“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
– Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)
“All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike,’, says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous novel…”
– Vladimir Nabokov, Ada or Ardor (1969)
Last week, I finished reading the fourth and final sequel in John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy.
For a fiction maniac like me, this is cause for celebration, because I don’t think I’ve ever fully completed a novel series. I abandoned grew out of Harry Potter after The Half-Blood Prince (6th book), and – shock horror – I’ve never been big enough on Tolkien or high fantasy to plough through the LOTRs.
In fact, after an extended period of fiction sampling in the past 10 months, I can pretty much confirm that my literary taste tends towards the opposite of sci-fi and fantasy, which is realism, and American realism, in particular. British realism is more in the tradition of Charles Dickens, George Eliot and – if you want something grimmer and more naturalistic – Thomas Hardy, all of which are authors I have grown to love and admire, but wouldn’t put at the top of my ‘to-read’ list any time soon.
This is mostly because I’ve come to find their modern, transatlantic counterparts to be much more human in both style and substance.
Caveat: I probably haven’t read enough to make generalisations that would do either realist canons full justice, but judging by the limited range that I have read, my impression is that American realists are more reminiscent of French realists a la Flaubert and Hugo, as they often take it upon themselves to shed light on some of the least pleasant traits in humanity (e.g. bigotry, disloyalty, lust, greed), while the Brits (at least the classic 19th-century ones – the pioneers of Literary Realism) are much less comfortable with skinning the individual down to his very marrow, or with laying bare every last shred of the good, the bad and the ugly of a specific character.
They’re more maternal, more protective of their literary creations, in a way.
This is why a lot of Dickens and Eliot’s work tend to be quite heavy-handed on the moralism: right at the point when the authors could dish the juicy dirt on their characters, they get hoity-toity and jettison the whole ‘telling it as it really is’ agenda, instead opting to turn their writing into a sermonising soundboard about social ills and the State of Humanity and Faith and Science and whatever grand concept lionisable by a Capitalised First Letter Because This Makes Everything Look More Important.
As such, Victorian realists often leave the skeletons in the cupboard to narrative oblivion, much to the nosy reader’s disappointment.
I’m not saying that engaging novels should strive to be brick-sized tabloids, or that humanistic novelists are really just intellectualised paparazzi, but bottom line is that I can’t care enough to read on if the escapism in a book isn’t deeply rooted in real human experience.
And more often than not, real human experience isn’t all unicorns and rainbows.
It’s unpretty, unpleasant, painful, shameful, a cesspool best swept under the carpet, and at times just hella gross.
Why is there so much gross stuff in great literature?
When I was reading Joyce’s Ulysses for an essay in my second year at university (because who would read Joyce for fun?), I remember asking myself why so much of ‘great 20th century literature’ is concerned with the carnal; specifically, with the twin pillars of scatology and sexuality (read: of shitting and fucking).
And here’s some ironic food for thought: why is it that when these two acts are explicitly relayed on the screen, the work is considered crass or pornographic, but when explicitly described on the page, considered artistic testaments to what it’s ‘truly’ like to be human (see Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover or any Sarah Kane plays)?
So far, I’ve come up with one theory for this: shit gets less embarrassing on the page because it’s easier for the reader to think him/herself into a word-composed character (as opposed to a flesh-embodied one), even if you’re really just imagining yourself as a bodily vessel lending life to a semantic mass.
Unlike in film, human agency is more fluid in fiction, and this is because the fictionalised character hasn’t been visualised in the flesh as someone else, a role which is fulfilled by actors in movies.
Consequently, it’s easier for us readers to substitute ourselves into whatever character described, which takes away the distance required for passing judgment.
Then, a disgusting experience read becomes easier to swallow and accept than a disgusting experience seen, given that, in the process of stepping into the imaginary other’s shoes, we realise we’re more alike than unlike as people with the same needs, desires and flaws, notwithstanding any possible physical differences.
Still, some characters are just so fundamentally different from who you are as a whole – your ethnicity, your education, your experiences et al, you’d probably never imagine picking up a book in which they are featured as the protagonist, let alone identifying with them on any level, even if you’re normally an empathetic reader.
For me, John Updike’s Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom is exactly one such character. This is why stumbling upon Updike’s Rabbit, Run in my final year at university is one of the best things that has happened on my journey as a reader.
After reading four books that chart the wonderfully prosaic life of this 20th-century WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) from his early days to his final years, I can confidently say that empathy knows no borders in fiction.
