Events, Readers

Delve Seminar Summaries: John Updike’s Rabbit Series

[by Alex Behr]

SEPTEMBER 5: The new Delve series begins with the four Rabbit novels of John Updike—a study in how one guy could be so damned prolific. Eight of us, including Literary Arts’ liaison Evan P. Schneider and our facilitator, the novelist Dan DeWeese, gingerly stepped into the present-tense world of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Over the next eight weeks we’ll be reading Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest. All Rabbit, all the time.

Harry, twenty-six years old, is a former basketball star now selling MagiPeelers to housewives in 1959. Married and a young father, he is an “everyman,” yet is he also exceptional. During our initial meeting, we looked at how the first few sentences lock us into Updike’s voice. He uses the present tense and jumpy, energetic sentences to mimic Harry’s tension toward feeling special yet feeling like a failure. We examined how the changes in point of view—from Harry to his prostitute mistress to his earnest minister caretaker to his alcoholic wife—enlarge the consciousness of the Eisenhower era setting.

The writing is so fluid and pulsing that it’s easy to overlook moral insights of Updike’s, such as Rabbit’s desire to avoid the “inconvenience of lying.” Rabbit has a special talent that in his mind gives him the license to act immorally, despite his Christian angst. We talked about Updike’s role in the censorship wars of the McCarthy era (though the editions we have are restored to Updike’s original vocabulary). We discussed the irony of licentious actions being deemed acceptable in literature but not in films of that time. As an example, we watched a clip from Malle’s The Lovers, of 1958. Its ban, based on an obscenity charge, eventually led to a Supreme Court case on censoring pornography.

Updike allows Harry to be conflicted: to want his flawed wife and his flawed mistress. Our rousing Delve discussion played in my mind at home, when I watched a replay of Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic Convention. I thought about the desire for clean polarities, especially in presidential elections, when the realities are much more complex. I thought about how classic novels can clarify those choices and dilemmas.

SEPTEMBER 12: Our Delve meeting on September 12 coincided with the anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s death by hanging, when he was forty-six. We talked about how Mary Karr’s poem “Suicide’s Note: An Annual” responds to his death—how their relationship inspired each other’s creativity yet became corrosive. Transitioning to Updike, we looked at how his Rabbit, Run showed symptoms of “new writer” ambitions on par with Wallace’s several decades later. Updike created Rabbit, Run within the maxims of the literary canon: that a novel is the best way to hold, examine, and push forward the contradictions of human desires.

Rabbit (Harry) has a desire to find God, yet is consumed with guilt over leaving his son and wife for his mistress. He blames himself for his infant daughter’s death by drowning, though it happened at his wife’s hands. The book suggests there is no moral center. We compared the choice of “natural” behavior with “selfish” behavior. Harry’s mistress is pregnant and knows she’ll be abandoned. Harry says to her that he doesn’t have the answers, so he’ll do what feels right. She challenges him by saying, who cares what you feel? Your selfishness is wrong. Yet no external criticism truly affects his actions.

When the community circles around him at his daughter’s funeral, he bolts. Rabbit needs a social net to transcend, and does so literally, by climbing a mountain, clambering over ivy, ripping his shirt, becoming more animal than human. Even the title of the book plays with this idea: The comma in Rabbit, Run reads like a command to the title character, yet if the comma is removed, the title refers to a cage in which animals exercise yet can never escape.

Later, I reread Karr’s poem “Suicide’s Note,” almost as an antidote to the female characters in Rabbit, Run. When they get Updike’s POV focus, they often get lost in a mushy, stream-of-consciousness delirium. Yet Karr takes control in her elegy to Wallace: “I wonder does your / death feel like failure to everybody who ever / loved you as if our collective CPR stopped / too soon, the defib paddles lost charge, the corpse / punished us by never sitting up.” Karr ends the poem with a sense of how Wallace is still alive within “all who breathed you deeply in”: “We sigh you out into air and watch you rise like rain.”

SEPTEMBER 19 & 26: It’s a decade later—we’ve aged a lot in just two weeks, diving into the late 1960s with the second in the Rabbit series, Rabbit Redux. The 1971 New York Times review of Redux states the reviewer’s initial fears: that he would read “a tour de force about a creep [he describes Rabbit as “older, fatter, softer, settled”] … And I was never so wrong.”

At Delve, we approached Rabbit much as we would poke suspicious meat with a tenderizer fork. Is he done yet? With so much examination in Rabbit, Run about sin, Christian guilt, responsibility to your inner truth versus that of your community, loss of innocence and grace—what else was left for the sequel?

Well, even in the small-minded, dead-end town of Brewer, PA, Updike brings in every current fear and hope of the zeitgeist: the moon landing, the Cold War, race riots, the Vietnam War, drugs (pot, mescaline, heroin), alcoholism, aging parents, class anxieties, the generation gap, women’s rights, and sexual exploration—with plot reversals and surprises coming every few chapters. Our conversation touched on how the 1960s affected Delvers who lived through it. Were the sexual, political, and cultural excesses a mistake?

