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Flopsy Bunny

Rabbit Redux

by John Updike
Knopf, 407 pp., $7.95

Rabbit Redux brings back after ten years—and brings back to health (Webster’s Dictionary, quoted on the blurb)—Rabbit Angstrom, now thirty-six. He’s with his wife Janice, but cold and stale. What then happens is that she commits adultery; Rabbit lets her go, and takes up with a classy addicted hippie, Jill, and her black messianic bad angel, Skeeter. Neighborhood arsonists burn down the house, and Jill is killed. Rabbit and Janice come back together. The book is mildly optimistic—is indeed more warmly optimistic than it thinks prudent to make patent.

There is a great deal in Rabbit Redux, but only because John Updike has put it there. There is more activity than purposefulness: an intricate scheme of parallelisms with the moon shot; a rich (but in the end funked or slighted) sense of possible parallels between oral sex and verbalism or certain verbal habits; likewise a sense of parallels between the job of linotyping and the job of writing. The book is cleverer than a barrel full of monkeys, and about as odd in its relation of form to content. It never decides just what the artistic reasons (sales and nostalgia are another matter) were for bringing back Rabbit instead of starting anew; its existence is likely to do retrospective damage to that better book Rabbit, Run.

Rabbit Redux is exceptionally observant; it shows the severe limits which are set to a work of art that commits itself so unremittingly to being observant. Noticing is not enough. Mr. Updike notices; he remarks things, and he remarks on them. But there is nothing left remarkable beneath the visited moon. He vacillates between the observantly indiscriminate and the glintingly significant, and by the smallest of shufflings the apt becomes the pat. One of the bad things about this hypertrophy of self-consciousness—success has awarded him a hypertrophy—is that it elicits from the reader both the wrong kind of assurance (click) and the wrong kind of dubiety (uh?).

All mentions of the moon too much solicit attention; they ogle as if they were as brave as the actual astronauts and deserved to be every eye’s cynosure, and far from creating a new perspective upon the earthly sufferings they simply eclipse them with their through-a-glass-darkly metaphoricality. “His breathing is a sleeping tide. So she lies there awake like the moon.” But by that point we have been so riddled with moon shots that neither the woman nor the moon is revealed through the comparison. Lies there like the moon? Awake like the moon? Either way it does not rise above the bathetic fallacy, does not rise into an intimation of love and of concern: “O more than moon, / Draw not up seas to drown me in thy sphere….” Updike does not find himself impelled to such comparisons; he spins them. “The electric clock burns beyond her head like a small moon’s skeleton.” Neat. But neat should not be as high a compliment as it is in the America of Rabbit Redux.

The other side of such neatness is doubtfulness. Not mystery or true unease but an itchy doubt as to whether this self-conscious author was that self-conscious. Updike does some acute things with the linotype news items which Rabbit has to set. After a bitter exchange with his wife, words fail him (she has the last word); they fail him on the machine too, where if an error won’t let itself be rectified the first time then there are always the pleasures of fury, and gibberish, and yielding to the keyboard:

Old faded photographs of Weiser Street show a prosperous-appearing avenue of tasteful, low brick buildings with horsedrawn trolly tracks promiwith horse-drown trolley traks pramiwith horsed-rawn trolleyyyfff etaoin etaoinshrdlu etaoinshrdlucmfwpvbgkqjet

There is a flicker of pathos, then, in the stumble of rectification (if only moral errors were as simply rectified) when Rabbit’s fingers have to spell out the death of the girl whom he tried to make himself love.

A guest in the home, Mill Jiss
A guest in the home, Miss Jill

But can we have so complete a confidence in Updike’s unremitting mastery as to deduce something significant from these lines?

Furnance Township fire chief Raymond “Buddy” Fessler told VAT reporters, “The fire was set I’m pretty sure….”