I mean, if a 22-year old female Chinese reader who was born and bred in a tiny island-turned-international city can feel for a 56-year old white American misogynist-bigot-philanderer (but also husband-father-grandfather who is capable of feeling honest pangs of love for his close ones), then I feel like quirkier reader-character combos must abound elsewhere in the world.
The burning question, though, is why I would feel connected to such a morally questionable character in the first place, because believe you me, I am not okay with misogyny (being a woman), bigotry (having experienced what it’s like to be a racial minority in the UK), or philandering (call me old-fashioned, but ‘free love’ is a load of hipster BS).
What’s the deal with my love for Rabbit then?
Can it even be rationalised?
Reason 1: Cute name (?!)
Well, for starters, the fact that Harry Angstrom is nicknamed ‘Rabbit’ explains half of my affection for this character. Call Updike savvy or strategic, but to associate a man who is capable of the basest, crudest, most provincial thoughts with one of the most harmless animals in nature is a smart, if not slightly curious, decision.
What’s bizarre is that whenever I revisit the series, the immediate picture I conjure up of the protagonist is not that of a Swedish-looking Caucasian man (which is how Rabbit is described in the book), but rather, of a pink, furry rabbit plonked in the midst of a green, fuzzy meadow.
Of course, my imagined rabbit morphs into the human ‘Rabbit’ once I dive into the narrative, but having this motif at the back of my mind somehow tempers the more unbearable and unsavoury moments in the book, such as the episode when Harry cheats on his wife Janice with his mistress Ruth, when he thinks racist and prejudiced thoughts about the newly arrived black people in his neighbourhood, when he entertains questionable, paedophilic thoughts about this hippie wanderer girl named Jill Pendleton, who ends up lodging at Rabbit’s house in Brewer when he undergoes a period of separation from Janice, when he feels disgust towards the HIV-positive homosexuals that his son Nelson hangs out with etc etc etc.
Even while I’m typing out this catalogue of character flaws, which, let’s be honest, doesn’t exactly paint Harry the ‘Rabbit’ in a warm fuzzy light, I can’t bring myself to judge him, despite the slight grimace on my face.
Reason 2: Updike’s prose (!!!)
The other, and probably more convincing reason, then, has to do with Updike’s style of writing. There’s a reason he’s a multiple Pulitzer-Prize winner; his poeticism is like a drug with a built-in magnet; you can’t get enough of his prose because it’s worth reading even if just for the sensation of having his sentences roll off your tongue, for the feeling of reading aloud the way he wroughts words into units of wonder.
What most sets Updike apart from his contemporaries, though, is his talent for drawing your attention to the most trivial occurrences and pedestrian sights in life, because he describes them in such subliminal detail you feel bad for overlooking what you’d normally never bat an eyelid at.
Here’s one my favourite examples of Updike “giving the mundane its beautiful due”:
Bitter lemon fading in his mouth, an aluminium colander pleasantly light in his hand, he goes down the brick back steps into grateful space. He feels the neighbourhood filter through to him and the voices in his brain grow still.
Dark green around him is damp with coming evening, though this long day’s lingering brightness surprises his eye above the shadowy masses of the trees. Rooftops and dormers notch the blue as it begins to blush brown; here also electric wires and television aerials mar with their scratches the soft beyond, a few swallows dipping as they do at day’s end in the middle range of air above the merged back yards, where little more than a wire fence or a line of hollyhocks marks the divisions of property.
When he listens he can hear the sounds of cooking clatter or late play, alive in this common realm with a dog’s bark, a bird’s weep weep, the rhythmic far tapping of a hammer.
(p. 39-40, Rabbit is Rich – Book 3)
Nothing much goes on in this vignette, save for a man taking in the comings and goings of his domestic environs, from the infra-waltz of green, blue, brown, and blush pink, to the clangourous symphony of aerial scratches, dog barks, swallow cheeps and human activity.
All of this, orchestrated in a moment’s stillness, activated by little more than a bitter, citrusy aftertaste. It’s just so beautiful.
I’m currently reading Teju Cole’s second novel, Every Day Is For the Thief, and as chance would have it, I stumbled across an Updike allusion midway into the book:
[The frequent street fights in Nigeria] are an appalling way to conduct a society, yes, but I suddenly feel a vague pity for all those writers who have to ply their trade from sleepy American suburbs, writing divorce scenes symbolised by the very slow washing of dishes. Had John Updike been African, he would have won the Nobel Prize twenty years ago. I feel sure that his material hobbled him. Shillington, Pennsylvania, simply did not measure up to his extravagant gifts. And sadder yet are those who haven’t even a fraction of Updike’s talent and yet must hoe the same arid patch for stories.
