint left to do for a finish”. That the milky pale girl was his illegitimate daughter was lost on those who had not read the earlier novels, but several hints were dropped in the text to the true aficionado.

After agreement, some disparities emerged and voices were raised. First, there was the question of context. To what extent were the references to global events, such as Three Mile Island and the Oil Crisis, essential to plot or character development and to what extent window dressing? For example, several references are made to the changes in the car market due to the oil crisis but how does this affect Harry, Nelson and the rest of the Rich characters? It illuminates the concerns of the ordinary American at the time, and as the proposer first said the novelist tracks the concurrent development as the characters, and America, change with each new decade. Acknowledging this, at least one of the few found the lack of plot development disappointing in comparison with other North American authors (McCarthy, Ford, Vidal were mentioned) but the proposer argued strongly that this was the point. Suburban life is indeed dull. Further, one couldn’t really appreciate the character and contextual changes without reading the whole Rabbit thesis. As the attendance was already small, perhaps a request to read all five books would have reduced it further!

Another member supported (to some extent) the suggestion that lack of event was a failing. He cited some eminent criticism that had made this point. Unfortunately, the dozy scribe didn’t record these but post-meeting googling found “does on occasion write well … has nothing to say” (Aldridge), “a minor novelist with a major style” (Bloom) and “you say it best when you say nothing at all” (Schlitz and Overstreet). Maybe Updike himself gave the best response in saying that he “gave the mundane its beautiful due” but some liked novels to give higher meaning to life, even the pessimistic one of the previous month given by David Szalay, another story of ‘Everyman’. He compared Updike unfavourably to Austen but the proposer was adamant about the essential quality of Updike’s writing. Oh, well! This is a blog, not a review as such, and many have commented more eruditely on Updike’s work. Schiff says that ‘few contemporary writers have received more attention than John Updike’ and any quick perusal of the internet will discover more theses on Updike than his own prolific output of novels, short stories and poems. As Wilde said, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Another attendee went on to praise the excellence of the writing about relationships, especially between the father, Harry, and the son, Nelson. There were many such relationships beautifully depicted in the book. He talked of the justified aggression of Harry towards his son; how he found it difficult to be demonstrative, how he couldn’t really get through the generation gap. Nelson doesn’t have to live his father’s life, and yet he follows him into the ‘Lot’? Do we all regress towards our parental mean? Perceptively, he went on to say that although Updike wrote so well about relationships, he did not write so well about individuals. This is an interesting suggestion and caused at least one of us to re-assess the book.

As ever, the discussion wavered from the topic. The subject of weddings was mentioned, and one commented on how the low key nature of the wedding in the novel accorded with his own experience, travelling many thousands of miles to the US of A to find such a low key affair that he thought it was hardly worth the effort! In contrast, another referred to a much more lavish affair. In general, perhaps the marriage of Nelson and Pru is not ‘made in heaven’ but is rather by accident, but as mentioned before we didn’t have the full context in front of us.

Other themes for debate that emerged included the casual racism (not so surprising in Trumped America perhaps), and the lack of likeable characters, although Charlie was named as an exception to the rule. We did not consider the religious background to any great degree, indeed the proposer suggested it did not figure prominently in this novel. However, we did take to ‘Soupy’ Campbell, the religious celebrant with a somewhat relaxed approach to the marriage vows, probably not an obvious candidate for a Free Kirk ministry in the North of Lewis. Unlike the sex scenes, which were probably not meant to be funny, the scenes with ‘Soupy’ were certainly humorous.

So what was the final verdict? This was certainly a book worth reading, and perhaps it did not wholly stand on its own. We would accept the proposer’s view that all four or five should be read but life is finite, so we have to make choices about where to concentrate. Of those present, there was a 50/50 split on whether the other books would be read.

Overall, we all left the meeting wiser and more knowledgeable about one of America’s greatest 20th Century authors, and warmed by the unusual heat of the debate. It was still cold outside, but fortunately we had but a short journey home and so the heat sustained us.