Not Furnance, Furnace. Was Rabbit unable to bring himself to spell Furnace? If so, isn’t the point at once too nearly imperceptible (and so too self-congratulatory to those who spot it) and too gloweringly significant when perceived? And if not—if it’s Borzoi’s typo, not Rabbit’s—isn’t Updike faintly culpable in that his book urges us to be raveningly attentive, to bet that everything, the least little thing (especially the least little thing), will signify, will figure?

What kind, and what degree, of attention does he ask of us? It isn’t that one refuses to behave in ways that suit his book; it’s that the book itself isn’t clear what would suit itself. We’re to be alert to the minutest cross-connections; to look back from the arson and death with both a shudder and a doubt whether a shudder is justified (only a casual remark, after all), recalling the exchange that fatal evening: “What’re you two going to do tonight?” “Jes’ read and knit and sit cozy by the fire.”

But such vigilance in reading is the price not only of Updike’s liberty but of his license.

The house is small enough so that the boy can be heard by his father in the kitchen, his voice mixed with gleeful greedy spurts from the television and the chunky suck of the refrigerator door opening and shutting.

No doubt only someone with the same oral hang-up as Rabbit (and as Jill and Skeeter) would suppose that this casually vivid evocation has anything to do with oral sex. Yet only one page later, Rabbit is goggling at a black bride on TV: “Big lips, suck you right off.” And later in the book Rabbit will reach for a metaphor: “Down below he feels himself easily stiffening, clotting: cream in the freezer.” So how are we to take those “gleeful greedy spurts” and that “chunky suck of the refrigerator”? If it’s not meant to be suggestive, it’s inept—and a pointer to the general slipperiness of principle that makes Updike’s gifts more and more resemble those of minor Restoration comedy.

Empson said of sex in Restoration comedy that one feels the people would be happier if they gave it up. Updike knows that, since his book ends with a reunion between Rabbit and Janice in which they sleep together, really sleep; but he knows it as he knows everything else, at the merely shrewd level of “sure.” But if the chunky suck is meant to be suggestive, then it comes out coy and diffuse—that is, it blurs the distinction between Rabbit and his creator which admirers of the book are having to argue is scrupulously maintained.

It might be thought to be (must be thought to be, unfortunately) Nemesis which insists that Rabbit should set the news item that offers for public gratification—including ours—the destruction of his house and the death of the girl. It is more than Nemesis, it is the long long arm of the moral law (don’t worry, it will turn out to be one of those children’s comics’ arms, scissoring out with a boxing glove at the end) which insists that even before Rabbit can finish setting the item he is tapped on the shoulder—and if that’s not the long arm of the law, I’d like to know what it is—and told he’s been sacked since the plant’s going offset. This move by Updike isn’t plot, it’s plotting; it enables him to see that Rabbit isn’t let off while letting him off; it demands that we relate this misfortune to his evil courses (“Nothing to do with your personal life, understand me—strictly seniority”) while covering up all round. Pajasek, the instrument of the management’s decision and of Updike’s too, is not the only one who is passing the buck.

Kind at heart, and at head, Updike has qualms about punishment. The only way in which retribution, even when self-inflicted, can be made tolerable to him—especially since he is so implicated with Rabbit, his first great success and always in danger of becoming to his, Updike’s, career what Rabbit’s early success was to Rabbit—is when it is recycled as paying a price. Rabbit, Run never did have to show Rabbit paying a price; he was always allowed to pay with the Monopoly money (he monopolized Updike) of childishness and self-pity. He was always let off at the last minute, and at the very last minute he was allowed to bolt. The rabbit ran; perhaps his desires and his guilts, like fell and cruel hounds, pursued him, but Updike made us avert our eyes and minds in the only thoroughgoing way a writer can: he ended without letting on. It was a great way of letting off.

Rabbit Redux ends, weirdly similar, with the sleep of Rabbit and Janice, and proffers this moment out of time and punishment as manifesting some real gain, some new health, some assurance of unflamboyant decency. Rabbit senses her “fat’s inward curve”: “He finds this inward curve and slips along it, sleeps. He. She. Sleeps. O.K.?” As an ending it is ingenious and precisely pitched; that rueful sleepy “O.K.?”—not for Rabbit to end with “Yes I said yes I will Yes”—is to fend off the contrasting sentimentalities of a sigh of relief or of a grimace of dismay.