But Updike himself had wanted to keep his artistic catchment small and local; it’s precisely how he managed to show that beauty resides in even the blandest, most unmomentous places on Earth.
The ‘insignificance’ of Updike’s material is what makes Updike so significant not just as a fiction writer, but as a creative revolutionary.
“Just a penis with a thesaurus”? – Updike on women
David Foster Wallace, on the other hand, has made clear his dislike for Updike multiple times throughout his career. In his 1997 Observer article, scathingly titled ‘John Updike, Champion Literary Phallocrat, Drops One; Is This Finally the End for Magnificent Narcissists?’, he quotes from several anonymous “under-40 women readers” who opine that Updike is “just a penis with a thesaurus” (not bad for a backhanded insult, to be fair).
But I think this brush-off is probably a tad bit too reductive of a man whose oeuvre counts more than 21 novels, 18 short stories collections, plus 24 collections of poetry and non-fiction essays combined.
Or take Charlotte McGuinn Freeman’s anti-epitaph to Updike’s death in 2009, where the blogger declares that –
“The only characters with interiority in his books are the protagonists, and his protagonists are a series of men so stupendously narcissistic as to believe the entire universe exists only to fulfil or thwart their desires. There is no agency in any of the secondary characters, not is there empathy for the lived experience of any characters except the protagonists”.
I agree that Updike does a brilliant job at plumbing the minds of misogynistic men, a job so well done you’d be forgiven for suspecting if he’s not also a misogynist himself – it’s the classic Humbert Humbert paradox all over again: How could Nabokov write so well about paedophilic love and not be a pedo himself etc etc etc.
What I can’t agree with, though, is Freeman’s statement, and the excerpt below should explain why:
How silly. How silly it all is. We’re born and they try to feed us and change our diapers and love us and we get breasts and menstruate and go boy-crazy and finally one or two come forward to touch us and we can’t wait to get married and have some babies and then stop having them and go man-crazy this time without even knowing it until you’re in too deep the flesh grows more serious as we age and then eventually that phase must be over and we ride around in cars in flowered hats for a while to Tucson or seeing the leaves turn in New Hampshire and visit our grandchildren and then get into bed like poor Mrs Angstrom, Harry is always after her to visit her but she doesn’t see why she should she never had a good word to say for her when she was healthy, groping for words while her mouth makes spittle and her eyes trying to pop from her head trying to hear herself say something malicious, and then there’s the nursing home or the hospital, poor old souls like when they used to visit her father’s older sister, TVs going all up and down the hall and Christmas decorations dropping needles on the linoleum, and then we die and it wouldn’t have mattered if we hadn’t bothered to be born at all.
(p. 47, Rabbit Redux – Book 2)
There are only three sentences in this excerpt, and this is the voice of Janice Angstrom, Rabbit’s wife.
Well then, surely the thought relayed above proves that Updike is out to get women, who ascribes such a parochial, narrow mind set to the most prominent female character in his most iconic work?
But the thing to remember is this: Janice Angstrom isn’t your post-feminist era woman. Born in the late 30s, she is a high school-educated housewife who has lived her entire life in suburban Pennsylvania, comfortably unaware of the goings-on in the wider world beyond, and heavily representative of many women who have not had access to better educational opportunities.
(In the final book of the series, Janice actually goes on to obtain a real estate licence after attending a continuing education course.)
Far from being a misrepresentation of how ‘Women’ thinks (because all women think alike?!), Janice’s interior monologue actually sounds very human to me, because I’ve heard it from women I’ve encountered in my life, my grandma being one of them.
Molly Bloom from Joyce’s Ulysses being the other:
…O patience above its pouring out of me like the sea anyhow he didnt make me pregnant as big as he is I dont want to ruin the clean sheets I just put on I suppose the clean linen I wore brought it on too damn it damn it and they always want to see a stain on the bed to know youre a virgin for them all thats troubling them theyre such fools too you could be a widow or divorced 40 times over a daub of red ink would do or blackberry juice no thats too purply O Jamesy let me up out of this pooh sweets of sin whoever suggested that business for women what between clothes and cooking and children this damned old bed too jingling like the dickens I suppose they could hear us away over the other side of the park till I suggested to put the quilt on the floor with the pillow under my bottom I wonder is it nicer in the day I think it is easy I think Ill cut all this hair off me there scalding me I might look like a young girl…
Don’t say I didn’t warn you about modernist lit…
Interestingly, both Janice and Molly’s trains of thought are exceptionally morbid in these excerpts, partly because the two have been cheating on their husbands – Janice with Rabbit’s business partner Charlie Stavros (yes, women cheat as well in the series), and Molly with her concert manager, Blazes Boylan. Partly because, well, humans can’t help but feel the threat of death in moments of passionate transgression.