In Portland, part of our community comprises fans of Fifty Shades of Grey, who lined up one day this week from 9 a.m. through 6 p.m. at Powell’s just to thank the author for saving their marriages through her frothy S&M sensation. We Delvers, however, read Rabbit’s sexual adventures with more sobriety. Updike can’t write a sex scene without undercutting it with something lumpy, something uncomfortable, something totally human (one of us brought Redux on his honeymoon, thinking it would be a fun read).

In Rabbit, Run, the price of sexual freedom has a sacrifice: the accidental drowning death of Rabbit’s infant daughter by her mother (she drinks too much when Rabbit leaves to pursue his mistress). In Redux, our hero, whose wife has left him for a car salesman, brings an 18-year-old rich runaway named Jill into his home. She becomes his lover and cooks for him—a Penthouse/Gourmet fantasy come true. His adolescent son, Nelson, loves Jill, too. He is the moral heart of the book, foreshadowing the angst of a generation raised by narcissistic adults.

Redux’s sexual romps become more complex once Rabbit and Jill harbor a fugitive: a black Vietnam vet named Skeeter. We looked at the characters as symbols: Jill fights against her bourgeois’ upbringing through Eastern spiritualism, and Skeeter uses an anti-white, anarchistic, drug philosophy. As one Delver said, recalling his college teaching experience, “Jill was a runaway rich kid, a flower child druggie who pissed her life away. I taught ’em.”

In Redux, once a few local Peeping Toms watch the sex and drug use in the living room, Updike sets up the second, almost biblical climax. Once again, Rabbit leaves his home to pursue a possible mistress (this time, he takes his son with him). That night, Rabbit’s house is set on fire, most likely by his grass-clipping neighbors. Skeeter is blamed and Jill, the sacrificial lamb, dies. As the New York Times reviewer states, “What Updike conjures out of the combination of Skeeter, Jill, Nelson and Rabbit makes most writing about blacks, sex and families seem like something out of a children’s book. It will leave Americans shuddering for a long, long time.”

Clearly, that shudder has lasted through decades, into our well-lit conference room where no topic is taboo.

OCTOBER 10: Jimmy Carter is President, gas lines are long, and Rabbit is fat and wealthy. We come to Delve to discuss this great novel, the third in the Rabbit tetralogy, which won a Pulitzer for John Updike. We also meet to enlarge the intimacy of reading that often exists only with a reader and the page, with the author sometimes drifting in and out of our awareness.

There are tacit rules of how people in a group want to approach the text, especially one that we’ve taken on as a personal assignment: thousands and thousands of words concerning one man, Harry Angstrom, one of the key characters in American fiction.

We exited our normal pattern of questioning the text to question for a moment each other’s approach to book groups. Is it valid to bring our current perspectives on a book published in 1981, such as examining how the term literary fiction has changed over time, or is that irrelevant? Should we mention, for instance, that Updike wanted to put the Phillies in his novel because he was a fan, or should we separate the passions of the author from the printed page? Should we not share that Updike was responding to Carter’s famous “malaise speech” of 1979, if that speech is not mentioned in the book but the context is?

Have we compromised, as one participant suggested, the “gorgeous, compelling writing” by speculating too much about the author’s intent or sharing a few anecdotes from Updike’s interview responses? Has it become more of a forum for the writers in the group and not the readers? These questions were brought up with much passion at this second meeting on Rabbit Is Rich.

At times the mood became uncomfortable, but the questions and discussion also elucidated some of the themes and events in the novels—what does it mean to form a temporary community? What are the rules of discourse for new members? What are the unspoken class, gender, and age differences that affect how a group operates?

Returning to the book, we discussed how Harry has rejected communities that might offer him spiritual succor: the church and organized sports. Instead, he tries to define, restrain, restrict and gain meaning from the people around him. The moment of grace in the book happens at the end, when Harry holds his infant granddaughter. She is not immune from consumerism, which plagues Harry and offers only temporary relief from the ghosts who haunt him. Her profile emerges “in the shuddering flashes of color jerking from the Sony [TV].” She is not immune from his preoccupation with death: “Fortune’s hostage, heart’s desire, a granddaughter. His. Another nail in his coffin. His.” His wealth is his blood is his death.

October 17: Jumping forward to December 1988, Rabbit at Rest leaves Pennsylvania temporarily for the condos, golf courses, and salty snack products of Melanomaville, Florida. Rabbit and Janice now live in Florida for the winter. Still in his fifties, Rabbit is in semiretirement. At the start of the book, Rabbit’s son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren are about to arrive. Yet Rabbit does not believe he will greet his family, but rather “his own death, shaped vaguely like an airplane.” (He is obsessed with the air crash the previous week over Lockerbie, Scotland.)

Rabbit has left the Toyota dealership in the cocaine-dusted hands of his son, Nelson. As the books go on, Rabbit often seems the last to act upon ominous signs that are clear to other characters and the reader. He refuses to cut down on his junk-food diet or respond to his heart pains. He receives suspicious sales reports from the dealership, yet is in denial about their implication until his wife and daughter-in-law tell him the truth about Nelson’s debts and drug addiction.