Nevertheless in so far as we are meant to be at all cheered up by the ending (and some have been—but then some were cheered up by the flickering reconciliation that ended Look Back in Anger), it cheers me down. Just because Updike has said that behind Rabbit there is Peter Rabbit, that’s no reason for the rest of us to become Flopsy Bunnies. The point is not that no husbands and wives come together with pained hope after lacerating goings-on and adroit cruelties, but that almost the only reason why much hope is on the cards for Rabbit is that Updike very much wants his favored son to have another break. We are to give a more than even break to this particular sucker and suckee.

Rabbit Redux: we are meant to remember Astraea Redux, and so we have to wonder in what sense the goddess of justice may be back on earth or back in Rabbit’s world. But as a writer Updike is all mercy and no justice, his benignity so remorseless as to leave cruelties and oppressions, both personal and public, merely mentioned. Any plot is in its way a moral instrument; in asking that a plot be artistically just, we are not asking simply for poetic justice—indeed D.H. Lawrence deplored Tolstoy’s punishing Anna Karenina, deplored the pretense that a mere social judgment was a divine judgment. Updike’s plot provides its judgments, but they are attenuated and specious. They are symmetry. Janice, who had thrown away a life in her sudden carelessness, saves one by her alert courage; and Rabbit comes up with his own death-dealing thoughtlessness. “Her trip drowns babies; his burns girls. They were made for each other.” But the odd thing about the plot is that it remains peripheral, a concession, something that—because of Updike’s masterly fertility of protectiveness—is never really allowed to figure actively as part of what Rabbit is.

There is a point at which Updike’s refusal to be judicial starts to enfeeble his wish to be judicious. “You were a beautiful brainless guy and I’ve had to watch that guy die day by day.” “I think you’re beautiful.” “I feel you’re a funny big teddy bear my Daddy has given me.” These are the heartfelt, heart-feeling sentiments; when people speak ill of Rabbit, Updike makes sure that they’re unjust to him, as if he were somehow vulnerable only to hyperbole, with the result that our sympathies are not so much enlisted as drafted. “Such a gutless creep you can’t even keep your idiotic wife.” “My mother always said it, ‘He means no harm, he just has less moral sense than a skunk,’ and she was right.” But for Updike to be right he must be interested in that paradox, and he can’t afford to be. He too much fears it.

Rabbit, Run was soft on Rabbit, and it hadn’t really decided who this person was that it was being soft on. Elizabeth Hardwick was right to urge that there was something “too dimly felt in the heart of Rabbit himself.” But neither the softness nor the indecision did more than mar the book; for Rabbit himself hadn’t really decided who this person was. It was honorable for Updike not to know. But ten years later it is getting late for both Updike and Rabbit not to know.

Instead of knowing, Updike explains and understands, and in order to do so he has had to resort to the kind of artwork for which he has no gift: guesswork. He does not estimate Rabbit; as they say in Rabbit’s world, he guesstimates. Updike doesn’t want seriously to contemplate Rabbit; so he substitutes analysis and explanation for any true curiosity. Just such a “disappearance of the sense of curiosity” was what T. S. Eliot observed in the work of the gifted successful novelist Paul Bourget. His Lazarine had a real subject, the same as that of Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux, one which Eliot in 1917 was having to take desolately to heart: “The struggle between the desire for happiness and the fact of marriage which is something more than merely a Christian dogma.”

M. Bourget has gratified his taste for analysis; and his interest in analysis exceeds his interest in the material for analysis. With such anatomists as Racine and Stendhal life has an interest to which analysis is never quite adequate; there is always something unexplored. But where once the desire to understand and explain outweighs curiosity, the author restricts himself more and more; he confines himself to analysing what he has put together; his characters become easily exhausted, because the writer can extract no more than he has deliberately put in.

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