It’s the thrill that keeps us going, and I suspect that this is especially so for people who have been cooped up in an insular place for most of their lives.
As Gen Y female readers who grew up believing in the possibility of being a strong, independent woman who will twerk to Bey’s ‘Single Ladies’ whenever the heck she wants, this mode of thought naturally strike us as one that is embarrassingly passé and ‘anti-feministic’.
It seems, then, that empathy often requires us to travel back in time.
“Make America Great Again” – Updike on men (well, white American men)
I seldom write about politics on this blog, mostly because it’s not my forte, but I feel that the sense of displacement and discontent which swaths of the world are experiencing today – from the pro-Brexit voters in Britain to the pro-Trump voters in the United States – is very much borne out by the Rabbit Angstrom character, especially in his final days as a man caught between the tail-end of the Cold War and the ushering in of a new, globalised era.
Demographically, the pro-Leave Britons and the pro-Trump Americans tend to be older people who are nostalgic for a lost narrative, which in this case is that of their countries having once been ‘great’, of having once been a big dawg on the international stage but now having to settle for being a ‘has-been’.
As they see this once-truth slowly eroding, torrents of change from both within and without continue to unsettle the myth of their nation’s ‘splendid homeostasis’; a myth that has been peddled to them for most of their lives by conservative politicians and pundits.
What results, I suspect, is the sentiment that engulfs Rabbit towards the end of his life, as he listens to the radio while driving on the great American highway for one last time:
Rabbit feels betrayed. He was reared in a world where war was not strange but change was: the world stood still so you could grow up in it. He knows when the bottom fell out. When they closed down Kroll’s*, Kroll’s that had stood in the centre of Brewer all those years, bigger than a church, older than the courthouse, right at the head of Weiser Square there, with every Christmas those otherworldly displays of circling trains and nodding dolls and twinkling stars in the corner windows as if God Himself put them there to light up this darkest time of the year.
As a little kid he couldn’t tell what God did from what people did; it all came from above somehow. He can remember standing as a child in the cold with his mother gazing into this world of tinselled toys as real as any other, the air biting at his cheeks, the sound of the Salvation Army bells begging, the smell of the hot soft pretzels sold on Weiser Square those years, the feeling around him of adult hurrying – bundled-up bodies pushing into Kroll’s where you could buy the best of everything from drapes to beds, toys to pots, china to silver. When he worked there back in Shipping you saw the turnover, the hiring and firing, the discontinued lines, the abrupt changes of fashion, the panicky gamble of all this merchandising, but still he believed in the place as a whole, its power, its good faith.
So when the system just upped one summer and decided to close Kroll’s down, just because shoppers had stopped coming in because the downtown had become frightening to white people Rabbit realised the world was not solid and benign, it was a shabby set of temporary arrangements rigged up for the time being, all for the sake of the money. You just passed through, and they miked you for what you were worth, mostly when you were young and gullible. If Kroll’s could go the courthouse could go, the banks could go. When the money stopped, they could close down God Himself.
(p. 419, Rabbit at Rest – Book 4)
*Kroll’s: This refers to Kroll’s Department Store, the place where Harry first meets his future wife Janice in Book 1 (Rabbit Run). According to The John Updike Encyclopedia, “Kroll’s closes… as a sign of change indicating an economic downturn and the weakening connection to the past”.
“A world where war was not strange but change was” –
– to me, Updike’s greatness is crystallised in that internal rhyme of ‘strange/change’. The sonic harmony jars against the rupture spelt out here, as it ironizes the painful disorientation that Rabbit is feeling at this very juncture.
With the remnants of his youth gone, what else can Rabbit run to as an anchorage for living?
A few pages later, Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, a family man who has pretty much failed every precept for being a good family man, dies at the age of fifty-six.
I’m not going to let on how he dies, but all I’m going to say is that he dies a happy soul. This is remarkable, given how much he has erred and how many people he has forsaken over the course of his life.
Did I feel especially sad about his death, having witnessed his growth from Book 1 to Book 4?
To be honest, not tremendously, no.
A certain wistfulness, though, I can’t deny.
But then again, after 1500+ pages of anything, anyone’s bound to have developed some kind of attachment to the characters, if it isn’t that very attachment which motivated you to finish reading the work in the first place.
RIP, Rabbit, for all your awkwardness, awfulness and irking awlessness, I’ll always miss you.
[Photo credits: Independent UK, Mirror UK, Huffington Post, New Yorker, LA Times, BBC Radio, Unsplash, Hawk Films, Guardian]