Rabbit compulsively eats candy and snack food, and “a sense of doom regrows its claws around his heart.” These hints foreshadow a heart attack that occurs in the ocean, in a capsized sailboat, as Rabbit tries to rescue his granddaughter. This scene contains some of the most powerful writing in the book so far. We wondered if yet another female character would die. One Delver said she was so tense while reading she wanted to “throw the book out the window.”

At Delve, we discussed how such an unlikable hero could attract our imaginations and interest over the past month, and how Updike was able to create such a strong character over decades of a prolific writing career. Perhaps, as Dan suggested, each book is preoccupied with an obsession that mirrors an American obsession. The first: escape; the second: sex: the third: money; the fourth: still to be decided … perhaps drugs, as with Nelson’s addiction and Rabbit’s post-surgery addiction to nitroglycerin, or perhaps candy and salty food.

Perhaps Rabbit is not only an Everyman but also a representation of America. He feels special when he was young, yet as he ages he realizes he is not. This coincides with the erosion of American exceptionalism in the Reagan era and the crass proliferation of cheap food and prefab condos.

We struggled with the misogynistic aspects of Rabbit’s character, yet did not want to conflate Rabbit with Updike, his creator. Dan said that it is seductive to think that, especially since Updike’s writing style is so fluid. By the fourth Rabbit book, Updike has become even more confident, creating an elasticity of temporal elements and darting into another character’s point of view as he wants. It is often hard to discern Rabbit’s thoughts or observations from those of the omniscient narrator.

So why Florida? It’s Rabbit’s destination in the first book, when he tries and fails to escape. Now he has a piece of Florida real estate, but his family follows. He is trapped in his son’s addiction and corruption, his wife’s cooptation, and his daughter-in-law’s misery. Next week: the conclusion.

October 24: At our last Delve meeting, Evan P. Schneider of Literary Arts opened a bottle of wine and confessed that he read the second half of Rabbit at Rest in eight hours, on his day off. At the end he wept for fifteen minutes. His wife said, “Did you lose your friend?”

At fifty-five, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom has one final, heroic moment in his Pennsylvania hometown. In a parade, he marches as Uncle Sam with a goatee inelegantly Scotch-taped to his chin. The town remembers him as a high school basketball star. The crowd cheers. Updike writes, “He is a legend, a walking cloud” … yet he’s still medically fragile. “Harry’s eyes burn and the impression giddily—as if he has been lifted up to survey all human history—grows upon him, making his heart thump worse and worse, that all in all this is the happiest fucking country the world has ever seen.”

Dan DeWeese, our guide, said he occasionally questioned the realism of the novel while reading. He felt in some moments the realism is less important than the symbolism (as with Everyman Harry posing as a weakened Uncle Sam). Often, symbolically, a scene has to happen, which is “an inversion of how things usually work with writers.” In that way Updike is more like Balzac, employing a nineteenth-century style to zip all over the place, amp up the plot, and provide surprising revelations. Even the movie titles on the marquees that Rabbit drives past reveal his emotional state.

Near the climax of the novel, Rabbit drives to Florida alone (he botched his family life after having sex with his daughter-in-law; he is marginalized and tangential now that the daughter-in-law confessed to his wife and son). Yet Updike, throughout, still has fun. If he’s going to have Rabbit die in Florida, he’s going to write, said one Delve participant, “100 pages of the most depressing Florida retirement community ever.”

Updike speaks directly to the reader. He wants a direct connection through Rabbit and his constant needs. Poor Rabbit—even food does not necessarily give him pleasure anymore. “The lasagna is gluey and like napalm on the tongue.”

Wandering the streets by his condo alone, Rabbit plays a pickup basketball game against a group of savvy teens, including one named Tiger, whose skin “is like a grinding stone of fine black grits.” Rabbit ignores the pain in his chest, his dizziness, and other signals of an imminent heart attack.

While reading, Dan questioned Rabbit’s old-fashioned play, a “two-handed set shot.” Yet this shot, symbolically, must go in, and the game must be there to circle back to the first scene of the first book, where Rabbit plays against teens and feels past his prime.

Rabbit makes his shot against Tiger, then he collapses, near death. The point of view shifts to Tiger. He wants to flee. He doesn’t want to get mixed up “with nobody.” The community that tried to trap Rabbit so long ago at his daughter’s funeral reappears. “The social net twitches; someone who is in the houses bordering the lonely recreation field…calls 911.” He is taken to the hospital, and his family flies to be with him. He tries to give one final message to his estranged son. All he can manage to say is that it “‘isn’t so bad.’” Then Updike concludes, “Rabbit thinks he should maybe say more, the kid looks wildly expectant, but enough. Maybe. Enough.”

We said good-bye. I walked outside into the damp air of downtown Portland. As if sent by Updike’s ghost, a flash mob of running zombies nearly knocked me down.

Related Posts